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Is there #inspiration in Shining Eyes?

September 28, 2014

Benjamin Zander weaves a wonderful story that illuminates why we need to value every student. In Quaker philosophy there is a saying that a light shines in everyone . This Quaker vision is reflected clearly in the way Benjamin Zander speaks about Shining Eyes. In everyone, there is potential, goodness, or the capability to succeed and grow. How do we nurture the light that shines in everyone so their potential is realized? Watch Zander’s inspirational piece and I have no doubt you will look at a classroom of students through a different lens.

Is motivating students a hard goal to achieve: learn from Educational Leadership?

September 21, 2014

Unlock their Motivation



The most recent issue of Educational Leadership, Motivation Matters, an ASCD journal is devoted to the work of writers, thinkers, and educators on the subject of motivating students to learn.  I have made my way through these excellent articles and learned a great deal about this elusive quality, motivation, that we hope all students innately possess or learn through their schooling.

In my many conversations with teachers, I am not surprised when I hear them say:

If they only they were motivated to do their homework.

I wish my students were motivated to come to class prepared.

The results on this test were not what I had hoped, I don’t think my students were motivated to study.

These may not be exact quotes, but you know where I am headed with them.  In school conversations, there are many teachers who look to place responsibility for lack of performance squarely on the student.  Generally, the reason for inadequate performance is lack of motivation on the student’s part.  But is this fair to students?  Could inadequate performance on the part of students be a result of:

  • our lack of understanding about the human quality of motivation;
  • our lesson plans may not stimulate student interest and motivation; or
  • our classroom protocols built into a lesson are not engaging all minds at all times.

These may be reasons why students lack motivation, but it could be that a student really does struggle with his or her own demons that hold them back. Regardless of the reason, it is still the responsibility of every classroom teacher to engage the minds, hearts, and bodies of all students in their presence.  Right?

In Amy Azzam’s article, Motivated to Learn: A Conversation with Daniel Pink, an important takeaway from Daniel Pink’s perspective is that teachers need to “downgrade control and compliance and upgrade autonomy” if they want to help students’ motivation come alive.  Daniel Pink believes that in the workplace and in school, we rely less on routine skills involving memory and more on 21st Century skills like creativity, communication, decision-making and collaboration.  Our out-dated “if-then” methods for motivating students using rewards have not evolved as quickly as our need for teaching and applying higher-order skills.  Pink also explores the difference between compliant and engaged behavior.  He sees schools as mostly demanding compliant behavior from students, which works against getting more engaged behavior.

Another point Pink raises is that “play” is something that all students enjoy doing.  They have no trouble engaging in play.  However, school tends to limit “playfulness” to the playground.  The classroom is the place where “rigorous” and mindful activity takes place, certainly not playfulness.  Pink points out that “it’s possible for things that seem, on the surface, to be play to be absolutely rigorous.”  As educators, we should think about how our classrooms can be places where rigorous learning involves some playfulness.  It might be more engaging for students and hence help them with their motivation.

Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda wrote an article entitled, 4 (Secret) Keys to Student Engagement.  As with Pink, they also draw our attention to the distinction between compliant and engaged behaviors.  They define the two behaviors this way.

Compliant learners follow directions, diligently complete assignments, and get good grades mostly because of their effort or adherence to directions.

Engaged learners often pursue their own train of thought about the topic under study, regardless of the task at hand.  They tend to focus on the learning and share their thoughts unprompted, without consideration for those around them.

I think it would be fair to say that all teachers have had experience with compliant versus engaged learners.  While teachers might not fully subscribe to Jackson and Zmuda’s definitions, their own definitions will no doubt be quite similar.

