We are Always 2 Questions Away…

Earlier this week, we got a call to one of our teacher’s classrooms to get some help in dealing with a ‘disruptive’ student. When I arrived, the teacher greeted me at the door with a very perplexed and slightly frustrated look on her face. She pointed out wpid-20150421_092044the student and began to explain that he was very disagreeable, argumentative and even combative. Her confusion came from the fact that even though we have had moments with this student before, his behaviors were out of character, very ‘odd’ and ultimately disruptive.

As I walked him to the front office and began asking him what was going on, I quickly began to see the behaviors the teachers described. He was even short and borderline disrespectful to me. [For clarity, I don’t write that to sound like, “How dare he talk to the principal like that!’, I say that because over his 3 years at Spring Lake Middle, I have come to know him, his family and situation very well and he and I have a good relationship]. As I approached the front office, one of his support teachers, Mr Cooper, saw us and inquired about what was going on. I asked him to join us, thinking that two heads were better than one.

When we arrived in my conference room, I asked the student about the night before, ride on the bus and arrival at school, thinking that this was either a turbulent night in the neighborhood or some issue with students at school. Other than arriving to school on the bus late that day, there was nothing out of the ordinary. I had to leave out of the office for a quick minute and when I returned, Mr. Cooper shared some a powerful piece of information he got from the student in an astonishing 60 seconds.

The student had not eaten in 40 hours. He was absent from school the day before and in all the hurry never ate anything more than a half a peanut butter sandwich. Our cafeteria makes a point to always be ready for every late bus but that day he wasn’t with the bus. We were literally seeing a student whose personality, health, mood, emotions were being seriously affected by grave hunger.

I snuck the picture above to share with my staff later but in it you see a desperate principal who reached out to the first adults he could find to get whatever donation they could give. Its not in the picture but I did give him a bottle of water from my office so it wasn’t totally unhealthy. 12 minutes later, Mr Cooper and I were dealing with a different young man. He was back to being mild-mannered, pleasant and conversational. We even joked about how he doesn’t eat the outside part of the doughnut, only the part that touches the inner hole. Like I said, we know and love this kid.


At a faculty meeting earlier this year, I shared with the staff that we are always two questions away from learning something significant about our students, our classes and our school. If we are willing to ask questions, we can learn something that will allow us to make a profound difference in the lives of students.

What Can We Do?

dd-school-breakfast-2013-info-graphicBuild Relationships – [‘Relationships, relationships, relationships.’ Jimmy Casas] I’m thankful the teacher was sharp enough to see that something was off with the student and knew to reach out for support to get some help. I’m grateful that his support teacher saw us in the hallway and was able to get to the two questions. While I’m confident that others could have had success in this situation, I don’t think others would have had the patience to deal with an ‘unruly’ middle schooler. Its only because we knew this student that we were able to intervene, see through the pain and intervene.

Don’t Take ANYTHING for Granted – Educators are busy and overworked and have the TREMENDOUS task of leading the learning in the classroom – a lot goes into that responsibility. But even through that, we have to be vigilant and mindful of what’s going on with our students. Sometimes, we go beyond the two questions just to make sure all is well.

Keep Some Snack for Students – You just never know.

This was a profound reminder. Those who know me know a lot of my passions are in the best teaching and learning practices, what learning can look like and what best leadership practices and strategies help us get to where we need to be. But I started teaching in schools like the ones I have led and am grateful for the unique experiences that have helped shaped me. All of us in our different communities and schools, have to keep in the forefront that we serve kids and all kids have needs of some kind. I will always work on my ‘2 Questions’ skill.


Do Your Students Know?

I was struck by this message posted on one of my teacher’s whiteboard last week. There was a substitute in this teacher’s room and I was checking to make sure our class was on point. As I scanned the room, I saw this note posted at the top of her instructions to the class:

Love message

‘I love you class!’


This immediately reminded me about a presentation from Baruti Kafele at this year’s NAASP conference. He shared with his group that a message he had to develop and then consistently deliver to his kids was ‘I believe in you.’ [I immediately took this back to my school and shared at an awards banquet].

You would have to know Ms Mack to truly appreciate this message. First, no matter the many barriers she is working to overcome in her class [and she has several] Ms Mack always has a smile and she always has a hug. Second, she preaches high expectations. She plans lessons and engaging activities everyday and demands the most from her students [and she often gets it]. I was recently in her room and she was sharing with her students their benchmark results. Her talk was about how the class performed, the school performed and then she had one-on-one talks with students about what they can do. Her data talk was embedded in an activity on ‘ATTITUDE‘ and how it has a bearing on everything we do.  [I was blown away by this message]

This sign is what Ms Mack is about but it got me to thinking – is this my schools’ message? Is this MY message?

