Monday, December 17, 2012


Take the phone, try to act as if it never existed.  Now reinvent it.  You might come up with this or this.  The television?  As a kid I could have never imagined this.  The modern corporation?  Oh yeah.  But can the same be said for public education in America?  If we were to completely reinvent it, pretending as if its genesis and subsequent evolution never happened, would the resulting reinvention still produce what we have today?  I sure hope not.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm a public educator and plan on being so for the rest of my working days.  I just think we can be doing so much better.

Other than the fact that we talk into it and hear someone talking from the other end, in what ways is the phone today the same as its ancestor?  The television?  The first remote control that my family had came with a WIRE!  And this was 60 years after its creation.  Google?  I just don't see the factories of the late 1700s having day care, free sushi for lunch, and playrooms.  But the American school system is by and large the same as it ever was.  Just ask Sir Ken Robinson.  Why is this?

I have a's untested and based not whatsoever on research.  Everything else I described above came to be because of the user.  Phone users demanded a camera coupled with a calendar and an internet browser and a gazillion apps and a music player and unlimited texting.  Watchers of television demanded flatter, crisper, 3D, streaming Netflix, a gazillion pixels.  But school isn't created for the user.  Not for today's users.

Today's users demand interaction, collaboration, stimulation.  They demand opportunities to think and apply what is being learned to something that they can relate to.  They demand change and movement.  They crave compassion and want badly for their voices to be heard.  But we're not listening.

There's so much talk today about reforming education.  Let's take it a step further.  Let's reinvent it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


One of my passions is learning about organizations that achieve success by focusing on something other than what the success is traditionally measured by.  Examples:
  • De La Salle Football, winningest high school football program in the history of the universe.  They focus non-stop on commitment to and love for one's teammates.  The traditional measure would be victories/championships.
  • North Carolina Basketball (under Dean Smith).  He focused on three things: Playing Hard, Playing Smart, Playing Together.  Again, traditional measure would have been victories/championships.
  • Apple.  Focus on creating the most innovative, user-friendly technology.  Traditional measure would be company profits and sales numbers.
Schools are measured against so many different parameters: test scores, average cumulative GPA of graduating classes, number of graduates attending 4-year universities, etc.  But ultimately my belief is that a school, like the organizations I mentioned above, could and would achieve any traditionally measured success if they'd just focus relentlessly on deeper underlying principles.  I just can't figure out what the heck they are.  Until now.  The other day, one finally hit me.

High Expectations.

May not seem like much, but it's a philosophy, a belief.  Something that we can all control no matter what the circumstances.  Doesn't matter if a kid has personal issues, comes from a crappy background, if our classroom has too many kids, if our projector isn't working.  We can focus relentlessly on holding ourselves and our students to high expectations.  And we can define what high expectations means to us.  What do high expectations look like in my classroom?  In yours?  In our collaboration?  On our sports fields?  In our weekly admin meetings?

But that's only one.  I need a few more.  Thoughts?

Thursday, October 25, 2012


This past Sunday through Wednesday I spent time at a high school on a WASC visit.  WASC stands for Western Association of Schools and Colleges and it is one of six regional accrediting associations in the United States.  My role was to serve on a team that read and discussed a school's self-study, verified that what was stated in the report was actually happening on the campus, and offered feedback.  My team recommended to WASC a term for accreditation and WASC makes the final decision.  

A few of the teachers at the school asked me why I do it and my answer is simple.  I do it because I want to learn.  The WASC organization says that serving on a visiting committee is one of the best professional development opportunities around and I completely agree.  A few years back an assistant principal suggested I serve on a visiting committee and now I've been on three: two full visits and one that was a one-day revisit.  

It's an amazing process.  The school being visited goes through an extensive reflection period, thoroughly looking at its entire program.  A report is compiled, the previously mentioned self-study.  The WASC visiting team then reads the self-study and meets for the first time on Sunday afternoon to discuss, share thoughts, and develop a schedule.  Beginning later Sunday afternoon and continuing throughout Wednesday the visiting team:
  • visits classrooms
  • meets with parent groups
  • meets with site leadership (department heads, administrative team)
  • visits classrooms
  • meets with focus area groups (school governance, curriculum, instruction, assessment, and school culture)
  • meets with student groups (leadership, an "ad-hoc" group where the visiting team selects students to get a decent snapshot of the student population as a whole)
  • meets the support staff
  • meets the counselors
  • visits classrooms
  • meets district folks and board members
...all the while discussing, reflecting, asking questions, answering questions.  It's awesome.

