Leadership

List Building

Originally Posted October 2011

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Since I last wrote, and now that school is back into full swing, I have continued to think about how checklists can help improve student learning and my professional practice.  I have started to realize how many checklists I already use on a regular basis in support of learning.

As a literacy teacher who follows a workshop model based on Lucy Caulkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, a form of checklist guides the multiple conferences that I have daily with my students.  They follow a common format, a type of checklist, to an effective conference.

  • Research : Spend a few minutes with each student to determine individual needs.
  • Complement : Begin by identifying a particular strength or improvement in the learner.
  • Teach : A quick little targeted mini-lesson to help individual growth.
  • Link : Link the mini-lesson to past and future ideas.

For years, I have used a hodgepodge amalgamation of binders, notebooks, clipboards, papers, and sticky notes to help track learning, performance, anecdotal notes, and learning targets.  Some of my colleagues are experimenting with the Confer App for iPad and iPhone.  It is formatted to follow the conferences structure and serves as checklist to remind teachers of the key components of a reading / writing conference.  I’ve chosen to experiment with Evernote, creating a similar conference checklist that I can use with multiple devices and keep everything stored in the cloud.  So far I’m quite pleased.  I especially like how I can embedded recorded conversations and digital exemplars of student work in my notes for each learner.  With conferences next week, I expect my notes to be more insightful and useful than ever.

In thinking about a back to school checklist, I’ve started to revise and add to my tried and true checklist.   I have started breaking  it into manageable pieces following the guidelines on making an effective checklist.  I have started to break things into the common components of Communication /  Collaboration / Organization / Resources / Culture.  I’ve made it available at SCRIBD.  Give it a go.  Let me know what you think.  I’d love to continue to revise and improve the checklist and hope that you find it helpful.

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Check. Please!

Originally Posted September 2011

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In Saudi Arabia, the new school year started on Saturday.  The start of each school year is an exciting time.  It is a  time to reconnect with friends and colleagues who have flung themselves on great adventures around the world and close to home.   As an international educator, it is also the time to meet new colleagues and build new friendships.  This year, the rituals of the “Welcome Back Coffee Mornings” were enjoyed by one and all, but quickly, everyone jumped back into the swing of things to get our school ready to the nearly 900 kiddos who will arrived at our doors.

One of my rituals at the start of each school is to delve into my “Back to School” folder.  I always go looking for a checklist that I received years ago from a principal in Monterrey, Mexico.  Ever since, this checklist has helped me organize and plan each school year.  I must admit, it is a bit of a laundry list with more than 30 items to think about, but it serves its purpose.  The “Back to School Checklist” helps me make sure that the simple and mundane pieces of the puzzle are not forgotten or allowed to fall between the cracks.  I couldn’t agree more with Atul Gawande, who in The Checklist Manifesto noted :

“The checklist gets the dumb stuff out of the way, the routines your brain shouldn’t have to occupy itself with (Are the elevator controls set? Did the patient get her antibiotics on time? Is everyone on the same page here?), and lets it rise to focus on the hard stuff (Where should we. land?).”

In the spring, my son was finding learning to read a challenge.  He loves school, loves books, enjoys listening and telling stories; but found learning to read quite difficult.  He has been fortunate to be supported by some of the best literacy teachers I have ever encountered, yet he still struggled.  We met.  We discussed strategies, plans, approaches, and after months, eventually hit upon eyesight.  It has been about 6 months since he had had his eyes last tested.   In short, he got glasses and began experiencing greater success with his reading.  As an educator and a parent, I found myself asking … why didn’t I think of it sooner?  I know better!  I needed a checklist.

Checklists exists throughout the world, in every profession.  They are central components to aviation.  Pilots have well developed checklists for everyday routines like taking off, or the unexpected incidents of a bird strike.  The medical profession is adopting a 90 second surgery checklist that has reduced patient deaths and complications by 1/3.  The skyscraper industry uses checklists to reliably manage complexity.  Van Halen even added “no brown M&Ms” to their concert riders (checklists) to help monitor compliance.

