Virginia Superintendents: In Their Words

I monitored the twitter stream on the #vass hashtag all afternoon. Today, January 13, the Virginia Association of School Superintendents (VASS) officers met in Richmond with educational associations from across Virginia – parents, teachers, school administrators, VASCD – to create a coalition in support of a forward-looking vision and accompanying actions for appropriate, multi-dimensional assessments of learning. The Summit coalition discussed key areas of shared focus for what makes assessment sense for young people and the educators who serve them.

The Virginia Association of School Superintendents two years ago drafted The Blueprint for Virginia Education Reform: Bringing Reason to Reform. While Virginia’s educational associations may not always agree with each other when it comes to educational issues, we do share a common commitment to educating young people well, to supporting teachers in our classrooms, and to building partnerships with parents and educators so we can serve our common mission to keep children at the center of our educational decisions.

The Blueprint defines a road map to changes the association of Virginia superintendents believes critically outline the direction that the Commonwealth needs to pursue to educate contemporary learners well. In this document, the superintendents recognize the power of professional learning, multiple assessment indicators of contemporary learning competencies, and the necessity for full funding of the range of diverse educational needs among school divisions that differ widely in size, demographics, and location.

Virginia superintendents recognize that young people can pass tough state tests and still not be educated well to enter adulthood in this century. As a parent said recently, “My child is not a test score.” Family life, community participation, and career success demand competencies that extend far beyond doing well on tests of content-driven standards.

Students in Schools Today Need to Evolve Capabilities So They Can:

Communicate: Communication in 2013 and beyond requires proficiency with different skills and technologies  than those of the 20th century. We live in a “rising culture of participation and the networks and technologies” change communication in homes and careers.

Create: America’s future lives in the gifts of creative, inventive genius residing, often silently, in young people in our schools today. Our children need the educational chance to further develop and refine those gifts. They can not be passive recipients of limiting mass educational standardization and build the capacity to invent, design, build, and engineer new ideas.

Think critically: Local and global problems won’t be solved with 20th century factory school skill sets but by critical thinkers who can visualize non-standard solutions to non-standard problems.

Work together: It doesn’t matter where you work or where you live, the capability to work well with others, particularly diverse team members, is an essential in today’s workforce.

The 2013 Press Conference:

On January 14, Virginia’s superintendents gather in Richmond for a press conference to state for the record our position on what’s important for Virginia’s future. As a group, we uniquely serve the learning needs of 1.3 million school children from Pk-12. We are responsible for the work of thousands of teachers, bus drivers, school administrators, teaching assistants, and support staff who maintain and sustain our schools.  We are accountable to hundreds of thousands of parents who hold us accountable for their children’s safety, care, and learning. Here are some of the comments excerpted from speeches that the press will hear from our officers and key superintendents from across Virginia:

The Power of Teachers to Make a Difference

@ben_kiser, VASS president: “VASS believes that an effective teacher is the most significant factor affecting student performance during the school day.  This rhetoric about teachers in Virginia has been missing over recent years.  We ask the Governor and the General Assembly to use this standard to rationalize legislation over the weeks ahead.  We cannot speak about the value of teachers publicly and then support policies that diminish their value and narrow the means by which teachers and schools are judged.?”

Creativity and Flexibility through Local Educational Control

Pat Russo, VASS Vice President: “At a time when Americans place a premium on creativity and flexibility, Virginia’s education system remains tightly bound in regulations and staffing formulas dictating how schools are to be run, regardless of what the genuine need of a local school or school division might be. Does this make sense in the 21st Century when we are trying to prepare students of different abilities to become career and college ready and globally competitive?”

Breaking Ranks with the SOL Accountability System

@haseibert, Alan Seibert, VASS secretary-treasurer: “Let me be clear here – VASS believes that the current SOL accountability system prevents schools from engaging in the teaching & learning strategies that prepare our students for 21st century skills….and it appears that many of the organizations in our discussion last night agree with us.”

This problem has been worsened by recent efforts to use SOL tests for purposes they were never intended for, such as: 1) to provide statistical projections purported to represent student growth; 2) provide a means to measure performance gaps for the recent ESEA waiver; and 3) changing the purpose of SOL tests from measures of a minimum standard to a measure of college and career readiness.  These additions have highlighted what we who serve Virginia’s children in schools have long known….an achievement-only assessment system is no longer valid and should no longer form the basis of the Commonwealth’s accountability system. Our students and our schools deserve better.

The Teacher as Professional

Jennifer Parish, Legislative Co-Chair, “VASS believes that it is critical to evaluate teachers fairly and carefully especially when evaluations may ultimately determine competence.  VASS believes that, in the end, it is important that we treat all teachers as professionals as we continue to work to ensure high quality instruction for all of our classrooms. But it is also important that we begin to compensate all of our teachers in the manner that says we value their profession just as we have demonstrated that we value other state workers.”

