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Let Go…Sit Back…Watch…And Let Kids Be Amazing

Several months ago I requested a special item as part of a grant through the Deerfield Education Foundation. The item was a K’NEX Ferris Wheel. But this wasn’t just any normal Ferris Wheel. Oh no. This ferris wheel had over 8,500 pieces, and when finished would stand 6 feet tall. Oh, and did I also mention that it is motorized so it will actually rotate when switched on. I had first seen this creation at a school in Colorado about two years ago and I was so impressed that students had built it.

The Foundation was gracious enough to approve our grant along with the Ferris Wheel. It came in around November if I remember correctly but I wasn’t exactly sure how to organize students to build it. I thought and thought about how to do it. I asked around to teachers and Mrs. Schippers to see which students really liked K’NEX. I thought about asking specific students but I wanted to give all kids a chance to be involved that wanted to and not just a few. I thought about how to go about the process of building this monstrosity and getting as many students involved as I could most of December and winter break. I was reminded of it every time I went to the library and saw the enormous box that contained the more than 8,500 pieces. I was also a little concerned as the age suggestion for this project was 16+. Days became weeks and all that was to show was a box of 8,500 individual pieces taking up space behind the library desk.

One day while talking to Mrs. Schippers and Mrs. Pfeffer I was reminded of one of my favorite TED Talks from Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University. Mr. Mitra is the mind behind the “hole in the wall computers” in rural villages in India. An amazing thing happened when he simply installed these computers in the walls of buildings and walked away. Students began to play with them and learn on their own with no adult guidance. So I thought why not take the same approach with the Ferris Wheel. Kipling’s own little “hole in the wall’ project.

One day in January I gathered up almost two dozen bins, opened up the large box of pieces and placed them by color in the bins. Our makerspace was full of bins with over 8,500 K’NEX pieces just sitting on the table and the floor. I looked at the all of the pieces and then dropped the 40 page instruction manual in the middle of the table and walked away – determined to just watch and see what happened.

As I walked away I even had a moment right out of Sugata Mitra’s experience with the hole in wall computers. A student had wandered over from the Smartlab and asked me what all the stuff was. Acting clueless I said “I don’t really know, they sent it to us in the mail. Looks complicated though.” And then I left.

Over the next two months I waited and watched. What transpired amazed me. I watched students pick up the instructions and work on the project on their own. Sometimes it was just one student, sometimes a group of 10-12. In all I saw probably over 40-50 different 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders working on it in some way. And that was just the kids that I saw. Some students took the lead and organized others to work as a team. Other times a single student would work on a piece when they had a free minute. Regardless, when the next person or group came they evaluated the progress and picked right up where the other person(s) had left off. They worked on it during library time, after their Smartlab projects were finished, and at indoor recess. Whenever, there was a free minute someone picked up the task of building the project.

I was out of town last Friday when I received the message that the students had completed it. In a little over 2 months, students working together solved the problems, overcame the setbacks, and created the 6 foot tall project with nearly no adult guidance.

I said I am amazed but I shouldn’t be surprised. This is once again evidence of students rising to the occasion when given the opportunity. But it did get me thinking about some lessons from this experience that I think are applicable to all educators and even parents. Here are my 4 major takeaways.

1. Put challenging opportunities in front of students. Do not be dissuaded by the scope of a project or by student’s age. They are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. If something is going to hold them back let it not be the adults.

2. Let go. Resist the desire to control the project and the learning. Be comfortable if something seems a little messy and disorganized. There will be setbacks. Do not let that be a reason for an adult to jump in and “solve it” for the students. Big projects take time. Be patient.

3. Do not force collaboration. If a challenge is sufficient collaboration will happen naturally because it has to. Create challenges where the project and solutions are bigger than any one individual. Let students naturally discover the need for good communication and collaboration through necessity not direction.

4. Encouragement is maybe the most important gift we can give our children. They do not need us to solve all the problems nor do they need us to simply tell them they can do it. They need us to actually believe they can do it and then speak and act accordingly.

Remember, that our kids are capable of much more than we give them credit for. Just give them the chance. Sometimes it is okay to throw the pieces on the table and just walk away.

Enjoy some pictures of the process below..

An Entirely Different View…Master :)

Wow. How times change. I was reminded of this on Christmas morning this year. After my kids opened their presents I was putting some things away downstairs in the basement and I happened across an old viewmaster Model-G and several projection reels – all from 1960. I believe this was given to us at some point down the line by my parents or my in-laws, but I don’t remember it. Like many things stored away in our basement – I have no idea how it ended up in our possession. However, I was thrilled with this find. I love history so going through the old reels was fantastic. The discovery was also extremely timely in that both of my children had just finished opening their presents and both of them received a new View-Master VR (Virtual Reality) Viewer.