The 4 (Secret) Keys to Student engagement that they reference are:

  • Provide clarity
  • Offer a relevant context
  • Create a supportive classroom culture
  • Provide the appropriate challenge

While the four keys don’t seem so secret in my estimation, the authors package the story of the four in a compelling article.  We have known that these four qualities are a subset of ingredients that go into creating a lively and engaging learning environment.  (see a CFT post on qualities of a good school or classroom)

Rick Wormeli, a former teacher, consultant and author, wrote an interesting article directed at the middle school years, Motivating Young Adolescents.  In his article, Wormeli presents six strategies that he offers as motivating for young adolescents.  There are:

  • Adopt two mind-sets
  • Empathize and build trust
  • Remember where they are
  • Give descriptive feedback
  • Teach the way the mind learns
  • Tell stories and spark curiosity

I love the way he frames these strategies.  Not your typical Compare and Contrast research-based strategy from Harvey Silver’s Strategic Teacher.  Wormeli’s strategies are more about knowing the student, responding to where they are, and teaching them in ways that align with how they learn.

I thought his first one was unique in its approach.  Here is how Wormeli describes the two mind-sets.

In the first mind-set teachers need is the recognition that motivation is something we create with students, not something we do to them.

There is a tendency for teachers to think motivation comes from the inner soul of the student.  While that may be true, I think Wormeli is saying that teacher co-create motivation with students.  We are part of the motivation equation and so if motivation is absent in the student then we are part of the problem and solution.  He points out that our involvement must be more than trying to manipulate the student into becoming motivated.

His second mindset is:

There is no such thing as laziness.  Humans are hard-wired to do demanding and complex things.

Young adolescents want to be engaged in demanding and interesting learning environments.  Our responsibility is to provide the framework for them to do just that.  Wormeli suggests that if a teacher believes a student is lazy or labels a student as such, the teacher should look deeper because there is always something else going  on in the student’s life.

Finally, Wormeli as a great list of the top 12 demotivators in learning (page 30).  We should all read the list.  If you don’t agree with them, share a comment on my blog.

There is another wonderful article in this rich edition written by Richard Curwin, Can Assessments Motivate?  In a mere 3 pages, Dr. Curwin lays out a compelling reason why every classroom teacher needs to look in the mirror with regard to his or her assessment practices.   I have read a wealth of the literature on assessment and Dr. Curwin’s simple but elegant piece provides the context for why our assessment practices in schools need to be under a microscope.

Dr. Curwin writes:

Test scores reflect the values of the tester as much as the achievement of the student.

What does our fixation on test scores, whether high-stakes or unit tests, say about us as educators?  Tests, making test keys, and evaluating tests have built-in error because humans are involved.  Can we really say with confidence that there is a difference between two students, one who have a 79 average in math (C+) and another who has an 81 (B-)?

Curwin suggests that we count improvement.  Not a novel idea, but one that few schools or teachers see as valid.  More improvement should count for an increase in performance.  We know that when students are given “credit” for improvement it increases their motivation to try even harder.  Here are Curwin’s seven ways to encourage effort and build motivation:

  1. Never fail a student who tries and never give the highest grades to one who doesn’t
  2. Start with positive
  3. See mistakes as learning opportunities
  4. Give do-overs, (see the CFT post on giving do-overs)
  5. Give students the test before you start the unit (that way they know what the target looks like)
  6. Limit your corrections (too many corrections go unnoticed)
  7. Do not compare students

In ending the article, Curwin writes:

Imagine a school where every child does his or her best, and not give up hope of learning.

Using that statement as a lens, can that be used to describe your school?  If not, then change is imperative.

There were many other good articles in the edition so take a look and see what strikes your fancy.  I would strongly suggest creating a teacher seminar with this edition as a resource.  I would love to hear your comments.


The influence of positive emotions on our ability to flourish!

September 20, 2014

This is an interesting video series from Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, on the importance of tapping into our positive emotions.  She reflects on a variety of techniques we can use to align with our positive emotional side.  Getting aligned with our positive emotions can influence our body-mind balance.

These are two universal influences of tapping into our positive emotional side:

  • “They open us.  Change the boundaries of our minds and hearts, and change our outlook on our environments.”
  • They help change our perspective on our surroundings by allowing us to take in more information..”see the big picture.”

She reflects on people being more open, creative, and resilient when they are experiencing positive emotional images.

She references a beautiful poem by Rumi:

There is one way of breathing that is shameful and constricted.

