What does John Wooden have to do with teaching?

As many of you know, when I was still teaching, I also coached basketball.  In one of the first seasons I was coaching, I attended a coaching clinic.  I learned a ton that day, but one of the things that has stuck with me even beyond my time as a coach was probably a throw away comment by one of the assistant coaches about John Wooden – one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time.  During the clinic we were talking about a variation on Coach Wooden’s famous secondary break, and someone mentioned one of Wooden’s books.  I jotted a note to myself, and ordered it from Amazon later.  When it arrived, I expected a book with information about various plays and strategy – after all it is a book on coaching.  What I found however, was that the majority of the book was on coaching philosophies.

To me, this was valuable information as well, I mean the guy is one of the most successful college basketball coaches of all time, coaching his UCLA teams to 10 national championships, including a stretch of 7 consecutive national championships.  During his years as the coach at UCLA, he was able to get some of the best basketball players in the country to come and play for his team.  One of the things that I found most intriguing as I read about Wooden’s coaching was in how he began his season.  He was bringing in some of the best recruits in the country, there were many players who went on to careers playing in the NBA, and yet every season, no matter who was on the team, Wooden would start the first practice in the locker room talking about how players should correctly put on their socks and shoes.  He felt that you had to start at the absolute beginning with everything in order to make sure that the players on his team knew the expectations and procedures that were part of success for UCLA Bruins basketball players.

Every year at the beginning of the school year a new group of students walk into your classroom.  We have to look at each of those kids as our top recruits – we know that they are in the eyes of the parents who trust us to help their children learn and grow while they are here with us.

When Wooden got his top recruits, he could have easily gone straight to the basketball court to start working on offenses and defenses that the team would run throughout the year – I mean these guys all knew how to put on their socks and shoes, they had to have been successful players in high school to end up at UCLA.  But Wooden knew that expectations and procedures were the key to a successful season.  He started with the small things – socks and shoes.  Once they made it to the basketball court, much of their time in the early part of the season were on fundamentals – dribbling, passing, footwork.  Wooden understood that if you had a solid base of expectations, teaching players to play the game the way they needed to in order to be successful would be so much easier.

So, how do you spend your time at the beginning of the school year?  I know that it can be tempting to think that our students, most of whom have been “in school” for 5-6 years, know what is expected.  It can be easy to skip over the base level procedures.  Just like Wooden could have said that his players knew how to put on their socks and shoes, or they knew how to dribble, pass, and move their feet, we could assume that our students know how to line up, how (and when) to sharpen a pencil, how to work in a small group, etc.  But here’s the thing – it’s possible that the way you expect students to do some of these things is different than the way that a past teacher expected things to be done.

I am writing this post in late April, knowing that I’m not going to post it until the beginning of the school year.  In my role I have the privilege of visiting lots of different classrooms, seeing how different people spend their time, and seeing what people value.  One thing that I notice in April is that the teachers who have invested time throughout the year with the basic expectations – like Wooden did with socks and shoes – are currently (in April) having the most success with student behavior.

So, what are the things we need to teach on the most basic level?  Here are just a few ideas that come to mind:

  • Transitions
  • What to bring to class every day
  • Small group time / collaboration time
  • Lunch
  • Recess
  • Restroom expectations

What might you add to your list?  There might be expectations that are specific to your content area, or there might be things that don’t apply for your class structure.  In the last couple of years I was in the classroom, I created a 1 slide power point for each of these situations along with a few that were directly connected to my content area, and I would display them every time that it fit at the beginning of the year.  As the year went on, I would spend less and less time on the review, unless I noticed a pattern of issues.  Then we might review for a few days.  We would also spend some time reviewing each of the expectations after any break from school.  While this did not always solve every single issue, it helped in the long run, and by taking the time to create these slides in advance, it was easy for me to pull one up and display for my students.

As you prepare for your school year, what are the socks and shoes type of procedures that your students need to know about in order to be successful in your classroom?  After creating a list of expectations, think about the method that might work best for you to be able to teach your students those expectations.  It can be easy to assume that our students will know what to do, but they might not.  Maybe you will share your procedures in a power point slide like mine, maybe it’s something more involved like a student created video.  Whatever the plan is, take the time to think about how you can share your expectations with your students so that they truly know what to do.

For your students to be truly successful, they have to have a solid foundation.  What pieces of the foundation do you think you need to work on the most for your students to learn and grow in your class?  Share your ideas in the comments below – maybe your thoughts and ideas will spark an idea for others!

What did you do this summer?