As I played with the new VR Viewmaster and the 1960 Sawyer Model-G Viewmaster with my kids I thought about how far this technology has come. The original view master came with reels that were inserted and each held 14 still photos. The new VR Viewmaster uses a smartphone or Ipod and all of the content is digital.

The newer model allows you to engage in an immeasurable amount of content that is available on the web or through Viewmaster. You can take a trip under the sea, or visit New York City and London. My daughter got the Destinations pack with her Viewmaster and spent some of the morning exploring London, New York, and Athens. She had a 360 degree view of various sites and historical places. Her favorite was Ellis Island – she was able to explore the island and read about its history-all with the Viewmaster. This in turn led to us having a larger discussion over lunch about immigration and what it would have been like to come to the United States through Ellis Island.

Finding the old View Master the very same morning that my kiddos opened the latest version of it had me thinking about this technology and its place in education, both then and now.

Here are 3 thoughts:

1) Schools should be utilizing not only this technology, but all technologies that allow us to create innovative learning experiences for students. Technology is certainly allowing us to do more and more. The endless amount of content and the integrated nature of it all is impressive. We are not going to turn back the hand of time and disinvent this technology. The same way that social media is not going anywhere. This is the world we live in. And although there are new challenges and responsibilities with ever increasing technology and connectedness, we are so lucky to have the opportunities it provides.

2) That said, the effective use of the technology all begins with the teacher and how it can be used to support learning. Just like in 1960, the teacher is still the most important variable in this equation. Although I know that the Viewmaster throughout history was marketed as an educational tool, I do not know how much it has been used in schools. I never used one in school and I can’t imagine schools in the 1960’s or before were using them. That was not the fault of the technology then, any more than it is now. It is the fault of education.

When I was going through the old view master reels of the White House in the 1960’s I was thinking of all the ways I could have used that as a teacher. For instance, students could choose three rooms (pictures) of the White House they wanted to learn more about then research them and/or compare and contrast them. What is the significance of the Green Room, Blue Room, and Red Room? How did they come to be? Why are they important? You could even use it as a starting point for creative writing – Tell a story that takes place in one of the rooms and use the features of the room as details in your story. In less than 10 minutes I came up with a dozen or so lessons I could have done just on the White House reels. The other reels led to even more ideas, even the Lassie one. If I was a teacher in 1960 I would have been asking the kids to bring their viewmasters from home or scrambling to come up with a few for the class.

The bottom line of this thought though is – technology for learning is only as good as the teacher orchestrating its use. A few years ago I was talking to a teacher and they said in an exasperated tone, “well, with the way things are going with technology I guess they won’t even need me in a couple of years.” I couldn’t disagree more. With the way things are going with technology we need excellent skilled teachers more than ever. Teachers that know how to leverage the technology to enhance learning. Yes, learning! – not just doing cool stuff with technology because it is technology.

It is interesting with the amount of changes that the one factor that remains the same and probably always will is that of a great teacher. And if you don’t believe there have been changes in our world consider the funniest exchange of the morning between my daughter and I. It was when she asked me what the things were on the table in the Cabinet Room picture on the White House reel from 1960 – they were ashtrays.

3) Virtual field trips won’t replace real ones but they can make them better. We are taking my daughter to New York City for her birthday in February (shh.. It’s a surprise – I hope she doesn’t decide to start reading the blog). It will be her first trip there and I have full faith that her reading and learning about major places and sites on her VR Viewmaster will help make our visits and discussions deeper. I also do not know that a historical place like Ellis Island would have been on her list of places to visit had she not been exposed to it through the Viewmaster. But now I am sure it will be on the top of her list.

In Closing
I was inspired to get these new VR View Masters for my own children as we were researching a grant opportunity for Kipling a few weeks ago. Although, there are many more expensive and better VR options out there, we thought these would be a great cost efficient way to try out some Virtual Reality learning at Kipling so we included them in our grant proposal. I thought they were promising so I got my own kids each one for Christmas.

I am happy and proud to say that due to a generous $3,400 grant we received from the Deerfield Education Foundation just before winter break we will be purchasing a class set of these viewers, in addition to several other items, for Kipling School. We are very thankful to them for their generosity and their commitment to innovative educational experiences for our students.

We are also getting a 360 degree camera so that instead of students being only consumers of these virtual reality field trips they can also be the creators of the content. So in the future if you are not able to make one of your kids field trips as a parent volunteer, don’t worry – you just may still be able to go on the virtual field trip – created by your child.

The False Dilemma That Stifles Innovation

One of the things I have noticed since I have been in education is that we love black and white thinking. There is enormous evidence of this and in fact it has been ingrained in us as part of our training.