In the many schools since Monterrey, ASFM has remained the only one that provided teachers with a back to school checklist.  End of year checklists have been more common, and few have used checklists to support student learning (RIT, support services, etc.).  I find myself wondering, how can the world of education make better use of the checklist to improve student learning?   What checklists can I use to more deliberately to effectively manage the increasingly complex world of students, education and learning?

Ahead of the Curve

Originally Posted June 2011

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I am always interested in hearing my friends who work in the business world talk about their work. Their vocabulary is peppered with words like “synergy”.  They talk about leveraging opportunities for growth and harnessing innovation for improvement.  They are always seeking a competitive edge.  They want to do the best that they can.

The more I think about it, the more I have come to realize that my professional world and the professional world of many of my friends, have a lot in common.   According to a recent TIME magazine article, most drivers consider themselves to be in the top ten percent of people on the road.  Ten percent of Americans believe that they will live to a hundred years or more.  The reality is that only 0.01% of us will actually live to see a hundred years.  In the context of a standard distribution curve, we know that there will a few outliers at the top and bottom ends of the spectrum, but the majority will fall somewhere in the middle. Yet, no one strives to be mediocre.

Like most drivers, I consider myself in the top 10 percent of people behind the wheel.  I also want to live to see a hundred.  As a parent, I want my children to have access to the top medical care. Is anyone really comfortable with seeing a doctor in the bottom 10 percent of their profession?  How about boarding an airplane for a flight with a pilot in the bottom ten percentile?   Likewise, as a parent, I want my children to have access to the best teachers so that they can have the best possible educational experience.  I want to be an exceptional teacher, an exceptional leader.  I want to be in the top 10 percent of educators.  Simply, I want to be ahead of the curve.

How do you stay ahead of the curve?  I think that there a couple of key practices that P.D.  Broughton outlines in Ahead of the Curve, that exceptional principals can do to stay ahead of the curve.

First, they pair intellectual restlessness with grounded competence.  Exceptional principals are “life long learners”, professional development omnivores, and prolific readers.  Yet they are also master teachers.  They understand where the rubber meets the road and how to get things done.  Like the ying and yang, they balance ideas with practicality.

Exceptional principals establish cultures where new ideas are encouraged and developed.  They create a culture of continuous improvement and curiosity.   “No!” or “We can’t do that.” are not  typical responses.   Instead, “That’s an interesting concept …” and “Let’s explore this further” is how they approach new ideas and situations.

Exceptional principals understand their school from top to bottom, but  they are also ready to tear it up and start all over.  They possess a deep understanding of learning, teaching, and leading.  They value what can be learned from the past to help guide the future, but the exceptional leader does not accept the status quo. They are continually seeking to improve the quality of learning experiences for their students.

Finally, exceptional leaders ceaselessly revise their judgements and consider evidence that challenges their beliefs and biases.  It’s easy to collaborate and think that you are headed in the right direction if you surround yourself with like minded people.  Embracing the dissent and alternative points of view is challenging.  It takes work.  It takes thoughtful planning and consideration.

Where do you fall on the curve? What do you do to stay ahead of the curve?

Leadership Lessons @ The GAP

Originally Posted May 2011

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Shopping, ugh!  It is not one of my preferred pass times, but my wife likes to shop.  Living in Saudi Arabia, this means I am her wing man and chauffeur for outings to the mall.  While waiting patiently in our local GAP franchise, I had the chance to sit and think.  I spent my time reflecting on the great professional learning experiences that I have had since my last post in February.  Over the past few months I completed an elementary math specialist course, attended a leadership seminar at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the NESA conference in Bangkok, Thailand.  It has certainly been a wonderful period of professional learning.

So, while mulling over some big ideas and reflecting on my practices and beliefs, I started to recognize that educational leaders have a lot in common with their khaki clad brethren.  Leadership, and change in particular, is a retail experience.  In order to establish an effective culture, change a culture, motivate a group, or shift a school, it requires “face to face” experiences, personal attention.  The staff at the GAP offer great leadership lessons.  Not only do they attend to the requests of shoppers (How can I help you? Let me know if I can get any specific.), they provide individualized feedback (That’s a great color on you! Those pants are a great fit!), and offer new perspectives (Did you see the new cotton tees?).  They make their customers feel valued.  They are out and about in the store, roaming the floor meeting customers, building personal connections, seeing how they can help.  Sometimes they are very active,  while at other times they step back, let individuals shop, and help out when required.