  • If I asked my students, would they say they knew their teachers loved them?
  • If I asked them, would they say they know I love them?
  • Do they believe it when we say it to them?
  • How do we show this?

Relationships are critical to what we do and being effective in what we do but I think this message goes beyond a relationship. A relationship will facilitate a student bringing a problem to you. A student knowing he/she is loved means you are the first [and sometimes only] person a student will call when there is a significant problem.

Do your kids know?

It Became a Little Clearer Today..,

The two social studies teachers from our two 6th grade teams collaborated to create this unique learning opportunity.

To help make a great connection for their unit on recent history in India, Maria O’Connor arranged for this Skype lesson/presentation with an 18 year college student in Mumbai. Samuel Thomas, @SamuelThomas95, is a 18 year college student working on a program comparable to a CPA program. [They know each other from their mutual fanaticism with futbol] He graciously entertained and answered questions from our kids on a variety of topics covered in their class.  Samuel is a obviously a smart and engaged young man. Hearing his responses, its easy to see why that he is clearly knowledgeable involved. [Check out his Twitter profile to learn about his interests and where he’s going]

From the students’ questions, I could tell they’ve had conversations about Hinduism/religion, the caste system, general culture questions. These helped provide the share session some good direction and streamline responses. Planning ahead and giving students this guidance is a great means to ensure that the targeted learning outcomes are achieved.

After listening in on this #skypeintheclass share session, it became a little more clear today:

  • That our 6th graders really heard about the impact Ghandi made in India and the world ;
  • That our 6th graders understand how similar and different cultures are around the world;
  • That a 12 minute talk from an 18 year old in Mumbai made as much of an impact on learning [if not more] than talks and discussions and activities in a class. [Take 15 minutes on #skypeintheclass to find someone who will make that #differencemaking connection]
  • That planning the EQs and learning outcomes ahead of time and putting those in the kids hands is as equally important planning for this #Skype experience.

I’ve always been a fan of #skypeintheclass and this lesson validated the need to create more unique, distinctly relevant learning experiences like this one.

One of My Teachers Built a Hovercraft with His Students – No Big Deal

As a middle school administrator I work hard at keeping a good poker face and on the surface, at least appearing that I’m not amazed or ‘shook’ regularly. But when one of my new teachers first told me his plans to build a hovercraft with his class, I was surprised and curious, to say the least. And the finished product is something that absolutely made me raise an eyebrow [among other things]

Mr Choo at NCSU receiving his award from Bright Ideas
Mr Choo at NCSU receiving his award from Bright Ideas

Mr Samuel Choo is our new EC math teacher at Spring Lake Middle. He brings a dedicated focus of integrating #edtech into his classroom instruction and practice. His graduate work involves research on the integration of #edtech in the EC math classroom.  When we hired Mr Choo, he committed to bringing a high level of instruction and unique learning opportunities to Spring Lake and he truly has.

I’ve been in education for 16 years, 13 at the middle school level, and have seen a lot of tech projects from lego machines to robotics to building circuit boards. This was one of those experiences that  remind you of the great impact great teachers have on kids.

Mr Choo applied for a grant and received a grant from the Bright Ideas Program,  a program sponsored by North Carolina’s electric cooperatives that strives to improve education in classrooms across N.C. by awarding grants to educators for innovative projects. His proposal was one of many awarded and recognized at an appreciation luncheon at NCSU. He used his award to purchase the materials needed for innovative construction and math concept tie-in to ratios and proportions.

Amazingly, this construction required no hammer or nails! After Mr Choo did some preliminary work with pre-cutting and measuring, students only had to plug pieces together and appreciate the dynamics of a hovercraft! The pictures below show the final project the student projects in progress.

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I really appreciate this initiative! This unique integration and work translates into engagement and relevant learning. You can see the fun on the kids faces and eagerness to learn! This type of vision and ambition is how we make a difference with learning and teaching

One of My Defining Days

I had one of those days this week that helped remind me why I became an educator and why I’ve always worked with kids.

The Meetingstem

Wednesday, at our principals meeting, three of our assistant superintendents met with me and four other middle school principals regarding a STEM program sponsored by Fayetteville State University. This program will target our rising 8th graders who will likely be 8th grade Algebra students. Dr Black, one of the assistant superintendents, had run lists of our rising 8th graders using EVAAS, an online data program for NC schools, that runs student and school data a number of ways. We received achievement probability reports for these students. It listed students’ probability of passing the Algebra 1 EOC based on past EOG performance. As I read the list of students for my school, I was excited to see the name of one of our students [for privacy reasons, I’ll call him Baxter]. Baxter is served in our exceptional children’s program for behavioral reasons. This list generated showed all students with a high probability of passing Algebra. Baxter’s position on the list places him higher than 2/3 of our current 7th graders.

I was excited for Baxter when I saw this! What a great opportunity for him. There is research that shows, properly identified students who are successful in the 8th algebra have a significantly high probability of post-secondary success. For a student like Baxter and his family this could be a life changer.