Consider these common examples:
You pass or you fail
You get the answer right or wrong
You did your homework fully or you did not do your homework at all.

All of these are what philosophy calls false dilemmas. They are logical fallacies that present only two choices when more choices actually exist. It is an either this or that approach to a situation. Now this kind of thinking is not only in education but throughout the whole of our society.

Consider what we hear in our politics and culture daily.
-If creationism is true then evolution is false or vice versa.
-You are either with us or against us.
And so on and so on…

And as an enormous Star Wars fan – recall the exchange between Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi in Episode III Revenge of the Sith.

Anakin: “If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”

Obi Wan: “Only a Sith deals in absolutes”


Recently, I was reminded of one of the most damaging false dilemmas we tell ourselves in education. It is so damaging that I believe it has not only been the stifler of innovation and creativity in our classrooms but also the creator of passionate opposition to rational approaches to measuring student learning.

The false dilemma I am talking about is this:

“I would love to do these cool, innovative, and amazing things in my classroom or school but we have to be accountable for these darn test scores.”

If you are a teacher, administrator, or parent I am almost certain you have heard this, or something similar, before. You may even be one who has said it.

This statement has been an excuse for schools and teachers not to change practices for a long time now. And I think in many cases it is exactly that – an excuse for not changing.

This statement has also become so ingrained in the current culture of education that it is leading to the near destruction of assessments or even the idea of measuring student progress. Some teachers, parents, and schools have convinced themselves that the only option is to make a choice between assessments and innovation. And if you believe that, then the choice is easy. But I do not believe these are the only two options. And honestly, I don’t think many educators do either – they just say it.

Let me give you an example: The below items are actual examples from the 2015 3rd Grade PARCC assessment.



Now what is it about these two questions that tells educators they cannot teach creatively or do cool things that put students in charge of their learning. In fact, would the best way to learn this content and be able to answer these questions, be to sit in a desk and listen to a lecture and then practice problems ad nauseum or would it be to do project based learning and actually build things or look at real world examples to learn about area and perimeter. Also, what about these questions would make someone think that they couldn’t have students blogging or using multimedia tools to explain their thinking and share it out with classmates and the world?

Why do we tell ourselves this false dilemma? I honestly do not know. But I do know that you can do creative and innovative things in school and your students still be able to do well on any assessment you put in front of them. This is the difference between teaching to the test and teaching for mastery. If you teach for mastery, first there is no limit to how creative you can be – in fact, the more creative and innovative, the better probably. Also, if you are teaching for mastery then what students see on an assessment like PARCC should be the easiest way they encounter that content.

This is not theoretical for me. I have seen other options than just these two work in my own school over the past couple of years. In fact, I would say our school has been as innovative in its approach to students and learning than any school has over the past couple of years. We have created new spaces for creativity in our library and new Smartlab where students work on projects and learn through hands on experiences, we are using technology to enhance learning by having students create original content, and we are leveraging platforms like Khan Academy to assist us in individualizing education for every child. Every Wednesday afternoon our students have time to explore their own passions and learning across classes and grade levels. And surrounding all of this we have adopted a focus on teaching kids skills that go beyond way beyond the classroom through The Leader in Me process.

And while we have focused on being creative and innovative, guess what has gone up? That’s right – our test scores – on every measure and assessment we give our students.

Do not repeat the damaging false dilemma of innovation versus assessment performance. It is not real. Focus on providing awesome learning experiences that allow your students to drive the learning and be creative.

Be a Jedi! Remember, only a Sith deals in absolutes.

Great Teachers – Get Better

This summer I finally got around to reading Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande. This is not a new release; in fact, I think it was published about 8 years ago, but I am just getting around to checking it off my list. Gawande is the author of other books and practices general and endocrine surgery in Boston. One the great things about the book is that even though he describes scenarios related to medicine and public health, there are learnings for any other industry in his stories–including education.

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Whenever I read books, I usually try to pull out a few major understandings or learnings that stick with me. In this book I found it early, on page 9 in the introduction.

Gawande writes:
“Betterment is perpetual labor. The world is chaotic, disorganized, and vexing, and medicine is nowhere spared that reality. To complicate matters, we in medicine are also only human ourselves. We are distractible, weak, and given to our own concerns. Yet still, to live as a doctor is to live so that one’s life is bound up in others’ and in science and in the messy, complicated connection between the two It is to live a life of responsibility. The question then, is not whether one accepts the responsibility. Just by doing this work, one has. The question is, having accepted the responsibility, how one does such work well.”

This quote, in my view, is completely transferable to teaching and education.