It’s that time of year – my summer break has ended and I am back in the office preparing for a new school year and the new group of Hawks that will be coming into our building.  As I’ve been at school, I’ve been running into a lot of people that I haven’t seen much during the summer.  Invariably one of us ends up asking “What did you do this summer?”  It’s exciting to get to hear about the awesome things that my friends have been doing, or to share the fun things that I did with my family.

In all my years as an educator, there is one other thing that I have done consistently every summer – it’s been an opportunity to learn.  I always have a stack of professional reading that I want to complete (currently there are 12 books in that stack).  At the beginning of the summer, I grabbed a couple of books from the stack that I really wanted to read, and they came home for the summer.  When someone asks about what I did during the summer, this isn’t something that I always think to share in those conversations, but I think there’s great value in sharing our learning.

The first book in that stack was one that I had started reading prior to the end of the school year.  Launch: Using Design Thinking to Boost Creativity and Bring Out the Maker in Every Student by John Spencer and A.J. Juliani was so intriguing that I ended up putting together a PD session to share at Launching Inquiry.  Design Thinking is all about creating the conditions to allow students to use their curiosity to find things that they can make and share with a real audience.  Innovative activities like this will empower our students to find problems in their own world, and then seek out meaningful solutions – we can help to give them the tools.

My second book this summer was Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst.  In this book, the authors lay out a framework (called Book, Head, Heart) to help us all understand that there are multiple types of thinking going on when they are reading.  While it is important that kids know what’s happening inside of the book (able to summarize, notice what the author is doing, and understand the theme of the book) Beers & Probst also point out how important it is to recognize what you’re thinking about in your head, and how the book makes you feel.  Each piece is an important part of the interaction that takes place between a reader and the text.

The third professional book, and one that I haven’t yet finished, is Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown.  In this book, Brown pushes us to understand that vulnerability, or the willingness to put ourselves out there, is part of what brings meaning to our lives.  Without being vulnerable, and willing to dare to do great things, we risk not really living.  It’s scary to make ourselves vulnerable, but only through going out on that ledge can you accomplish great things.

I look forward to continuing my learning – it truly never stops.  As you think about what you did this summer, I’m curious – what did you learn about?  As educators, we’re all committed to being lifelong learners.  Sharing with others, including our students, is a great way to further our own learning.  Share below anything that you learned this summer!

The why

This week was one of the most exciting learning opportunities that I will have all summer.  On Wednesday and Thursday of this week, my home school district held an event called Launching Inquiry.  This 2-day event had a keynote speaker both mornings, and then multiple breakout sessions throughout the day.  Today I’ve been reflecting on my learning from the event, rereading my notes, highlighting things, and thinking about next steps for all of the learning that happened while I was there.  I find myself repeatedly returning to one quote from the event:

This quote came from a breakout session with Will Richardson (@willrich45).  I’ve posted before on a description of my “why” for education (What’s your why?), but after sitting through Richardson’s keynote, and a couple of breakout sessions with him, I find myself re-examining my why.  In my original post, I identified my kids as the primary catalyst for growth, along with each of the students who set foot in my school.

For a fuller context of the quote above, in the breakout session we were talking about new literacies, and the role they may play in self-determined / self-directed learning.  Based on a question from one of the other participants in the breakout session, we began talking about the topics that today’s kids need to know to be able to actively participate in society.  If we let student learning be self-determined, some worry that they will only learn about the things that they are passionate about – so they might only study baseball, or animals, or whatever it might be that draws their attention, and never learn about the things that they aren’t passionate about.  If that’s all they “know” and all they learn, how will they be able to participate in dinner conversations that branch into other topics? (maybe it’s politics, maybe it’s history, etc.)

The issue with this idea of topics that kids “need to know” is that depending on who you talk to and what their background is, that list of things kids need to know is a moving target.  In the session, the example that was brought up was the idea of World War II.  While I consider myself to be a person who is well rounded, and a guy that likes learning about history, I don’t know how much I’d truly be able to offer to a conversation about the intricacies of World War II.  I could share my surface knowledge, but to be able to get into an in-depth conversation, I might need my brain hard wired into Google.

Think about it like this: if you were to put a math teacher, science teacher, English teacher, and history teacher together to create a list of the 3 most important things that all students need to know, odds are it would be impossible for them to come to consensus.  Each would likely put higher value on their own content, and lower value on the content of others.

As I processed this quote, and other aspects of the conference, I wonder if we might be having a hard time seeing the forest through the trees.  The research is solid, kids don’t maintain our “content” for a long period of time.  If you give a kid an end of course assessment in June, and then the exact same kid takes the exact same test in September, you are going to see a significant decline.  The content doesn’t stick – no matter how great a teacher you are, or how great a student you give it to.