But my excitement was soon matched by concern. As I began playing out scenarios I began to worry about Baxter’s preparation. This probability model is great – I’ve used EVAAS in another NC district as a principal and as the Director of Curriculum and Innovation. We start the conversation with this data – who has best chance. Then we look at other data for consideration. This is where my concern began – have we done enough to support and prepare Baxter?

Divine Intervention

It just so happens that when I got back to my school that afternoon, Baxter and a couple of other students were a little talkative in class [ironically math] and were sent to the office for redirection. These are great boys and we had a great conversation. They all admitted what they did wrong, knew where they went wrong and promised to do better. Great talk!factortree

I kept Baxter back a little while. Given my talk earlier and the fact that I’m a middle school math teacher [having taught 6-8 math all levels, and 7th and 8th Algebra] I just wanted to see where Baxter was. I asked him what they were studying in math and he replied ‘trees’ [great answer]. He of course meant factor trees. I asked him a couple of questions and he answered them flat out so I dove straight into the heart and asked him to show me a factor tree for the number 24. I’ve attached a picture of his work.

I like Baxter and I’m not saying this because I like him but he demonstrated a clear understanding of concept including use of terms prime and composite, exponent form and when to use a factor tree. Clear ability. He wrote out this example and explained it without pause and without missing a beat. This conversation was as positive as it was concerning. Clearly he knows what he knows but I have to keep asking have we done enough to prepare him for the rigor of a high school course as a middle schooler?

Have we done enough to support this at-promise student’s natural ability to help him be successful?

Meeting with the Beginning Teachers

That same day after school, I was called into our beginning teachers’ monthly large group meeting. I was asked to share a couple of words with them while they were finishing up their paperwork. I had to talk about Baxter. Many of the mentors in the room and some of the BTs knew Baxter and they all attested to his good nature. When I shared the data everyone in the room shared a feel good moment and were genuinely happy for him. We help a lot of needy kids and its good to share promising news.

My talk with the BTs went a little deeper. I asked them a couple of questions:

  • What was their vision of our school?
  • What contribution or part will they play in helping take our school to another level?
  • What will you do to make sure we don’t miss kids like Baxter again?
  • We have proven success in helping kids grow but what about building something new, something supportive for kids?
  • What are we doing to create very different opportunities for kids?
  • What are we doing to change our approach to make sure our school is serving every child?

These questions generated a lot conversation.

As I said, this was a one of those defining days. It made me remember back to my days of teaching ‘below level’ students and ‘above level’ students and how frustrated I got because I needed some flexibility in identifying students and in most cases better support in preparing them. It made me remember previous days as an administrator committing to do all I can to ensure that every middle and high schooler, who was capable and ready, would get my support and help in getting placed in courses that would help give them a step up.

This has a been a great first year at a great school. We have had tons of growth conversations. I need to make sure that this topic doesn’t stay remain a conversation – but that it becomes what we are about, what we do and our vision.

Great day!

Spanish Quiz Bowl 2013 – QSM

Quien Sabe Mas! 20130312_125223

Saturday March 9th was a great day at Spring Lake Middle School!

We had the distinct pleasure of hosting the Spanish Quiz Bowl for all middle schools in Cumberland County! This was a first for me! This was a cultural celebration as well as an academic competition. This event was organized by county level personnel but we enthusiastically agreed to serve as the host site. All middle schools from around the district are asked to form teams and begin training students for the Quiz Bowl. During the competition, students are asked trivia questions in Spanish and have to respond in Spanish. Teams from different schools are invited participate in contests all morning. This is a big, spectacular event that everyone involved got something out of.

Below are pictures from some of the displays schools set up at the entrance way of the school:

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The size of the event, the number of participants and teams was awe inspiring! With teams ranging from 5 – 10 students, we had 12 schools in participation along with coaches parents and school system employees. The following pictures are of our culminating event in the afternoon and the large group lunch.

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The afternoon event included musical performances from county personnel and students. A guest speaker from Fayetteville State University, a lecturer from the World Languages Department, gave a great speech on the value of learning a second language. Students who learn second languages do better in school, better on standardized tests, have a higher graduation rate than students who don’t learn a second language and have a higher probability of gainful employment. Great speech to a great group!

The winner of  the day’s competition was the team from Mac Williams Middle School. The team had a great showing. I took a picture with the principal from MWMS [picture below], Steve Morris @smor1955. Steve spoke highly of his team’s coach and described him as a motivator and great educator.

I’m extremely proud of our team! Last year the Broncos didn’t do very well in the competition. This year with new coaches and a new focus they finished 2nd in our division. Our kids were nervous and anxious and did not disappoint! They did us proud.

Its events like this that keep us in education!

One word for this day – awesome!!