I think about the best teachers I know and this describes them perfectly. They work long hours, including nights and weekends. They give of their time and energy freely to serve their students. And most importantly, they accept the enormous responsibility to ensure that students learn and grow year after year. In addition to this, they all epitomize the heart of this quote–they are tirelessly focused on getting better and increasing their impact. If you think of the best teachers you have known, I imagine you see this in them, too.

According to the most recent and reliable data from the Dept. of Education, 17% of new teachers leave the profession after 5 years. Now, of course, there are many factors that contribute to this, but I think that one reason is that many new teachers don’t understand the “responsibility” they have signed up for. Teaching is a profession that requires 100% of your heart and commitment. There is no place for ego. Great teachers do not get sad or offended when something doesn’t work or their students didn’t learn something; instead, They Get Better.

If I were ever to teach an undergraduate class to aspiring teachers, I think I would make this quote the focus of the entire semester. In fact, it would be the only question I think they would need to answer in the course. We would focus the entire time on what it means to accept the responsibility and what it means to constantly strive to be better. Teaching is something you never totally master–it will always be an unfinished art. The best you can do is to seek to improve your performance day after day and year after year.

This is the defining quality of the best teachers I know – they are constantly seeking to get better and increase their impact on the students they serve. Here is the cycle of teaching practiced by the best teachers I know:

Great Teachers:
Reflect: Great teachers are constantly evaluating their performance and impact. They reflect on their teaching in a student-centered way. They are constantly in tune to how students are learning and how their actions and teaching is contributing.

Learn: Great teachers never think they are finished learning. They are continually reading new ideas and connecting with other educators to expand their knowledge base. They attend conferences and workshops, they ask questions. They never consider their practice finished.

They Take Action: Great teachers take what they are learning and try it. They go out on a limb and do new things that have not been done. They get out of their comfort zones and constantly try new things to improve their performance.

Then they repeat this process again and again.

Great teachers work hard, accept the responsibility, but most importantly focus relentlessly on how they do their work well.

Kipling Students Present to Deerfield Village Board

On Monday May 2nd Kipling elementary was invited to present to the mayor and village board at their meeting. This all began when Mayor Harriet Rosenthal visited Kipling school for Leadership Day a few weeks ago. Mayor Rosenthal was so impressed that she invited our students to present at their next village meeting. We are very proud our our entire school and these students that did such a great job of representing us. You can see their presentation to the village below.

The Power of Putting Students in Charge of Their Learning

Can students teach themselves? If so, what are the limits to their learning? What is the role of the teacher in the 21st century? These questions have all been on my mind lately.

This is a topic that Sugata Mitra has spoke on with great depth. Sugata Mitra is a professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England. I am fascinated by his research and findings because I think he has found something, that while incredible, is also something we have always known. If you have not watched the below TED talk I encourage you to.

Mitra found that students when given access to technology can teach themselves almost anything. Students in rural India with a computer built into a wall can learn science material years ahead of their time in a language they do not speak. Amazing.

I can’t speak for everyone but I assume many have had the same experience of learning and school as I have. From elementary school to high school to college to today my learning has been driven almost solely by me – even if I didn’t recognize it. I remember sitting in classes in college listening to lectures and thinking to myself “when I get home I will make sense of this and teach it to myself.” I had that same thought just this weekend in one of my statistics classes for my doctoral degree. I listened for hours as the professor wrote on a whiteboard and described all kinds of tests and worked problems on the board. None of it made much sense to me until I went home, began to read on my own, watched a couple of quick YouTube videos and solved some problems myself. I began to wonder to myself “did I even need to be sitting in that class today.”

I am not saying that teachers are not necessary for learning. Actually, I believe teachers can be more important than ever in the process of learning. Just not in the way we have always thought. We no longer need the sage on the stage, the great dispenser of knowledge. In today’s world the knowledge is not contained in a certain few people – it is everywhere. What modern day teachers need to do is to be great encouragers and supporters of learning. They should model what it means to learn and fail and try again. They should provide opportunities for students to stretch their minds rather than just continue practice of skills they already know. Students should spend almost no time in school doing what they already know how to do.

The best teachers I ever had were also the best encouragers. They never provided me the answers – they motivated me to keep going. They explained things I was confused about by asking more questions that helped me work through it on my own.

As teachers we can no longer think of ourselves as the sole dispensers of knowledge. I have known many teachers that underestimate their students and what their learning potential is based on the erroneous view of “how can they have learned it, if I haven’t taught it.” Or even worse teachers that say “I taught it, so why didn’t they learn it.”