So, what are the implications for each of us?  For most of us, when someone asks us what we teach, our answer is our grade level, or our content area.  I’m starting to think that the content area is the individual tree.  But the beauty of the forest is all of the trees together, along with all the other things that are living and growing (or sometimes decomposing) there.  And for me, that forest has to be the concept of learning.  If we know that content doesn’t stick, if we know that kids are probably going to forget a portion of the content that we teach them, then I guess the forest – the thing we need to focus on – isn’t so much what our students learn, but simply that they know how to learn, and have a desire to learn.

In Richardson’s keynote, he used the phrase productive learning.  Seymour Sarason says:

“Productive learning is where the process engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more.  Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive.”

After processing these thoughts, it’s time to come back to my why.  It’s going to continue to be my kids, and it’s going to continue to be the students that walk into my school building in August, but it’s also going to be about productive learning.  It’s going to be about creating situations where our students want to learn more.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have ideas on how you’re going to help get your kids have the desire to learn?  Share them in the comments below.

Make it meaningful

I was recently directed to an interesting article by Zachary Johnson titled “Bored Out of Their Minds” (click here to access the article).  While there were several aspects to the article that I connected with, and lots of interesting data and statistics about students’ engagement, one passage in particular stood out to me.

“But the biggest shift we need,” Rose believes, is much more elemental. “We need to get away from thinking that the opposite of ‘bored’ is ‘entertained.’ It’s ‘engaged.’” It’s not about pumping cartoons and virtual reality games into the classroom, it’s about finding ways to make curriculum more resonant, personalized, and meaningful for every student. “Engagement is very meaningful at a neurological level, at a learning level, and a behavioral level. When kids are engaged, life is so much easier.”

Parts of this quote come from Todd Rose, author of The End of Average.  I read the book last fall, and wrote a couple of posts on the ideas learned from the book here: Part 1; and here: Part 2.  The idea of the book is that the “average person” just doesn’t exist – there is jaggedness to us all.  The implications of this jagged profile for educators is that we have to remember that no matter what label a student may carry, they all have strengths and weaknesses.  We can’t expect our students to fit into specific characteristics that we place on them.

What leads kids to disconnect as they grow older?  One of the things that Johnson brings up is that as students grow older, they have less and less choice in what they do.  I think back to my own educational career – in elementary school we were given great leeway to dig into the topics that interested us.  I was free to choose what books I wanted to read (my sixth grade reading log would show lots of Stephen King novels), what topics I wanted to research for the science fair, and how I wanted to share my learning as we discussed European explorers visiting the “New World” – these are just a few of the choices I got to make.

This photo was titles “Boring Lecture, 1940s”

By the time I got to high school free choice was mostly gone, most classes were lecture based.  Many of my class syllabi were the exact same as the ones that were used for the students before me, and the students before them.  I remember being checked out of my trigonometry class (sorry Mr. Petry), putting forth just enough effort to get through biology, and being bored out of my skull by the filmstrips that were shown on a daily basis in world geography (at least I could get extra credit by bringing in a box of Kleenex anytime we were running low).

So how do we help our students to stay connected to the learning that happens in our room?  The HSE21 Best Practice Model helps us to get there.  We can help provide the relevance for our students to see why it’s important to learn whatever it is that we’re doing in our classroom.  We can give our students choices in how they express their learning.  We can push our students to ask questions and wonder once they have seen the relevance in their learning – getting us to that inquiry driven study that we’re looking for.

As the summer approaches, take some time to reflect on the things that your students have done this year.  What are the things that worked best?  What are the things that fell flat?  With those things that were best, what was it that got the kids excited about learning?  And with those things that may not have been so great, how can you add more relevance and choice so that students may be better engaged?  Remember, as Johnson says above, engagement isn’t about entertainment, it’s about finding ways to make the curriculum more meaningful for every student.  I’d love to help you on that path!  If you have an idea and want someone to brainstorm with, let me know.  Two brains are always better than one!

What are some of your best engagement strategies?  How have you been able to get your students highly engaged in learning in your classroom this year?  Share with us in the comments below!

Cognitive load

How many times have you been in a conversation with a colleague, and they started giving you suggestions?  Each one sounds great, you think they could work in your room, but then you walk away from the conversation and nothing has stuck.  All those great ideas went in your ears, passed through your brain, and then disappeared into the ether.  No amount of thought can bring them back, and you feel embarrassed to go back to the colleague because you think that they might be offended that you didn’t remember the first time.