Come to think of it, as the educational leader in my classroom, I do this already.  My roles is that of a guide, helping guide differentiated student learning, providing individualized feedback, and offering new perspectives and ideas.  Effective teachers don’t hide behind their desk.  They are out and about, roaming the classroom, monitoring learning, engaging students, sometimes providing direct active assistance, or from a short distance allowing students to explore and build their own understanding.

I’m drawn to leaders who exemplify what’s best about the GAP’s sales staff.  As an aspiring principal, I want to be an educational leader who lives outside the office, who helps propel student learning by recognizing and supporting the needs of individuals.  If I want to encourage a change or implement a new initiative, I need to build relationships, make personal connections, and communicate clearly.  To accomplish this, I need to be present in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria, yard, and faculty lounge; talking, listening, observing, and helping out … just like the best teachers and the people at The GAP.

“Is that clear Mr. Bender?”

Originally Posted February 2011

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Earlier today, I participated in one of our weekly PG&D (Professional Growth & Development) afternoons at Saudi Armaco Schools.  It was a productive time spent collaboratively building understanding of the Words Their Way program.  Time, planning, and effort had obviously been well spent by Jen, our literacy coach, to set the stage for a productive meeting. Tables of treats were organized to help boost our groups energy at the end of a work day and near the end of the work week in Saudi Arabia.  A protocol was selected to help facilitate collaboration and focus our dialogue.  I liked this.  I’m a big fan of protocols!!  Group members were assigned different roles within the process and everyone was expected to, and did, contribute.  After working through the protocol with my team, the reporters from each grade level team (k-5) shared out their findings.

Our collaborative time was well spent as we worked to better understand the Words Their Way program.   A great many ideas and themes emerged that will be helpful in moving forward.  So did a number of “big picture” questions …

Why are we implementing this program?
What do we hope to accomplish?
How will this benefit our learners?

I love these types of questions for a number of reasons, but mainly because they demonstrate that my colleagues care about students and student learning. These questions could easily be interpreted as resistance to change, colleagues reluctant to try something new or move in a different direction.  However, from a leadership prospective, I like the questions because they provide me with additional insight into next steps.

At the moment, I am in the middle of reading Switch, Chip & Dan Heath’s book about change.  One point that they highlight is that what is perceived as resistance is often a result of a lack of clarity.  People need crystal clear directions.  Think about it.  A doctor can’t just say to a patient that they need to loose weight, and expect success.  So doctor’s clearly layout the need for change with metrics and outline a plan for success … changes to diet, lifestyle, and specific goals with repeated check-ups to monitor progress.

So when asking teachers to adopt a new program or undergo a change of any sort, think about clarity, especially when faced with resistance.  A friend Dana also reminded me this week to take a moment to check your Vision?  Has the rationale for any change been clearly identified and communicated?  How has clarity been achieved around the intended goal and the benefits to student learning?  Is there anything else that can be done to add clarity? Maybe there’s something we can learn from Principal Richard Vernon, in the  The Breakfast Club.

Start With Teachers

Originally Posted February 2011

I believe that schools are great places, filled with great people, and great learning; but in the complex world of the

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21st century, that’s simply not enough.  Our students deserve better than simply maintaining the status quo.  As a profession, we have a responsibility of becoming “better”.  What does it take to become better?  According to Atul Gawande, it simply “takes a willingness to try”. But where do you start?  What do you try?

I think that Schmoker and Marzano convincingly say, start with the teachers.  Their work clearly links the quality of a teacher with student learning and success.  A year with an ineffective teacher greatly inhibits student learning and achievement.  Two successive years of ineffective instruction is debilitating.  In contrast, a year with a highly effective teacher is very powerful and two successive years with highly effective teachers enables student learning and achievement to soar.  So, what do you do?

You start by being a learning leader.  You start by being a teacher.  I think that everyone in education aspires to be the “highly effective” teachers.  People always want to do their best.  No one wants to be the “ineffective teacher”.  However, like the students in our classrooms and people in every profession, there are varying decrees of competence and excellence.  So where do you start? What do you try?