We are in a great transition right now in education that I think is very exciting. It is the idea that as educators we are not responsible for teaching, we are responsible for student learning and growth. This is such a seismic change when realized. Success is not determined by what we do – reading the lesson plan, giving the worksheet, lecturing at the whiteboard – all the practices of traditional “teaching”. Rather success is determined by what students can do – student learning and growth. This type of success focuses on students rather than adults. Isn’t that the point? It is great if adults in a school feel successful – but they are not the target audience. Schools exist for the success of students.

We can accomplish this by doing two things. First, put students in charge of their learning and encourage them to go farther than they ever thought they could. Second, recognize that there are numerous ways for students to learn new material – technology, peers, etc. – not just the teacher.

We have recently been using Khan Academy a lot at Kipling and the students love it. I think they love it because it recognizes what they already know. They can be in charge of their own learning. On the front page the website of Khan Academy its says – You only have to know one thing: You can learn anything. So true.

Remembering the Heroes of the Shuttle Challenger- 30 Years Later


I have always been fascinated by space travel, mainly for the character and bravery of the men and women involved in the space program. I think what I have always admired about astronauts and always looked up to them for is the intersection of several crucial qualities – not only are they academics and incredibly smart, but also collaborative team players, and above all brave. As veteran astronaut John Young said in 1981, when asked if he was nervous before the inaugural flight of the space shuttle, “Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world; knowing they’re going to light the bottom- and doesn’t get a little worried- does not fully understand the situation.”


This weekend I have been thinking that this upcoming Thursday is the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I still remember sitting in my 3rd grade classroom on that day, January 28, 1986. For those of us that were in school at that time we remember that the launch of the space shuttle Challenger was being broadcast in classrooms and schools across the country. Interestingly, schools were about the only place the launch was actually being shown live as this was still the early days of cable news and schools were having the launch broadcast via satellite in an arrangement with NASA.

This was due to the unique background of one of the crew members, Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from Concord, NH, had been selected from over 11,000 applicants to train as an astronaut and fly as part of the Teacher in Space program.


She was to conduct 6 experiments and teach two live lessons from the space shuttle that were to be broadcast to classrooms all over America. The two lessons were called “The Ultimate Field Trip” and “”Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, Why.” The titles sound as exciting to me today as they did when I was 8, sadly no students were able to experience them. However, the Challenger Foundation has put the lesson plans for her lessons together and has them on their website for anyone that wants to teach them.

I also recall this great story from Carl McNair, the brother of astronaut Ron McNair, another victim of the Challenger accident. I remember hearing this story a few years ago and it really spoke to me about the character, courage, and determination of Ron Mcnair. You can listen to the short story below about how Ron McNair overcame poverty and segregation growing up in South Carolina to end up being only the second African-American to go into space at that time.

Although I have talked about Christa McAuliffe and Ron McNair above, all of the men and women aboard the Challenger had incredible accomplishments and stories to tell. For instance, veteran astronaut and mission specialist Judith Resnik was the first Jewish-American and first Jewish woman in space. In addition, veteran astronaut and mission specialist Ellison Onizuka was the first Asian-American in space. Many people may still not realize how many groundbreaking individuals we lost that day.

I still remember exactly where I was sitting in class that day watching the launch. I remember being fixed to the TV for all of 73 seconds as the shuttle Challenger ascended. I remember seeing the explosion on the TV and not knowing what had happened. I remember the look on my teacher’s face as she looked at our confused faces and was speechless, her being fully aware of what had just happened. I remember the follow up investigations, conclusions, and dedications.

But the thing I remember most of all are the heros, the astronauts that gave all and the incredible stories of their lives. I thank them all for continuing to inspire me 30 years after their tragic passing. Hopefully, this current generation will have the same caliber of heroes.


“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them — this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved good-bye, and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'” – President Ronald Reagan, address to the nation after the Challenger disaster.

The Lessons of Star Wars: From The 8 Year Old Me


Just ask anyone and they will tell you. I am a huge Star Wars fan. My wife has spent months with me endlessly subjecting her to every new trailer or bit of news about the new film. I even did a fun little build up in my morning emails to staff leading up to the movies opening two weeks ago before winter break. Me being a fan of the movie is known far and wide – even among the students at my school as they made Thursday the 17th Star Wars day at Kipling and colored character masks and paraded around the school.

Star Wars has a great appeal to many – particularly people around my age that grew up on the original trilogy. However, I see many new Star Wars fans among the students at my school. Every day I see numerous Star Wars shirts and backpacks through our halls.

There are many people that wonder what is so special about Star Wars? I have been asked that question several times and while I can only answer for myself I believe there may be some similarities with others. For me the appeal and nostalgia is not only for the cool ships and characters, but mainly for the lessons that I saw being played out in the story. Although, I have had many influences that have shaped me into who I am today I do think that Star Wars is one of the things. We know that one of the major ways kids make sense of their world and who they are is through their imagination. And even though Star Wars takes place in a galaxy far far away there are unmistakable human lessons in the story. And now after seeing the new film twice here are some thoughts on what I learned from Star Wars as a child.