Created by Marshall Vandruff

For all of us, there’s this idea called cognitive load.  Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.  When you were talking with that colleague and they were sharing more and more ideas with you, it was causing your brain more and more of a cognitive load.  In that moment, your brain is kind of like a cup – it can only hold so much new information before it begins to overflow.

Now, if each of us struggles cognitively to hold on to multiple ideas in a short conversation, how does this translate to our students?  In a lot of the research on cognitive load in children, there is a clear difference between adult and child knowledge.  Because of the differences in knowledge, children have to make a greater effort to simply process what is coming in, which means that their cognitive load will be exceeded more quickly.

I know that there were times as a teacher when I might have a student ask me a question.  As I was answering the question, I might give more detail than was entirely necessary in order for students to better understand.  Then, a few minutes later the student would ask the same question.  At the time, it was frustrating – “Come on, I just told you that!” but I now understand that by giving the extra details, I was causing too heavy of a cognitive load on my students.

So, what does that mean for us?  As we talk with students – whether we are giving them feedback on classwork, discussing their behavior, or making suggestions, we need to keep it short and to the point.  In a recent post from Matt Miller, he suggested using the sandwich technique:


  • A compliment (positive feedback)
  • A change they could make
  • Another compliment (more positive feedback)

Is it possible that we could suggest 17 corrections?  Sure!  But if we make all 17 at one time, the student will be overwhelmed, and none will get done.  Pick your main point, your main concern, and focus on that.  Once the student has shown that they understand your initial change, then maybe attack one of the other 17 things.

Meaningful feedback to students is one of the best ways to increase learning outcomes for our students.  Give that feedback in the moment – while you’re walking around and peaking over shoulders, and keep it to the point.  Students will learn and grow.

What are some of the strategies you use to give feedback to your students?  Share with us in the comments below.  If you’re looking for a few new ways to give quick feedback to your students, check out this awesome post from Matt Miller:

10 strategies for lightning-quick feedback students can REALLY use

What’s your why?

The vast majority of the people reading this blog are in the educational realm.  Whether you are a teacher, a counselor, an administrator, or you work in a school in some other way, something called you here.  Take just a moment to think about it, what was it that brought you to this point?

For me, when I think about what brought me into education, there are a few moments in my lifetime that stand out.  I remember my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Gromer.  With her, the Maya Angelou quote to the right comes to mind.  There aren’t very many specific things I remember happening in her classroom, but I remember that I always felt welcome, and valued, and important.  I felt that if I wasn’t there, someone missed me, and some value was lost from the class.  While I had great teachers before her, and great teachers after, nobody ever made me feel as important in the classroom setting as Mrs. Gromer.

In high school, one of my stand out teachers was Señora Cease – she was my Spanish teacher for all three years that I took the class.  While I may not be fluent in Spanish today, I learned some valuable study skills that I don’t believe I would have learned anywhere else.  Learning a language came hard to me, and while some friends were valuable parts of my studying, her efforts and ideas in class gave me skills that translated to so many other areas.

Then I think about Professor Katz.  Easily the most entertaining professor that existed – I’ll put money on it.  He was a history professor at IU.  I had the luck of knowing him when I was young, which meant that when I walked into his class, I became an easy target of his.  In a lecture hall full of 400 students, he would find me no matter where I sat and ask my opinion.  While I am a fairly confident person now, I’m sure that term didn’t always describe me. On the first day of class he asked me a question, to which I responded in a noncommittal way.  His response “Are you asking me?  I was asking you.”  Professor Katz helped teach me to be confident in all that I do.  While many of the small groups were led by instructional assistants, I had the privilege of being in the group that Professor Katz led himself.  You had to know your stuff – there was no hiding from him.  In addition to confidence, Professor Katz taught me about preparation.

All of these pieces of my history in education are part of what I brought to my classroom.  I wanted to bring the warmth that Mrs. Gromer had – I wanted my students to know that they were valued and important in my classroom.  I would work to provide scaffolding to support students who were struggling, just as Señora Cease had done for me.  And I would challenge my students at times – push their thinking when I thought they were just giving me surface level knowledge – just as Professor Katz pushed me.

I’m sure there are other things that come from my history that led me to the role that I’m in now, but now, I have an even more important why.  I look at each of my kids.  They have such unique personalities.

