The Maker Movement and Genius Hour

School leaders have a responsibility to stay abreast of cutting edge approaches to teaching.  They should push, prod, and motivate their teachers toward finding the best practices for their students.  If you have been in education long enough, you have seen the pendulum swing back and forth several times as it relates to effective teaching.  The high-stakes testing era essentially eliminated teacher creativity and forced schools to abandon engaging methods of instruction.

With a swing back toward rigor and the introduction of the Next Generation Science Standards, we may now begin to revisit teaching methodologies that celebrate real-world, hands-on learning.  In the past year or so, there are two growing movements that may have a significant impact on all levels of instruction.  These movements are so exciting and filled with possibility that school leaders and teachers should consider investigating them further and now.

The Maker Movement and Genius Hour offer two viable ways of integrating STEM practices throughout all instructional content.  These initiatives are about getting students to take ownership of their learning.  They empower students to investigate the world and share their learning with others.

In August, Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager wrote about the Maker Movement and noted that, “(the) Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards emphasize critical thinking, creativity and 21st-century skills. To achieve these goals requires taking a hard look at both what we teach and how we teach it. The Maker Movement offers lessons, tools and technology to steer a new course to more relevant, engaging learning experiences for all students.”

The Genius Hour concept grew out of Google’s practice of letting their engineers spend 20% of their time working on their own pet projects.  Their website states that, “Genius hour is a movement that allows students to explore their own passions and encourages creativity in the classroom. It provides students a choice in what they learn during a set period of time during school.”

When educators question how they will meet the rigor of new standards, they need look no further than these two promising resources for active engagement and real-world connections.  We have an opportunity to bring back passion and excitement to the teaching and learning process.  Let’s get going before the pendulum swings back in the other direction.

Will Other States Follow NY’s Testing Scale-back?

The state of New York continues to serve as a sign of what is to come for districts that have adopted the Common Core State Standards.  In Javier Hernandez’s New York Times article yesterday (New York State Seeks to Scale Back Student Testing) we learn that state commissioner John B. King Jr. is offering concessions on testing.

The commissioner, who recently has been criticized by parents and educators, acknowledged in the article that, “The amount of testing should be the minimum necessary to inform effective decision-making.”  That statement alone should give hope to those who are cynical of the current state of testing.

Hernandez wrote, “The proposals are modest, but they represent a rare concession from state leaders, who have faced attacks from parents and teachers in recent weeks over the rollout of a tougher set of standards known as the Common Core.”

In the article, Jane Hirschmann, co-chairwoman of Time Out From Testing, stated that,“All this emphasis is being put on testing, instead of developing an enriched curriculum that produces real learning for children.”  Hirschmann also indicated that the commissioner’s concessions would not satisfy those critical of the level of testing associated with the Common Core.

So what does all of this mean for those outside of New York?  It means that one of the largest adopters of the CCSS is experiencing significant growing pains.  It means that despite the federal government’s attempt to homogenize education, states are beginning to adjust teaching and testing to meet the needs of their students.

Let’s hope that the other states that are a step behind New York in adopting the Common Core State Standards are paying attention.  If so, they can avoid making the same missteps and foster a smoother adoption of the standards.

Link to full article in NY Times:

Let’s Challenge the “Testing Juggernaut”

Arnold Dodge and Charles Lavine have an article in Valerie Strauss’ Answer Sheet column in today’s Washington Post.  It’s titled, “Legislator, educator challenging ‘testing juggernaut’.”  Dodge is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Administration at Long Island University-Post.  Lavine is a member of the New York State Assembly.  It is rare to have educators and politicians collaborate.  Their article speaks to the growing number of parents and teachers who continue to question the state of testing in America.

Dodge and Lavine write:

“The current testing regimes, which impact every facet of school life, are crippling our students’ ability to learn, grow and develop. A recent national poll by PDK/Gallup found the public less than enthusiastic about significant increases in testing, with 41% of respondents saying that additional testing made no difference in school performance and 36% responding that it had hurt school performance.”

At what point will federal and state education officials realize that NCLB and Race to the Top were, and are, poor initiatives that have led to little or no change in the academic achievement of our students?  How long will it take until we realize that we are over-testing our students?

Dodge and Lavine argue that, “We need a rich curriculum, assessment and measurements that are formative and diagnostic for teacher use, an honest look at our current strengths in the worldwide education stage, and an understanding that stressed out kids will not be successful learners.”