Then there’s another way: a breath of love that takes you

all the way to infinity.

Not sure I buy into her “bag of candy” inducer of positive emotional energy.  But there are clearly other prompts that induce positive energy in people.  She refers to the power of meditation to bring out the positive emotional energy in our beings.  I think we know the enormous benefits of meditation, yoga, and exercise in creating a balance between positive and negative energy.  These techniques re-center us in important ways.

I think the ideas she presents in these series of videos is very powerful and could be used by students, teachers, and leaders to improve the culture within a school or classroom. What do you think?  Do you see the value of this work in your world as a teacher and administrator?  Share your thoughts, comments and questions.



Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

September 14, 2014

This is  an excellent interview with Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, on the importance of emotional intelligence as one of the THREE critical attributes for successful leadership.  Coleman speaks about his five characteristics of strong emotional intelligence.

  • self-awareness
  • managing one’s emotions
  • motivation to persevere
  • empathy for others
  • strong social skills

I recommend viewing the video if you are unfamiliar with Coleman’s work.

Using Pacific Institute principles to impact school climate and culture!

September 3, 2014

Over the last few years, Drew Charter School has undergone many changes and transitions. We’ve added a Senior Academy, now grades 9 and 10. We’ve nearly doubled in size. We’ve become a project-based learning, STEAM school. With all of these changes, we felt it was time to evaluate our school climate and culture to create one that positively supports these initiatives and allows all of us to achieve our potential. To help with this effort, we partnered with The Pacific Institute, an organization that helps the business, government, and education sectors do just that.

This wasn’t a swift process. Two years ago we began working with key teacher-leaders to begin rethinking classroom communities, evaluating the benefits and challenges of changing the status quo in classrooms. Building on their work, last year a pilot group, including teachers across grade levels, were fully trained by The Pacific Institute and implemented the curriculum for both themselves and their students. We spent the year meeting monthly to share experiences, receive continued training and support from The Pacific Institute, and collaborate on implications for the school. Finally, this year, as we opened a new campus, it was time to rollout The Pacific Institute to our entire staff, ready to make a positive impact on our culture.

But what is “it”? It’s hard to explain. The Pacific Institute is not a classroom management system that tells you exactly what to do and how to run your class. Rather, it’s a set of principals firmly rooted in social cognitive theory that can inform our classroom and school practices to help each student achieve their full potential. Through this course, which will be continued throughout the year, we learned that we mistakenly focus on behaviors, rather than focusing on the habits, attitudes, beliefs, and expectations that drive behaviors. These beliefs are what determine our level of self-efficacy, or our belief in our own ability to cause the outcomes we want. These beliefs also determine what we attend to, how we perceive the world, what we determine as possible for us, and as a result, what we subconsciously move toward. The Pacific Institute helped answer some of the questions we’ve had about why some students exhibit the same behavior, year after year, no matter how many systems of extrinsic motivation we employ. This training also helped us see blind spots we were operating with, hindering us from finding solutions to the problems we experienced as individual educators and as a school. It gave us practical tools for changing these habits, attitudes, beliefs, and expectations to make the transitions we need to make.

As a result, we’ve seen how some of our practices contribute to negative beliefs and have failed to help students develop the real skills they’ll need to be successful in life: resilience, the ability to set goals and the belief in their ability to reach them, determination, and the ability to think critically and solve problems. We’ve begun to make changes, not only in how we manage classrooms, but how we collectively take ownership for the culture in our school. For example, we are rethinking traditions like “Student of the Month,” that celebrate the accomplishments of a small few, usually the same students each year. Instead, we’ve instituted monthly celebrations of the achievement of goals students set for themselves. They have the opportunity to talk through their goals, how they’ve achieved them, and new goals they’ve set. We’re also revamping traditional Awards Day celebrations to not only celebrate academic achievement, but also celebrate a year of setting and achieving goals, giving the students ownership over what they’ve achieved and what they will celebrate and share.