As a full-time educator, and when I say full-time I'm not just referring to my contracted time but implying that for the most part I live and breathe my work, it's tough to find the time to step back reflect on my practice.  WASC affords me the time away from work to do this, but to do it in an action-research setting.  I'm reflecting on my work and my school and our progress by thoroughly examining another institution.  By no means does that entail comparison.  It's not at all about comparing the school I'm visiting with the school I'm at or any other school I've been to or worked for.  It just helps, when reflecting on my work, to be immersed in the environment of work but not at my site.  In those three days I see and hear and discuss so much.  It would be impossible not to learn from that.

Additionally I get to spend time with other passionate educators.  On this visit there were eight of us: a retired principal, an assistant superintendent of HR, two high school principals, two teachers, one counselor, and myself.  Get that many inspired educators together examining an institution and some serious learning is bound to happen!

All in all it's a fantastic experience and I recommend any educator who is interested in improving join a WASC team.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Start With Grading

To increase student learning, start with grading.

The conversation about grading has many entry points, but get the conversation going.  What does an A in World History represent?  What does a D represent?  Have those discussions and DO NOT take them lightly.  Too much depends on it.

We're both applying for admission to Stanford.  Nearly EVERYTHING about our applications are identical: good grades, extracurricular activities, obstacles overcome, leadership demonstrated.  But I got a C+ in Calculus and you got a B+.  You get accepted.  But why?

Turns out your Calculus teacher incorporated things like classroom participation and homework completion into his grading policies.  You barely had a "basic" understanding of the concepts within the Calculus curriculum.  But you turned in every homework assignment, went in for extra tutoring, always raised your hand in class.  I, on the other hand, had a teacher who utilized Standards Based Grading.  My grade was (as close as possible to) 100% indicative of my mastery of the concepts.  Homework completion and classroom participation had no bearing whatsoever on my grade.  Simply what I learned and did not learn.  My C+ had me on the borderline between a basic understanding and a proficient one.  But you got accepted because some admissions counselor at Stanford had to trust your teacher over mine.

So grades matter a lot.  But more importantly they drive what we teach and how we teach it.  If we value the effort our students are making to learn we choose to assess them based strictly on whether or not they have demonstrated their knowledge and skills.  We take the time to create grading procedures that are a clear indication and reflection of knowledge and ability.  We are concerned about the students not only in our classroom but those in the classroom next to us, and in the classroom in the state next to ours.  Because we want all students to have a fair chance to compete for the college/career of their choice.  So we sit with colleagues and ask them about their grading policies, and what concepts they are going to teach this year, and how they will teach those concepts so that the kids will learn, and how they will assess that learning.

Then we create assessments that enable and empower and inform our students.  We see them not just as potential receivers of knowledge but as co-creators of their education.  We know that our assessments must provide them with information about where they are weak and where they are strong.  We allow for multiple avenues of assessment because we understand that different people learn (and demonstrate that learning) in very different ways.  And this leads us to talk more; to our students, to our colleagues, to our coaches.  We want to do better for our kids.  They become our partners in this journey.  We become dedicated to doing better for them.

Slowly our pacing becomes common with others in our department, in our district, and in our state.  We see that it would be a disservice to give any less to our students than what they deserve.  We start to blog and tweet and share best practices for instruction, collaborative learning, formative assessments.  Our students begin to recognize how much we care.  Our dedication to their progress increases exponentially, and we do things like give them our cell phone number and tell them that they can text us when they are confused about a homework assignment.  Never...never...NEVER is a grade punitive.  Instead of coming to us and saying, "What can I do to raise my grade?" they are now coming to us and stating, "I need help understanding the causes and consequences of The American Revolution."  And we are inspired when we hear this!