Teachers and school leaders embrace the idea that assessment is critical to their profession.  Teachers use data on a daily basis.  Formative assessment is the cornerstone of differentiated instruction.  Imagine, however, what teachers in America could do if all of the money that is spent on paying testing companies was, instead, spent on teacher training and materials of instruction?

We need more advocates like Dodge and Lavine.  We need governors and state education heads to stand up for their children.

Article link:

Danny Brassell Discusses Reading on #mdeschat

Thanks to Danny Brassell for joining us on #mdeschat tonight!  Here is an expanded version of Danny’s responses to our questions and some ways to connect with him below:

What are some ways to engage reluctant readers?

Two rules to engaging reluctant readers:

Rule #1 Find books based on readers’ interests

Rule #2 Remember rule #1

What are the top three things that great teachers do when teaching reading?

1. Great reading teachers love to read themselves and their students feel their passion.

2. Great reading teachers read aloud to students every day, no matter how young or old.

3. Great reading teachers provide students with time to read and plenty of reading choices.

How do we involve parents in teaching their children to read?

Remind parents that they are their children’s most important teachers.

Communicate simple reading tips for parents: read aloud every night, provide lots of books at home etc.

You wrote the book Bringing Joy Back Into the Classroom, give us some advice on making learning joyful.

Start by taking your two index fingers, putting them on the sides of your mouth and pushing up. SMILE!!!

Incorporate your passions and interests into your teaching.  You and your students will be happier and more productive.

Simple phrase I use to remember Maslow’s Social Hierarchy of Needs: “P.S., I Love You.”  Different needs include:

P= physiological needs


I= “eye” above pyramid on back of $1bill- self-actualization

Love= love and belonging

You= self esteem

Fulfill these needs and reach the top of the pyramid, and you will truly make learning joyful to your students.

What are other countries doing better than us when it comes to reading instruction?

Not testing every other day.  Not labeling kids at an early age.  Not allowing their federal government to bully their educators.

Danny’s final thoughts:

The Gladstone/Disraeli Paradox

Queen Victoria was asked about the difference between Prime Minister Gladstone and Prime Minister Disraeli.  Her answer provides an important life lesson.  She said that whenever she spoke to PM Gladstone she thought he was the most interesting person she had ever met.  Whenever she left a meeting with PM Disraeli she thought she was the most interesting person he had ever met.  The lesson?  Everybody wants to feel important.  What do we do to encourage reluctant readers, weary teachers, and frustrated parents?

Other Ways to Connect with Danny

YouTube Videos Starring Danny:

Danny’s website:

Danny’s books:

Get FREE cool, short book recommendations

“Like” his Facebook Page:

Connect on LinkedIn:

Follow him on

Are Teacher-led Schools Viable?

The October edition of Educational Leadership focused on leveraging teacher leadership.  This is a topic near and dear to my heart.  I am convinced that growing teacher leadership is the key to raising the level of instruction in our nation’s schools.  I also believe that principals are responsible for making this happen.  I was, therefore, intrigued with Lori Nazareno’s article titled, Portrait of a Teacher-Led School.

In her article, Nazareno describes the teacher-led school she opened in Denver, Colorado.  According to her, “(they) have consciously created an environment that requires all teachers to lead in a climate in which everyone owns student learning.”  The school reports that is uses teacher teams as well as peer observation and evaluation to guide instruction.

The article gives a balanced view of the innovation that can be fostered in a teacher-led school, while also outlining the challenges of leadership in a “flat” organization.  Nazareno isn’t suggesting that all schools can make do without a principal.

New ideas in teaching and school leadership are needed and should be welcomed.  If a teacher-led school model fosters increased academic achievement, then we should embrace it.  Nazareno, however, doesn’t offer any data to tout her school’s success.  It would be interesting to see a longitudinal study conducted on the efficacy of teacher-led schools.  Of course, there is more to a school’s success than student performance data.

After reading the article, I still feel strongly that teacher leadership should be able to thrive regardless of whether a school is led by a principal or by a lead-teacher.  In fact, a strong, collaborative principal can foster a level of leadership that empowers teachers to make the same instructional decisions that are made in teacher-led schools.  Principals are also skilled at protecting teachers from administrative tasks that can sidetrack their instructional focus.

Frankly, the concept of teacher-led schools also makes me a little sad.  Has the state of education reached such a low point that principals are now seen as obstacles to the learning process?  I also find it a little ironic that when you visit the website for Nazareno’s school*, the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy, they list a principal and a lead teacher as staff members.  This would suggest that maybe the packaging was changed, but the contents are the same.