Kipling Students and Myself on Star Wars Day

Luke: “How am I to know the good side from the bad?”
Yoda: “You will know, when you are calm. At peace, passive.”
-Luke Skywalker and Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back


In Star Wars the force has both light sides and dark sides. It is our choice which side we are on. There is a struggle in people between the light and the dark but they are clear and distinct sides. This was very formative to me as a child to watch these characters engaged in this battle. What leads to the dark side – anger, fear, aggression – easy emotions to come by. Remaining at peace and calm – keeping your wits about you – that is the hard part and the path of the Jedi.

Lesson for 8 year old me: Stay calm, at peace, and passive in all situations. Seek understanding not conflict. Problems are best solved in a calm manner. When we slow down and listen to all sides of the story we can approach the situation differently. Help others make peace.

Luke: “Never. I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”
The Emperor: “So be it… Jedi!”
-Luke Skywalker and The Emperor, Return of the Jedi


In the end of Return of The Jedi when Luke has finished the battle with Darth Vader the Emperor asks him to join the dark side but Luke refuses. I can mentally recall Luke’s face as he said the line above and threw his lightsaber to the ground. Despite the outcome that was in store for him he was determined to do the right thing and was not turning back.

Lesson for 8 year old me: Do the right thing even when it is hard. Honesty and integrity matter. Own up to success as well as failures. Be a person of good character at all times not just when you will be rewarded or people are looking.

“Well, the force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.”
– Obi Wan Kenobi, A New Hope


There is nothing in the Star Wars universe that has captured the imagination of fans like the force. Even those few people that have never seen a Star Wars film could probably tell you what the force is. I remember fondly how it was always explained in the original films as the force that binds everything together and is within everyone. Watching Luke realize his potential through the force was a great journey to behold. Also watching characters such as Han Solo develop from scoundrels into good people was a great parallel to the journey that Luke was on. By harnessing this power that moves through all of us great things can be achieved. However, Luke had great teachers in Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda – they were patient and allowed Luke to discover things on his own as he pondered the answers to questions.

Lesson for 8 year old me: There is greatness in everyone. Great teachers help people realize it. And remember “size matters not”. Watching Yoda lift that X-Wing out of the bog was a lesson in not judging people by appearances.

Yavin Base: “Luke, you switched off your targeting computer. What’s wrong?”
Luke: “Nothing. I’m all right.”
-Luke Skywalker and Yavin Base, A New Hope


I remember watching the final assault on the death star in A New Hope. X-Wing after X-Wing attempted to fire the torpedos into the hole that would lead to the destruction of the death star and failed. However, when it was Luke’s turn to line up his shot he heard the voice of Obi-Wan calling to him “use the force Luke.” Luke then turns off his computer and uses the force and his feelings to judge and time the shot just right. In the real world we may call this instinct. In recent years research is beginning to uncover a surprising validity to the feeling of instinct. This feeling comes from parts of our brain that does not have the capacity for language. It is our gut feeling and no less valuable than anything else.

Lesson for 8 year old me: Trust your instincts. It is not silly or crazy to follow your heart – it is essential.

“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph! Adventure. Heh! Excitement. Heh! A Jedi craves not these things.”
-Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back


Of all the lessons in Star Wars this may be one of the most common ones that I have reminded myself of through the years. What a great reminder to focus on what the task at hand is and be the best at whatever it is that we are doing. Do not get lost looking away – understand that the next steps on your journey are only realized by your commitment to excellence in what you are currently doing and in the place you currently are at. Have a deep commitment and a serious mind about everything you are involved in – work, friends, family, etc.

Lesson for 8 year old me:Focus on what you are supposed to be doing. Be the best you can be at whatever that is. Attend to the details and never take your situation for granted.

Luke: “No. You’re coming with me. I’ll not leave you here, I’ve got to save you.
Anakin: “You already… have, Luke. You were right. You were right about me.”
-Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker, Return of The Jedi


It is hard to imagine a worse father than Darth Vader. He pursues you across the galaxy, maimes you in a fight, and tries to turn you over to the most evil man in the galaxy. In light of all of that Luke still wants to see the good in him. Even though it is hard and almost costs Luke his life he never gives up on his father and in the end it turns out that he is right. We all have have times we are not perfect or make mistakes. We need to continue to see the good in the people in our lives and help them realize it. In addition, there are times we need people to do that for us.