Lainey is the quiet rule follower.  Last year she actually received a reminder from her teacher – just one – and she cried about it as soon as she walked in the house.  We still can’t talk about it for fear of another evening full of tears.  She’s also very intentional, to the point of perfection on some things, which causes her to work slowly and sometimes not complete her in class work or feel as though she is falling behind her peers.

On the other hand, there’s Brody.  He’s not in school yet, but he’s been going to preschool.  Brody’s curiosity is almost indescribable.  He’s constantly asking questions – Why? Why do they call it baseball?  What does that word mean?  Sometimes it’s almost exhausting to answer all the questions he has.  To go with that, he loves to play rough – there are a couple of times I thought he was going to take me out by the knees, and even though he’s grown up with a sister, and almost all the kids in the neighborhood around us are girls, he finds ways to get them to play rough as well.  I expect Brody to be a kid who will probably rush through things.  While on spring break last week, he was always asking what we were doing next, so excited to get on to that, that sometimes it seemed that he couldn’t enjoy what we were doing in the moment.

And I know that both Lainey and Brody will have challenges as they grow older.  School can be a difficult place for kids.  Lainey will have times that her perfection will cause her to fall behind others, while Brody will be so concerned about getting on to the next thing, that he’ll probably hand in a paper half completed with several mistakes.

I have hopes and dreams for these two.  I want the best for them.  And I know that if that is the way that I feel, then the parents who trust each of us with their children have similar types of hopes and dreams.  The faces that sit in our classrooms each day are their everything, and they want the best for their kids as well.

So while Mrs. Gromer, Señora Cease, and Professor Katz may be the past why that pushed me into education, and led me to be the teacher that I became, they aren’t the why that will push me moving forward.  The past isn’t going to push me to strive to go further.  The past isn’t what’s going to help me continue to learn and grow as an educator.  Instead, I rely on my kids to be the catalyst for that growth.  And each of the 1,000 kids who walk into our building each day becomes the fuel that keeps that learning and growth going.

So…  What’s your why?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.  I’d love to hear what it is that drives you to do what you do.  Education isn’t easy, and we all need that why to push us!

Building on our strengths

When you get up in the morning, what are you excited about?  For most of us, the thing that gets us going in the morning is also the thing that drives us throughout the day.  It’s also typically something that we feel confident about, that we think we do well, and we enjoy doing.  Most importantly, that thing is also something we would identify as a strength.

I feel that often in education, we get drawn into thinking about weaknesses.  As a teacher, we have to identify weaknesses in our students in order to find ways to support their growth.  As an administrator, evaluations often include identifying weaknesses of the staff in our building, and planning to lead to future growth.  We get caught in a cycle of looking for the weaknesses around us.  If our strengths are the things that motivate us, isn’t it safe to assume that our learners would be motivated by their strengths?

A few years ago, as an ongoing activity throughout our unit on Ancient Rome, I provided students with a list of possible ways they could articulate learning.  These choices involved aspects of Roman society and culture.  I was amazed by the projects that students were able to create based on their strengths.  I had students designing roman outfits based on research because they were interested in style and design.  I had a student write a children’s picture book about the Roman Empire because they felt they were good writers and illustrators.  And probably my favorite, I had a student, Patrick, who had struggled all year long but designed and built a scale model of a Roman Aqueduct that was SPECTACULAR (it’s still in my office today) because he liked to build things.  While we were doing in class activities for learning, students were also researching for these projects.  They were able to select a project that fit their strength, and the results were amazing.  Having students present something that they had learned that also fit with their strengths was such a rewarding experience for me, and I’m sure led to a greater transfer of learning for each of them.  I would guarantee that none of them would be able to answer any of the questions we had on a summative exam, however I would also bet they could tell you about what they created for that project.

Knowing how strengths can motivate all of us reminds me to be on the lookout for strengths as I am walking the halls.  I am challenging myself to look for the strengths or everyone, and recognize those strengths!  I challenge you to do the same.

Be thinking about the data that you collect on students.  Don’t just look for patterns in terms of weaknesses.  Also look at the data that supports their strengths.  Give them the opportunity to build upon those strengths.  Most of our students will choose a career path based on their interests and passions.  Wouldn’t school be a better place if we gave our students the opportunity to accentuate their strengths?  I’m not saying we ignore areas where a student needs to grow, but I can tell you that all the time that my sophomore English teacher had me spend diagraming sentences is not what has led me to be a good writer, a good reader, or any of the other skills I have developed.  All it did was make me hate sophomore year English (sorry English teachers!).

Take a few moments in the coming days to seek out the positives in the students that are in your classroom.  Identify the things you see, and share it with your students.  See how they react to some strength-based feedback.