You start with the positive assumption that teachers are doing the best they can with what they know, and begin to expand the depth and breadth of their knowledge. People are comfortable sticking to what they know and what they know works.  It’s human nature.  Why reinvent the wheel?  So show them something new, something alternative, something better. Show them that “new wheel”!  Share a favourite book. author, website, blog, podcast or resource. It’s unreasonable to expect students to learn something new unless we have shared it with them.  Why should teachers be any different?  Show your colleagues a better possibility and they will more likely to attempt a new instructional practice rather than stick with the familiar and known.

Get teachers working together.  Today’s world is too complex to manage by yourself.  Schools and the work of educators, is no different.  Build schedules that allow for easy collaboration. Include training and staff development on collaboration.  Cooperation is easy.  Collaboration is hard work. People need to know how to participate in a collaborative group, they need to know how to produce an agenda, to come to a decision and communicate it,  to understand the difference between dialogue and discussion.  The work of Robert Garmston with the Center for Adaptive Schools is a great place to start.  Start modeling the use of protocols when working with small and large groups, and gradually begin training the early adapters and informal leaders in your community on their use and purpose.  If you do, Critical Friends Group training will soon follow.

Start getting rid of shared drives, servers, Rubicon Atlas, and cluttered email In boxes.  Begin using Google’s Education Apps in your school.  There are incredible tools at your finger tips, so get exploring.  Google Docs and Google Calendar are simple and effective tools for getting people to work together collaboratively.  Imagine teams of teachers meeting together to purposefully discuss and share ideas about student learning. Tools like Google Docs are great for collaboratively building agendas, sharing nuts and bolts, and keeping the minutes from a meeting at everyone’s finger tips, their true power is in the ability of teams to craft Essential Questions and Enduring Understandings together, to build units of study or collections of shared resources together, and reflect on student learning at anytime, from anywhere.

Be a role model.  Get out of the office.  Get out of the meeting and into the classrooms and hallways.  Make it an uncompromising priority.  Actions speak louder than words.  As the learning leader in your school, start talking to students about learning.  Start talking to teachers about learning.  Engage in these conversations daily. If you do, students and teachers will take notice.  Fiedlwork Education’s “Looking For Learning” has excellent resources and ideas for building this reflective practice.  Soon teachers, students, and all community members will see that learning is the priority, not teaching.  They will see how they are expected to interact with each other.  They will be more likely to visit each other’s classrooms.  We know that providing students with exemplars is an effective instructional practice.  So why not do it with your faculty?  Get your teachers learning from the best, by seeing the best!

If students are the most important people in your school and their learning is the central focus, then what are you doing to make it better?  All you need to do is try.

Monday Musings #18 – Effective Communication

Originally Posted January 2011

For the past few summers, I’ve been attending week long workshops in Miami at the Principal’s Training Center.

Communication

Each workshop has been incredibly rewarding, interesting, and enriching.  I also find myself making new friends and building a list of colleagues I hope to have the opportunity of working with at some point in the future.

Dan Kerr, the Middle School Vice-Principal at the Shanghai Community International School, is one of these great leaders.  Throughout the year, Dan has graciously included me in “Monday Musings”, a weekly email to his colleagues relating to a variety of educational thoughts, ideas, articles, or podcasts.  In Saudi Arabia, Monday marks the middle of the work week, and I find myself looking forward to hearing what Dan has to share.  As a teacher, leader, collaborator, and community member, Dan’s message on communication is essential reading.  Here’s what Dan shared with his faculty this week ….

After spending the last few weeks reflecting on the mistakes that I’ve made over the last few months, and the many “do-over” moments that I wish I had back, I have come to an interesting conclusion. Almost every single issue, problem, regret, and misstep that I can think of could have easily been avoided had I communicated more effectively. So this week I want to talk about the benefits and beauty of…………….. Effective Communication.

    The truly interesting part of this realization is that in many instances I actually thought I had communicated effectively. The problem was that I was making assumptions and taking things for granted, which in a large school like ours, having to deal with students, faculty, parents and the surrounding community, becomes problematic. Just having said the words, or sent an E-mail, or relied on someone else to deliver some news isn’t enough………..the magic lies in the follow up and the feedback! 