Lesson for 8 year old me: Don’t give up on people. And be thankful for people that will not give up on you.

All of us have things that are formative and impactful on our lives. For many people of my generation it was Star Wars and how lucky we are. It is exciting to be able to pass these lessons on to a new generation.

My daughter and I getting ready for the next chapter.

In Defense of The Common Core State Standards


Last week I was at a screening of the film Most Likely to Succeed with several educators and community members at Deerfield High School. The film is very good and suggests some great ideas of what is possible in education. During the Q&A portion of the event numerous questions centered on testing and the Common Core. I was reminded how unfortunate it is that we often lump those two things together – testing and Common Core. I was reminded about the countless meetings that I have been a part of and the videos of community meetings that I have seen all with a common dislike and often rage against the Common Core State Standards. I think as parents and educators we should be careful to understand the differences between testing and the Common Core.

Standardized Testing Is Not New
When I was a child in Kentucky I remember every spring taking the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS). In writing this post I consulted some of my colleagues that attended elementary school in Illinois in the 1960’s and 1970’s and even then they recall taking the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) or some other standardized assessment. In 1988 the state of Illinois mandated the first Illinois Goal Assessment Program test (IGAP) to be given to students statewide. In 1999 Illinois changed to the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) in response to the adoption of the Illinois Learning Standards. Just this past year 2014-2015 Illinois began administering a new assessment – the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers otherwise known as PARCC.

So as you see we have been giving standardized tests for many more years than the development of PARCC or the implementation of No Child Left Behind in 2001. When experts say there has been a rise in standardized testing it is just simply not honest. What did change in 2001 with the implementation of No Child Left Behind was some form of accountability for student performance. This has raised the level and importance of standardized testing each year as it became more and more apparent that schools would not meet expectations.

Personally, I think there are benefits to some common student growth assessments. I find a few yearly assessments, such as NWEA MAP, that help monitor progress of students are valuable to informing our instruction and giving the school a big picture view of our impact. Like everyone else, I do not think it is the most important thing we do, but I do think it is important. Also, I have done the math and the average time it takes students to complete the NWEA MAP assessment 3 times a year, District Common Assessments 4 times a year, and PARCC once a year, all combined is less than 2% of the time students are at school. We are currently lower than the guidelines just released by the Department of Education. We are not over testing students – at least not in DPS109. However, I understand some of the arguments against standardized testing as well. Although I think the PARCC is a quality well designed assessment, I don’t like taking a test in March and not getting the results for 9 months. That is not useful for educators, parents, or students. But let’s be clear – this is a discussion about testing and it has absolutely nothing to do with learning standards such as the Common Core.

A History of Learning Standards
Learning standards are simply what students should know and be able to do as a result of their educational experience. In Illinois, there are learning standards in 7 core areas. However, Common Core is specific to English Language Arts, Math, and interdisciplinary literacy. Learning standards are not new with the adoption of the Common Core in 2010. States have been adopting standards since the early 1990’s. By the early 2000’s all 50 states had adopted some form of learning standards for their students. Contrary to popular belief Common Core was not an initiative of the federal government. In fact, it was the National Governors Associations and the Council of Chief State School Officers that made the decision. The governors and chief school officials from 48 states were involved in the decision to develop the Common Core standards. There were several reasons for this but the most important I think is the realization that we do not need 50 different learning standards in English Language Arts and Math. We know what being a good reader looks like. We know what being good at math looks like. Do we really need 50 different iterations of that definition?

Creating learning standards that are ‘common” between the states has several benefits.
1. As a nation we should not have different expectations of what students are able to do in Language Arts and Math when they graduate from high school and are ready to enter college or the workforce. In today’s world you may graduate high school in Deerfield, go to college in Massachusetts, and then get a job in California. The expectations for your ability to think and reason are the same regardless of imaginary lines on a map.

2. There is more mobility in our country than at any time in history. Students move between states all the time. Maybe their parents are transferred for work, maybe they are moving to be closer to family. Common Core mitigates that factor by ensuring that regardless of where a child moves or how much they move they will graduate high school with the same skills as anyone else.

3. One of my favorites, that is often not even touched on, is that having common learning standards across the states gives teachers and educators the ability to tap into learning opportunities from each other across the county. Prior to the Common Core the benefit to working with education professionals from around the country was limited because the expectations changed with state borders. Now, educators in almost every state are able to put their heads together for common goals toward student learning.