This happens because we started talking about grading.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Second Base for the Yankees

A friend once said, when describing a job change he had made, "I went from playing second base for the Milwaukee Brewers to playing second base for the New York Yankees."  I understood the analogy, and as he continued to describe his new company he said things like:

  • Top to bottom they value their people.
  • I've never been involved with an organization that was all about the right things.
  • Every cent of my _____ will be with this company, not because I receive a discount but because of how strongly I feel about the company and what it stands for.
Needless to say I was envious.  At the time the only organization I had ever been associated with that made me feel that way was The Boomerang Project, and that was only as having attended one of their trainings to be a Link Crew Coordinator at the high school I was working at.  But I knew they were amazing, and eventually I was fortunate to be chosen to serve as one of their "coaches."  However that was a side-job, so while much of it gave me goose bumps it only represented 1/100th of my professional life, at most.  But I feel like I recently got traded...

This isn't to say anything negative about my previous work experiences.  I am proud to say that I've worked with countless dedicated, passionate and qualified people.  But Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District is the Yankees, and I'm honored to be a ball boy, if that's what they want of me.  The people I work with and for are incredible: inspirational, wondrously intelligent, funny, real, honest, passionate.  It truly is an amazing place to work, and I'm forever thankful for whatever landed me here. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Design and Story

A few years back the good people at The Boomerang Project recommended "A Whole New Mind" by Daniel Pink.  If you click on that link you'll see a brief description stating that the book "...reveals the six essential aptitudes on which professional success and personal fulfillment now depend..."  According to Pink two of those aptitudes are design and story.  I enjoyed the book and have found it quite useful.

This past February my wife and I decided that it was time for me to start applying for a full-time administrative position.  In 6+ years at a traditional high school as a Math Teacher I had gained valuable experience with things like serving on the staff leadership team, serving on WASC visiting teams, coaching, etc.  During the last 2 years I was the Lead Teacher at a small charter school and it was during this time that I gained invaluable administrative experience working on school discipline, coordinating the administration of standardized exams, developing curriculum, leading professional development, etc.  However, as "Lead Teacher" I wasn't officially an administrator, so I knew that when applying I'd be viewed as not having enough experience.  I had to do something that would separate me from the pack.

I put design and story together and somehow came up with the idea of creating a video.  I contacted former students, parents of current students, friends and associates, former/current colleagues and former supervisors and humbly asked them to make a short video of themselves completing the following statement: Alex would make a(n) __________ school leader because __________.  The videos were incredible!  I put them together in iMovie and came up with a 4-minute compilation that told a story about who I am as an educational leader.  I uploaded the video and in each application and cover letter included a link.

The video certainly opened a lot of doors for me.  One deputy superintendent remarked that he had never seen anything like it before and asked me if he could use it in a Masters class he teaches.  I do believe that it played a significant role in me landing my current position.  I've never thought of myself as much of a right-brainer but I guess an old dog can learn a few new tricks.

(I'm a little hesitant to include a link to the video because while it was a purposeful and effective way of marketing myself for a job it feels a bit pretentious to just put it out there.  But, if it can help others market themselves and learn something then I think it's worth it.  Click here.)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Learning by Doing

Learning by Doing is, according to the subtitle, A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work.  It is also what my daughters do every day.  Ellie is 2.  Lucy is 9 months.

Ten minutes ago we were getting them ready for bed and Lucy was playing in her room.  She's pulling herself up to a standing position now.  Seeing her do this makes me incredibly proud, especially considering the lengths I went to for her to accomplish this task.  First I spent no small amount of time meticulously planning a lesson that I would eventually present to her.  TSWBAT stand.  In doing so I created a learning objective that would be visible at all times during the lesson.  I backwards mapped: Lucy standing would be the performance task she'd demonstrate.  I considered and included her prior knowledge while planning the lesson.  Once Lucy was quietly seated at her desk (on time, before the bell rang, with all necessary materials) we jumped into the anticipatory set.  The lecture began, during which I periodically checked for understanding.  Individual practice ensued, followed by constructive feedback, and of course some formative assessment.

Ridiculous, huh?  Two years and nine months ago we started trying for children.  Here we are now, two beautiful and wonderful daughters later, and to be honest I think we're doing great.  We've talked to people, read some books here and there, but mostly we are Learning by Doing.  Just like Ellie and Lucy do nearly every moment of every day.