    The other part to this that is often overlooked, is that effective communication is a two way street. Not only is it important to say what we really need to say clearly and concisely, we also need to speak up when we don’t understand or feel confused. Listening is very underrated in my opinion and a skill that needs to be taken seriously. I know of a few schools that have spent a large portion of their PD budget on Active Listening consultants, or workshops that focus on pausing, paraphrasing, presuming positive intent, and strategies that allow you to really HEAR what someone is saying.
    
     Miscommunication has many facets and can strike in a number of different ways. Think of the messages we send out with our body language or the tone of our voice. Communicating effectively is a full time job that encompasses all that we do, in every aspect of our lives. Just think of the problems and stress that we all could have avoided had we been a little bit better at communicating with each other. 

    There’s another part to this as well, that for me is the most essential. The old adage, “It’s not WHAT you say, but HOW you say it!” I read a wonderful quote the other day by Carl Buechner that says, “they may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” A goal of mine for second semester is to become a better communicator and I am challenging you all to take a good look at how well you communicate with your students, your colleagues or the parent community. I think if we look deeply enough we can all find ways to improve, and together we can make our school a better place for everyone. Have a fantastic week and remember to be great for your students and to effectively communicate with each other!

    Quote of the Week………..

The problem with communication is the illusion that is has occurred.   – George Bernard Shaw

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

How Does Your Garden Grow?

As a leader in my classroom, I am keenly aware of the culture I want to establish and build throughout the year.  I know that it is my responsibility to make this happen, much like my back yard garden.  At the moment, my backyard garden is in a bit of disrepair. Nothing is doing particularly well.  In moving to Saudi Arabia and settling into a new house, it keeps falling to the bottom of the to do list.   I  know that it is not doing well because I’ve been neglectful.  I’ve provided minimal care, done little to help the garden grow.  I am certainly getting out of my garden what I put into it.  Very little.  I am proud to say that this isn’t the case for the culture in my classroom.  Establishing and then maintaining a learning focused, positive classroom culture has been extremely hard work.  It is flourishing because of the constant attention and persistent effort that I devote to it through recognition, relationships, resources, rewards, and rituals.  In thinking about leadership, I recognize that these principles are easily applicable to a principal’s efforts to develop a culture within their school community or even within smaller collaborative groups.

People inherently crave recognition and positive reinforcement.  It’s the reason why schools are filled with gold stars, Student of the Week, and Honor Rolls.  So as a leader, how to do you routinely recognize what is valued in your community? Do you routinely drop a small note in an email or mail box?  Do you regularly laud and applaud the great people and learning that is taking place, both privately and publicly? There are innumerable forms of recognition.  What is important is that you be specific about what you observed and student learning.

Recognition certainly helps build relationships.  In the ever changing landscape of education in the 21st century, the relationships necessary for effective  collaboration is a key to success. So, as the educational leader in your school, how do you build relationships with and between the colleagues you are working with?  Do you begin meetings with opportunities for people to meet and greet?  Do your routine forms of communication include personal details so that faculty can learn about each other?  Is wandering part of your daily routine?  Wandering the halls, classrooms, yard, and lunchroom has tremendous virtues.    Not only does it enable you to develop relationships, but it also provides you with the opportunity to  encourage collaboration and connect different community members with each other.

The reality of teaching is that no one enters the profession because of the end of year bonuses and plush perks.  But like teachers who use stickers, pencils, and recommendations to help motivate students, principals can harness resources at their disposal for a similar effect with their faculty.  Passing along professional resources is an easy step.  It might simply be a book, an article, or even a website, but their is great power in sharing.  Using deli.ci.ous to building a collective library of learning links is inexpensive tool.  Share your time.  Use it to take a moment to drop off a new resource to a teacher you know might find it of interest or cover a class so that a teacher can attend a particular PD session.  Arrange for your teachers to visit other innovative teachers or schools in your area.  Pass along any invitations or tickets that you might receive.    Connect teachers and classrooms with the greater community … a local historian, athlete, or charity that can support learning.  In the same way that the kindergarten student who proudly leaves school with a pencil they received for their birthday helps contribute to a positive learning environment, by being creative about sharing resources, leaders can achieve similar results in their school.