So what are the counter arguments against the Common Core? Frankly, there simply are not any legitimate ones that I have heard. The only arguments that I have heard are based on politics, not education or learning. For example, in 2014, facing political pressure, Indiana took the step to repeal their adoption of the Common Core standards and implement new learning standards for the state. Anti Common Core advocates rejoiced. So what do the new Indiana standards look like? You may be surprised to learn that they are exactly like the Common Core. They took the Common Core, rearranged the order of the standards, changed the look of the document, and gave them a new name. But make no mistake they are identical to the Common Core Standards themselves. The entire process was an elaborate dance to satisfy a political appetite.

As of today 42 states, 4 territories, the District of Columbia, and the Department of Defense Education Agency have adopted the Common Core Standards.

So What is So Controversial About The Common Core?
If anyone reading this blog can find the answer to that question please tell me. Because for the life of me I cannot figure it out. I encourage anyone with questions to read the standards for English Language Arts and Math at the links below.

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Common Core Standards for Mathematics

I find most of the times when I talk to people that are against the Common Core the one thing they all have in common is that they have never even looked at them. That is true not only of parents but of teachers and educators as well. I have seen the videos on youtube of parents at board meetings discussing crazy homework and deriding the idea of Common Core math. Some of the things I have seen out there make me agree with them and I share their anger. But their anger is misplaced. The standards themselves do not tell you how kids should learn. They are not a curriculum. They simply say what students should know and be able to do. All of those crazy things you may have seen being shared on Facebook are the results of poor teachers making even poorer worksheets and homework assignments. It has nothing to do with the Common Core standards themselves.

So What Is In The Standards?
The most important thing the standards want students to do is think critically. This is the ultimate goal of all education. We want to teach our students to think critically in all subjects, consider all the information, and make their own decisions.

We have a lot of work to do with teachers, principals, and central office personnel regarding how to teach the standards with rigor and fidelity. This is work we are engaged in every day. The standards are high level rigorous expectations for students that teach critical thinking. As a parent, I want my child to be able to do the things that the standards outline. The standards are not the problem. If people are angry about standardized testing, that is fine. There is a legitimate argument to made there that deserves to be had across the country. However, learning standards should not be part of that argument. If you are frustrated with a homework assignment do not blame Common Core as whole – the standards have nothing to do with it. Instead seek out an explanation from the person that wrote the worksheet or the teacher that assigned it. But don’t indict the entire system. I am passionate about this issue because I believe these learning standards are good for students and I fear losing them to politics. I also believe that the standards can be met with project based, high level instruction as seen in the film Most Likely to Succeed. I encourage everyone to read the Common Core Standards as they are written, for what they are, and nothing more.

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Common Core Standards for Mathematics

The Leadership of Caine’s Arcade

A few years ago I saw a short film called Caine’s Arcade. It’s possible that some of you may know of Caine’s Arcade as the video has been viewed over 5 million times on Youtube. I encourage you to watch the short film (10 minutes) whether it is your first time or tenth time. I loved this film when I first saw it because of the human story of this little boy that decides to build his own arcade out of cardboard. I loved the idea of one person, a filmmaker named Nirvan Mullick, stumbling onto this cardboard arcade by total coincidence and making a film about it that inspires millions. It spoke to me about the undiscovered genius in all of our kids.

A couple of years later Nirvan came out with another short film called Caine’s Arcade 2. This film was more about the massive impact that the first film had on kids and adults all over the world. The first film has inspired thousands of kids around the world to participate in their own Cardboard Challenge. In fact it spawned the creation of the Imagination Foundation that coordinates an annual global cardboard challenge with participants from 49 countries around the world. The goal of the challenge is to foster the creativeness and ingenuity of children and to give them an opportunity to explore their interests.

As I rewatched Caine’s Arcade 2 the other day I couldn’t help but think of the incredible leadership that this young boy displays. This is the kind of leadership that we want to foster in students at Kipling through The Leader in Me. As John Maxwell says “Leadership is not about titles, positions or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.” This is exactly what Cain has done. He has influenced and inspired millions of people not through grand speeches or huge displays of power but instead by just being himself. He is just a little boy that had dream to build a little cardboard arcade. He persevered and stuck with it and made something that inspires us all.

Our goal through The Leader in Me is create a community that realizes the genius in every one of our children. The leadership we want our students to display in school now and as adults in the future, is not about power but about influence. And that influence comes from inspiration. We want our kids to inspire the world – that is leadership.

Our Own Caine’s Arcade
This week our LMC director Kate Schippers and Mrs. Binder-Markey started their own cardboard challenge with her 3rd graders. However, this is only the beginning. Our PTO has generously committed to fully funding a new SmartLab at Kipling School. In addition to that, our school board is currently hearing proposals and plans that we have been working on for a redesigned learning commons to be built at Kipling school that provides kids the tools and materials to explore their creative genius. I am thrilled about seeing what our kids come up with as we continue this journey to foster their creativity, inspiration and leadership.

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