While not required, many teachers have progressed from those pesky point and color systems that have plagued us all for years. While good at crowd control, many of us have begun to question their necessity and validity, asking:

  • How can token systems (points, dollars, colors, etc) be truly objective? Is it possible to remove bias from their implementation? If we’re honest, we would have to admit this is difficult, if not impossible.
  • Are students becoming self-motivated thinkers or are they simply working to please the teacher? What happens when they leave our classrooms and enter the “real world”? Will they have the determination, self-reliance, and intrinsic motivation to work hard and take risks when no one is giving them points or reporting their daily color?
  • Should our role be to control students or give them the tools they need to exhibit self-control? Does our implementation of these systems help us achieve that goal?

This program isn’t a “magic pill” that will solve every class and school culture issue and every behavior problem in the blink of an eye. However, it has been exciting to see changes throughout our school already happening and to imagine the future that lies ahead for our students and staff. Interviewing students has been a particularly enlightening process to see just how strong and immediate the impact has been for those who are implementing the program with fidelity. Here is a portion of an interview with a 3rd grade student who consistently struggled with behavior problems last year.

  • Interviewer: How do you know if you’re doing the right thing in class?
  • Student A: Someone won’t have to tell you to “Watch your habits.”
  • Interviewer: What happens then? Does your teacher tell you what to do?
  • Student A: Someone at your table whispers to you to “Watch your habits.”
  • Interviewer: Do you ever have a bad day?
  • Student A: Yes.
  • Interviewer: What happens when you have a bad day, because everyone has bad days?
  • Student A: She might tell you to reflect at recess, because it’s fair that you get sent to another class to reflect if you don’t do what the teacher says.
  • Interviewer: What do you do when you’re in the other class?
  • Student A: We write down what your goals are, what you did, and how would you fix it.
  • Interviewer: Do you have colors in your class? Like, you’re on red, yellow, or green?
  • Student A: No, but if we get a compliment we get scoops in the jar.
  • Interviewer: Do you feel that you need to have those colors in class?
  • Student A: No,
  • Interviewer: Do you like not having the colors, or do you want to have them?
  • Student A: I like not having the colors because we’re old enough not to have colors. We’re not in kindergarten!
  • Student A: I like what we do this year.
  • Interviewer: Do you use points?
  • Student A: No
  • Interviewer: Then how do you know if you’re doing a good job
  • Student A: Your reflection sheet will be blank.
  • Interviewer: How do you feel when your write your goals down?
  • Student A: If do bad, I wouldn’t be mad. I would be fair. If I was good my reflection will be blank.
  • Interviewer: Do you set your own goals
  • Student A: Yes
  • Interviewer: How does it feel when you reach a goal
  • Student A: Happy, because she puts scoops in the jar and we get to scream
  • Interviewer: Did you use points in your classes before this year
  • Student A: Yes
  • Interviewer: And how did you feel about using those?
  • Student A: I didn’t like losing points. I got kind of mad.
  • Interviewer: Why did you lose points?
  • Student A: Cause I was talking half the time and I got sent to Coach Holloway and I got mad.
  • Interviewer: Do you feel like points helped you do better or does what you do this year help you do better?
  • Student A: What I do this year helps me do better
  • Interviewer: Why do you think it helps you more?
  • Student A: Because if you have points, if you got high points she would let us eat in the class and have a party and if you have negative points you would have to go to another class and do math. I would get mad because if she took more points you would get mad and say something mean and take it out on another person.
  • Interviewer: So if you do something wrong now, do you get mad about it?
  • Student A: No.
  • Interviewer: What do you do?
  • Student A: I fix it.

If you want to learn more about our work integrating Pacific Institute “habits of mind” in our classrooms, contact me at


Guest Post by: Donya Kemp, Director of Project-based learning at Drew Charter School, Atlanta, GA

Project-based Learning Reflection and Revision: What’s the point?

September 1, 2014

The goal for the first run of The Westminster Schools’ Fifth-Grade Science PBL, That’s So Bad For You!, was for students to become activists and educators by researching and presenting their findings about water pollution in the Atlanta area.

The projects Driving Question (writing effective driving questions for PBL) was:

How can we create awareness about the effects of water pollution in the Atlanta area?