Recognition and rewards are closely tied together.  Rewards need not be expensive or extravagant.  What is important is that rewards are used to motivate and cultivate a positive culture. Offer Starbucks cards to the first three faculty to submit their report cards.  When interest, energy or enthusiasm drops during a long PD session or difficult faculty meeting take 5 to raffle off a movie pass, potted plant, or even a “Get Out of Recess Duty” pass.  Order subscriptions for the faculty lounge or professional library.  Food is always a hit.  This might be healthy snack during parent conferences, holidays treats in mailboxes, or even little cupcakes to celebrate a colleagues birthday.  Place a bouquet of flowers or potted plant in the office or faculty lounge and then raffle it off or award it to a winner at the end of the day.  LIttle rewards can help brighten the day of just one person or the whole community.  Either way, rewards are a powerful tool in helping a principal develop, maintain or change the culture of their school.

Rituals are an essential piece of a community and of culture. They slowly bring community members together through shared experiences.  Repeated celebrations brings new and old faces in a school together.  They become something that a group of teachers remembers and look forward to.  What do you do to build rituals in your community?  How do you welcome new community members or say good-bye to departing ones?  Do you recognize important milestones like birthdays and other personal celebrations with cakes, flowers, or cards?  What do you to to recognize professional accomplishments?  How do you begin or end meetings …. with sharing, reflection, a reading, or food?  The business world goes to great length to build community identity with bar-b-cues, family picnics, charitable work, or sporting teams (softball, bowling, curling, etc.).  Do you?

As a classroom, team or school leader, you can help develop the culture you desire.  With a little effort, you can establish a positive morale, build strong personal and professional relationships, while highlighting the values of your community.  What gets recognized and rewarded, is what get’s done.

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Pearls

Original Posted September 2nd, 2010

I must confess, I am finding that my educational leadership journey is a lot like having children.  I have been around kids and teachers or principals all of my life.  I have had great and not so great moments with each.  They feel familiar.   Comfortable.  However, not until I had children of my own, did I truly understand how little I actually knew about kids and how much I had left to learn.  Labour, delivery, lactation, episiotomies, Apgar scores  … the learning curve was steep.  I can say the exact same thing about my growth as an educational leader.  Missions, visions, difficult conversations, instructional supervision, school improvement processes …. there is always something new to understand.  Although the learning curves are steep, they are incredibly rewarding.

For the past nine years at the International School Bangkok, I have been fortunate to work with many exceptionally talented formal and informal educational leaders.  They have been incredible colleagues, leaders, role models, and mentors.  They have generously shared many pearls of wisdom.  I admire and respect each of them for their unique strengths and leadership qualities.  There is one particular quality that they have in common.  Each possesses an incredible depth and breadth of knowledge.  They exemplify the idea that “If you want to lead, you’ve got to read!”.   And read I have.  Reading is an essential element of my professional development plan. Fullan, Hargreaves, Marzano, DuFour and other gurus provided excellent starting points.  However, I soon realized that there were other authors and sources for inspirational ideas.  So I filled my RSS reader and set up a netvibes account.  I started to read Daniel Pink, Seth Godin, the Harvard Business Review, and Chip and Dan Heath.  Malcolm Gladwell was viewed through an entirely new lens.  I am always on the lookout for a good recommendation.  Do you have any?

Dr. Atul Gawande has perhaps been the most influential author of late.  Better is a book he wrote about how the medical profession improved itself.  It inspired this blog.  While reading, I kept thinking about applying the lessons he shared from the world of medicine, to the world of education.  It’s from his story of Dr. Apgar and the development of the Apgar scale that I gleaned a second pearl of wisdom.  “If you want to make any change, big or small, simply start counting”.  It seems so simple.  If you want to loose weight, start counting calories.  If you want your New Year’s resolution to get to the gym to become a reality, write it down in a log.  I quickly adapted this to my classroom practice and now regularly track essential instructional practices like the types of sharing that close a readers’ or writers’ workshop.  It has made a difference.  Dr. Apgar transformed the world of medicine simply by counting.  A complex procedure, additional resources or time were unnecessary.  She simply collected the information already at hand and used it in a different way to influence change.  Have something that you would like to change? Try counting.

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