What would our schools look like if we "did" History, Math, English, the Arts, the Sciences, Foreign Languages, Wood Shop and Auto Shop?  We begin our lives Learning by Doing and for an unfortunate, inordinate amount of time we stop doing and are taught.  Once that is over we get back to doing and find ourselves more interested, more intrigued, better educated.  Can we possibly make those schooling years more productive?  More fun?

The Damian Paradox

My (career) life is pretty much dedicated to education.  I love it.  Love reading about it, thinking about it, talking about it, debating about it.  My hope is that when my time comes to retire that I'll look back and feel satisfied with the contributions I made towards education, the positive effect I had on lives (students and colleagues), and the small but significant change I impacted upon the system.  But that may not happen because of The Damian Paradox.

Damian is one of my best buddies.  I've known him since sixth grade, when he moved to our neighborhood.  Damian is by all measures, and this is genuinely unbiased, successful.  He has spent the past ten or so years in the life insurance industry and while I don't know the specifics of the amount of money he has made I do know that he spends a great deal of his time at the golf course.  But of course money isn't what defines successful.  Damian is active in politics and once said to me that he would love to spend his time backing a candidate that he truly believes in.  He is knowledgeable on MANY subjects and would be comfortable at a table with economists, politicians, educators, lawyers, businessmen, and many others.  Every time we talk he's telling me about a new book he's read, and the books are rarely fiction.  He's athletic, curious, inquisitive, intelligent, and reflective.  He's also not a high school or college graduate.

As I mentioned we met in sixth grade but it wasn't until tenth grade that I knew he was smarter than me.  Our World History teacher was having a finals cram session and a bunch of us were packed into a classroom one day after school.  99% of us were furiously scribbling notes as the teacher was reviewing what would be on the test.  The 1% was Damian.  He was sitting in the back row, slouched in his desk with no pen or paper, answering every question and recalling every pertinent fact.

Damian played two seasons of football at a local junior college and transferred to a small 4-year college to finish off his career.  In a weird twist of events I ended up playing the last season of my college football career with him at his school.  We were roommates during that season and to say that he skipped class a lot is like saying LeBron James is somewhat athletic.  One day he showed up in the dining commons with a backpack on...I just started laughing.  The backpack was empty.  He said that he was wearing it because he wanted to be like the other students.  He finished his time at the school without graduating.

Yet since "finishing" college he has coached college football, passed his Series 7 exam (licensing him to buy and sell securities), gotten married, purchased a fabulous home, joined a prestigious country club, traveled the world, earned an incredible living, and is one of the best examples I've seen of a "lifelong learner."  He's also got great perspective.  Upon seeing Damian in a top-of-the-line Mercedes one of our friends (who is in the Navy) commented, "Someone is doing well."  Damian's reply, "Yeah, but I don't have lifetime health benefits."

Once again, by all measures Damian is doing well.  VERY well.  But school, as typically defined, did not do this for him.  He didn't graduate high school or college.  His G.P.A. in both was subpar.  So why and how is he so successful?  And is he truly a paradox or could we all achieve what we've achieved without fulfilling the requirements to graduate high school and/or college?  And if we could, what does that say for my dedication to education?

Monday, June 25, 2012

The "A Team"

I was hired to serve as a Vice Principal at Livermore High School and I couldn't possibly be more excited.  Today our admin team spent the day collaborating, building our rapport, discussing roles, and sharing ideas.  We are led by an amazing individual and I am honored to be a part of this dynamic, innovative and dedicated team.

This is a new chapter in my career as an educator and I can't wait to turn the pages to see what is coming next...

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why not?

So with the school year nearing an end and our state testing season upon us I've been thinking...

Why don't we ask our kids how they want to learn the material?  Why don't we select 10-12 students from every course...good students, lazy students, smart students, students with special needs...and ask them to look back at the standards covered and the concepts assessed and get their opinion on more effective and more interesting ways to teach?

Could they inform us about why they struggled to pay attention?  Could they let us know where we had them and where we lost them?  Could they show us that they actually knew and understood what we wanted them to know and understand but that we just didn't ask them the right questions?

Not a day goes by where I don't learn something.  Yet I don't have a classroom or a teacher or a standard that some legislator/teacher/committee decided was important for making me into a "contributing citizen of an ever-increasing globalized world."  I just learn because I'm interested.

Why do we feel that it's okay to put a 16-year-old behind the wheel of an automobile but not allow him to have a say in what he learns and how he learns it?