Perhaps the biggest contribution of the teacher-led movement is that the term lead-learner has become popular.  If a principal sees himself or herself as the lead learner, then it won’t matter what other titles he or she may hold.  Teacher-led schools are unlikely to replace principal-led schools, but maybe their ideology can influence school leaders to be more collaborative and team-centered.

* As noted in the article, Nazareno left the Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy for a position as a teacher-in-residence with the Center for Teaching Quality in Conifer, Colorado.

ASCD members and EL subscribers can access Nazareno’s article at the following link:

Sharpening the Saw- Ode to Stephen Covey

Stephen Covey would have celebrated his 81st birthday on Thursday.  His passing in 2012 left a void that few can fill.  I often return to his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  It provides comfort and wisdom that stands the test of time.  With the stress that comes with being a modern educator, Covey’s thoughts on “sharpening the saw” are worth re-reading.

According to Covey, sharpening the saw means, “preserving and enhancing the greatest asset you have–you. It means having a balanced program for self-renewal in the four areas of your life: physical, social/emotional, mental, and spiritual.”

Covey cites the following as examples of activities in each area:

Physical:  Beneficial eating, exercising, and resting

Social/Emotional:  Making social and meaningful connections with others

Mental:  Learning, reading, writing, and teaching

Spiritual:  Spending time in nature, expanding spiritual self through meditation, music, art, or service

School leaders need to spend as much time in supporting their teachers with sharpening their saws as they do in developing their pedagogical skills.  Not that the two are mutually exclusive, but not all staff development needs to be focused on the act of teaching.

Our teachers work hard.  They balance the demands of family life with a profession that seems to be more challenging every year.  As they attempt to be the best teachers they can be, they often ignore their own needs for the benefit of their loved ones and their career.

Principals not only have an obligation to remind teachers about the importance of sharpening their saws, they must provide opportunities and activities that lead them in that direction.  When principals promote the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health of their teachers they strengthen their learning community. Teachers are better at what they do when their lives are in balance.

What can you start doing tomorrow to help your teachers sharpen their saws?  Here are a few simple ideas:

Monthly birthday celebrations

Fitness activities led by staff (yoga, Zumba, volleyball, kickball, etc.)

Running Club

Book studies (voluntary)

Staff hikes

Social hours outside of school

Weekly recognitions

Dress down days

Dress up days

School spirit days

No meeting days

The possibilities are only limited by your creativity.  If you run out of ideas, ask the teachers.  I bet you’ll get some interesting suggestions.

Our Students Deserve Better

“What parents are observing is the inevitable consequence of a reform that did not put the gradual implementation of standards first, but rather put testing front and center, as charter schools do. King’s holding of the microphone for one and a half hours at the now infamous Poughkeepsie hearing (and the subsequent suspension of further hearings) was a strategy to contain the voices of teachers, principals and parents across the state who are saying, “Slow down. Something is wrong. Let’s thoughtfully institute reform, keeping the well-being of our children front and center.”

The paragraph above recently appeared in Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post column.  It was written by Carol Burris, a New York high school principal who has criticized the test-driven reform taking place in her state.

New York has been moving forward with Race to the Top reforms and is ahead of many states in the process of implementing the Common Core.  This means they are also ahead of other states in rating principals and teachers using results from brand new assessments.  New York is an educational canary in the coal mine.  Other states would benefit from paying attention to what is going on there.

What is becoming clear is that the federal government, and the states that are adopting the CCSS, have skipped a step in the implementation process.  Their missteps are driven by an attempt to comply with federal guidelines and to avoid losing out on funds.  They have rushed past the provision of adequate training on the standards to rating and evaluating teachers and principals using questionable student data.  They completely skipped over the teaching part.

I have heard very little criticism directed at the content and scope of the CCSS from teachers.  No one is arguing that raising the level of instructional rigor is a bad thing.  Teachers and principals just want the time to learn the new standards before being judged by assessment results.

Ironically, Race to the Top has brought us right back to the problems associated with No Child Left Behind.  The data-driven focus of NCLB forced many school districts to adopt a teach to the test approach to instruction.  Can we all agree that teaching to the test is a poor way to raise the level of rigor?  Our students deserve better.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices VII

Part VII (of VII)

Final Thoughts on Shared Leadership

The final of the five practices that principals can use to grow leadership in their buildings is authentic collaboration.