Since most pollutants are spread via water — which directly connects to the 5th grade ecosystems curriculum — their study focused on storm water run-off, erosion and dissolved oxygen levels. Students first built and then observed eco-columns.

During their studies, students visited the Lake Lanier to analyze and explore Georgia’s most important lake. They conducted experiments from the deck of a floating classroom (Chota Princess II), then visited the Lakeside Water Treatment facility in nearby Gainsville, GA. As they dug deeper into this work, students become much more aware of how little water there is in the world, and how important it is to conserve it!

To share their understanding and make a difference, students chose a final product in which to participate, including:  Public Service Announcements, iMovies, PowerPoints, Logos (to promote conservation), a Water Lesson for fifth grade students to teach to second graders, and more.

During PBLs, we ask students to revise and reflect as part of their formal learning. If we ask this of them, shouldn’t we, as educators, follow the same process to provide high quality learning for our students?  Shelly Linkon, Lower School science teacher, was pleased with her students’ efforts and results from their PBL last year. However, as Linkon and students pursued their work in this PBL, she noted several areas that could be improved upon in the future.

  • Formalize the process for feedback and revision.  Since most first attempts don’t result in high quality results, revision is a frequent feature of real-world work.  During and after a project, a standard process for feedback and revision would make the learning meaningful by emphasizing the importance of purpose and the role of high-quality products in the endeavor.

Linkon saw the need to improve revision and reflection while working with students on final projects. In this ambitious PBL plan, the number and variety of individualized final products exceeded the time allotted, or exceeded the management available for six different classes. This resulted in over-focus on details of the product, rather than the desired full engagement in researching, learning and developing 21st century skills.

  • Provide an authentic audience.  Linkon found that allowing too many options on the element of Voice and Choice derailed the connection to the students’ sharing of their information with authentic audiences. Also, she was aware that students needed an authentic audience — one who required students to show what they know as well as one who would provide true and helpful feedback. As our Buck Institute faculty instructor, Erin Sanchez, continues to remind us, “An audience who loves you is not an authentic audience!”

Revision and Reflection Steps:

Linkon decided to make the following changes.

  1. Students will use a new digital portfolio to record: journal entries, research notes, and daily observations of eco-columns, water data sample collections, and lab reports.
  2. Students will share their scientific data throughout the school year, using the digital Schoology, with scientist Lucy Taylor Mejia, a graduate student in geosciences at Georgia State University.   Mejia has a BS in Geology and currently interns at the City of Atlanta Watershed Department.  Additionally, as a “Visiting Expert,” Mejia will provide students with an authentic understanding of how a scientist works, from the start of their research throughout the development of pollution experiments in the classroom.
  3. Students will embark on a year-long study of Atlanta area waterways by collecting and testing water samples in their own communities and sharing this information with scientists, via their digital notebooks through Schoology.

While most of the work will take place during the first trimester, students will continue to collect data throughout the second and third trimesters. The final event will culminate with a field trip back to Lake Lanier, where students will practice and demonstrate their expertise, stretch, and apply their learning.

This revision and reflection process provides both the personal connection and authentic audience. While there is no end product or presentation, students’ connection with a real scientist and sharing the results of their science experiments provides a real world experience. The students’ focus will be on the essential and driving questions and the skills they will develop through the process of the PBL. They will engage in true scientific inquiry.


Guest Post by: Cynthia Montgomery, Instructional Coach at The Westminster Schools

#Stress: A positive or negative experience depending on the species & the circumstance!

August 31, 2014

This is a very interesting video, Stress Response: Savior or Killer, Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University. Sapolsky gives an interesting peek into the challenges of living a stressful life, but juxtaposes it with the challenges of stress when you fear for your life in the animal kingdom. Knowing what we know about the neurobiology of stress on other organ systems, including the immune system, should we be more proactive in schools to minimize, as well as support our students learning how to manage their stress? What do you do at your school that helps students live in this world such that they feel confident that control mechanisms are at their disposal? Feel free to share ideas or ask questions.



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