Is it because we'd then realize we don't have all the answers?  That our students have something to teach us?

Friday, March 16, 2012

You Go Girl!

This morning one of our science teachers forwarded me (and our two full-time math teachers) Dan Meyer's TEDxNYED talk.  It was cool because I was able to reply to her with this link.  The opportunities for and power of worldwide collaboration in our profession are truly remarkable.

But what was most cool was the conversation it started between the two of us.  She asked if I blog.  I said I do, though not nearly as often as I'd like to or should.  She said she wants to start one.  I mentioned that it's the best professional development I've ever done, not just writing my own but reading others.  And just like that we both got better.  And just like that, I finally wrote another blog post.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Starting Over

It's apparent, to me, that I need to change the vibe of this blog.  For some reason, probably an insecurity, I felt the need that every post had to be profound and life-changing.  I wanted readers to walk away with chills.  I was writing for the reader.

First of all, that was silly.  If I want readers to walk away with chills I should go into writing screenplays or dramatic novels.  Second of all, it was doing very little for me.  I need to reflect on my practice, share thoughts and ideas with other educators, get criticized, and have the result be a better me.  So, that's what's to come.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


I'm not really sure how or where to start...

About two weeks ago I start getting an itch.  A nudge.

(Caution, the following is jumbled.  Proceed accordingly.)

I want to be a school leader.  A great one.  That's not the itch.  The itch is I'm thinking maybe I'm close to being ready to pursue my doctorate.  Then my co-worker tells me her husband wants to take me to lunch.  Her husband was the principal who hired me for my first full-time teaching job.  In 2004.  We go to lunch.  He drops mad knowledge.  He's got his doctorate.  We talk about it.

I've had Napoleon Hill's "Think and Grow Rich" on audiobook for a few years now.  I started it a few times and just didn't get into it.  For some reason I wanted to start listening to it again.  Perhaps you've heard of "The Secret."  I can only imagine the amount of money that author has raked in.  Read the first there chapters of "Think and Grow Rich," and you've covered "The Secret."  Crazy, especially considering that "Think and Grow Rich" was first published in NINETEEN FREAKING THIRTY SEVEN.  So I don't know, out of nowhere I wanted to start listening to it again.  It strikes a chord.

So I talk to a few people about the pros and cons of going to get my doctorate.  I think I'm wanting to do it for all the right reasons.  Those are the pros.  The cons?  $50k.  I talk to my best buddy today.  I've known him since I was six, so he's fairly well acquainted with me.  We talk about the pros and cons.  Then he hits me with this (by the way, he's a man of very strong faith): "I'll be praying for you man, and I encourage you to pray on it too.  Just recently I've been feeling like God has been putting thoughts in my head that I swear aren't coming from me.  So pray on it."

And all along I've been thinking about emailing Dan and seeing what he has to say.  I've never met Dan in person.  I look forward to the day I do and get to shake his hand.  But we've talked over email and blog comments a few times.  I look up to him (and not because I'm 5'7" and he's 6'7").  But because he's awesome.  He's getting his doctorate at Stanford.  S-T-A-N-F-O-R-D.  Yeah, he's awesome.  But I hadn't written him yet.

Here's my hang up with getting my doctorate....what can I gain by getting my doctorate that I can't gain by not getting it?  A job?  A promotion?  Those things, sure.  But in relation to knowledge?  If I want it bad enough, in the way that The Secret and Think and Grow Rich and God all say that it's available, will a doctorate really help?  Can anything really stop me?

Then Dan hits me with this.



Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Lessons From Under Center, Part Two

(Part 2 of a 3-part series.  To be expanded soon.)

4.  EVERY person can contribute, but each person contributes uniquely.
5.  There are varying definitions of winning and losing.
6.  At some point the mama bird has to let the baby bird fly.

On A Daily Basis

This isn't groundbreaking or anything, but at the end of each day I'd like to ask myself:

Did I do something that helped students learn, helped students gain confidence in themselves, made students feel capable and valued?

Did I do something that helped teachers grow, helped teachers reflect, inspired teachers to help students learn?

Was I patient?  Kind?  Empathetic?

Did I see the big picture, and paint the small details?

If I can answer yes to each of those I think each day will be a productive, fulfilling one.