V. Provide Authentic Opportunities for Collaboration

Nothing builds the shared leadership capacity of teachers quicker than authentic opportunities for collaboration.  The collaboration must be focused on real issues within the schoolhouse walls.  Whether through study groups, action research, or pedagogical trial and error, collaboration brings the creative process to life.

Teachers are eager to be viewed as part of the solution to student performance concerns.  Principals need to show faith in their teachers and give them the chance to solve instructional questions related to student achievement.  A belief in the collective intelligence of teachers nurtures a sense of shared responsibility for school achievement.

While principals must respond to federal, state, and local educational initiatives, they should collaboratively utilize teachers to introduce and interpret these changes.  The days of district-centered staff development are gone.  When teachers are relied on to lead staff development in their schools, their role as professionals is reaffirmed.

Shared leadership fosters a proactive value system that keeps teachers from feeling that educational reform is something that happens to them.  Rather than being reactive to new changes, they begin to anticipate and prepare for the change.  This makes them much more capable than teachers who operate as free agents with no connection to their peers.

Leadership Can Be Shared

Principals tend to report that they are strong proponents of shared leadership.  The question is, are they strong practitioners?  When beliefs and practices converge, the possibilities for schools are endless.  The only risk with shared leadership is that teachers will become empowered and pass those feelings on to their students.

Imagine a school full of adults and students who recognize, value, and utilize their strengths every day.  Principals who share leadership are not ceding power, if they ever had it.  Adopting shared leadership practices instantly makes a principal smarter.  With all of the challenges facing school leaders today, being a little smarter could make a big difference.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices VI

Part VI (of VII)

III. Know Your Teachers’ Strengths

Effective shared leadership begins with knowing your staff.  Principals must take the time to uncover the strengths of each person who works with children in their building.  This takes time, but it is time well spent.  Principals who uncover the strengths of teachers can use those strengths to enhance their school while building overall teacher capacity.

Goals conferences, pre and post observation conferences, and end of year evaluation conferences are great opportunities to learn about the skill sets teachers possess.  Attending social functions, grade level meetings, and informal sessions with the staff provides principals with the chance to learn of the interests and abilities of their teachers.

IV. Include Teachers in Decision-making

Involvement in the decision-making process greatly impacts teacher efficacy.  Teachers do not expect, nor do they want to be involved in every decision.  They do, however, want to be involved in decisions related to the how, what, and when of teaching.  Principals can include teachers when developing schedules and targeting instructional strategies.  In the age of state and federal standards, teachers should still be empowered to develop curricula to address the specific needs of their students.

One of the quickest ways to build a culture of shared leadership is to include teachers in the hiring of new employees.  When teachers help select new staff members it reinforces the collective responsibility of teaching.  How impressive is it to new teacher candidates if they are selected by their peers?  Teachers who select their new teammates are instantly invested in their success.  Opportunities for including teachers in school-based decisions are only limited by the imagination and creativity of the principal.

Sustaining the Principalship Via Shared Practices V

Part V (of VII)

Making Shared Leadership Work

So if we know what shared leadership is and we know how it enhances schools, how do we “do” shared leadership?  How do we make it work for our schools?  This is where it gets complex.  There are no pat formulas for making shared leadership work.  The approach school leaders need to take is similar to the one teachers take every year with differentiation in their classrooms.  The characteristics and strengths of a school determine the approach that will make shared leadership a success.  There are, however, five general practices that principals can begin using today to grow the leadership in their buildings.

I.  Establish a Culture of Shared Leadership

The starting point for successful shared leadership begins, ironically, with the singular principal making a commitment to utilizing its dynamic nature.  Any long-term success is unlikely without the principal’s genuine interest in sharing leadership.  Principals must voice their plan to utilize shared practices.  It is not enough to hold the belief, you have to make it part of an ongoing discourse.  If shared leadership is to become part of the school culture it must become a common language throughout all practices in the school.

II.  Include Everyone

Principals must possess the belief that each and every staff member truly has something to offer.  This requires an unfailing belief in teachers.  Nothing will harm the efforts toward sharing leadership quicker than selective shared leadership.  Teachers who are not included in the decision-making process cannot be part of the solution.  Choosing favorites to carry out leadership roles undermines both the teachers who are selected and the ones left on the sidelines.

This means that principals will have to put their faith in teachers not normally seen as leaders.  The risks are worth it, however, because you can never have too many leaders.  Is it possible that teachers who have never aspired to leadership could surprise a skeptical principal with their unknown talents?  The answer is an unequivocal yes and that is what makes shared leadership so energizing.