Quality Learning Begins in Our Schools, Not a Corporate Office 

Rosa Atkins, Region V superintendents, “The Governor’s statement in his recent State of the State address that we need to change Virginia’s charter school law so that charter school providers can more easily come into Virginia, is alarming.  VASS does not believe the mission of public education is to make it easier for external providers to make money in our state. We do not agree that the needs of private businesses and non-profit entities outside of Virginia should take precedent over the commitments to quality instruction for all students in Virginia.”

Our Real Return on Investment

These statements, in brief, represent a clarity of understanding of the schism between those who look to the past to determine what contemporary learners need, rather than to our children’s future to make those decisions. These statements represent the battle between those who see education as a revenue-generator for the private sector and those who believe that public education sustains our hopes  and dreams for who we are as “we the people” of the United States of America. These statements represent the critical nature of the differences in how politicians see education accountability versus educators who live every day feeling the weight of responsibility for the safety, care, and learning of 1.3 million children in Virginia’s public schools.

Virginia has a reputation for educating its children well according to our test results. However, our most important return on investment will not be measured in high test scores or the profit margins of the corporate sector who make money off of the tests, the technologies, and the test prep resources they sell.

Instead, Virginia’s most important return on investment will come from making the right educational decisions for today’s children who will create the families, build the communities, and solve the problems of tomorrow’s world.

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Unfiltering Leadership and Learning

A mentor once said to me that we administrators all have to watch out for our filters. He was a mentor before the topic of “the filters”, you know the ones I mean, became a different kind of headache for some contemporary administrators.  But, I think his reference applies to any kind of filters in our lives, even virtual ones.

student writing on desktop

Using desk surfaces as a writing spaces challenged my filters- now I get it after working with teachers who allow kids to do so, and do so themselves at times.

Over-filtering can be one of the greatest sources of failures in our individual thinking and that of our systems. It’s why I keep a little mental list of the four failures of government – imagination, policy, management, and capability – that the 9/11 Commission identified in their final report as root causes of 9/11. It’s why I am conscious of Ellen Langer’s distributed and mindful leadership as a frame for thinking about why individual leaders working alone are poor predictors of the future. It’s why I believe in finding new pathways to advance our work and the concept of “terroir” and scaling across not up (from Walk Out, Walk On), rather than thinking all schools should or can implement identical solutions, even when they’re trying to address the same challenges. Why?

There are no “one size fits all” answers. There are no magic formulas. In this day and age, there are no standard problems, and no standard solutions. The Pentagon staff articulates that in their work, and so should we. No two school communities, no two grade-level teams, and no two parents, children or teachers are exactly alike.  As @yongzhaoUO says, we need to consider the uniqueness of the local work we do rather than focusing on mass standardization.

Filters tend to push us towards seeing different situations similarly, rather than recognizing that no two are the same. Filters tend to cause us to go to the same people for feedback – often people who reinforce our own perspectives and ideas. Filters are why we lack the capability over time to see stains on our own wallpaper. Filters are why as school administrators we don’t always get or attend to the full breadth and depth of information we need. Filters can be our worst enemy when it comes to decision-making.  We all filter.

Our brains must filter to accomplish anything in a given day. Others filter for us. Sometimes because they see it as necessary to getting work done in priority order. Sometimes, it’s to advance someone’s perspective. We need to be aware of that and constantly monitor how our filters, and those of others, impact our work, and ultimately impact how our work impacts young people we serve.

1950 classroom


When we work in isolation , and we all need that time sometimes, we don’t consider a full range of ideas and possibilities to help find solutions to challenges in front of us. While I’m not an impulsive person (well, maybe just slightly impulsive), I’ve found that time to think and reflect with others who represent diversity of background and expertise isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity. Over years in leadership roles, I’m still learning to slow down, seek advice, and take time to consider decisions – and to work on lowering, not raising my filters.  Pretty often, I don’t hear what I’d like to hear when I go outside my own personal filters, but usually it’s what I need to hear.

I’ve also learned it’s important to periodically change my work environment because my personal filters can cause me to stop seeing what’s around me – the proverbial stains on the wallpaper no longer exist in my line of sight. It’s why I’ll occasionally ride a school bus to chat with a driver, help a custodian stack chairs after a program, serve food in a cafeteria, or teach or co-teach a lesson. I need to work outside the hierarchy to understand the impact of decisions on those most affected by them. It’s also why I spend time in Twitter.

In using Twitter, we can either set up situations where we lower filters or even maintain a different version of face-to-face filters in the virtual world.

If I chose to follow people who express the same opinions and ideas that I’m drawn to, then I’d end up with the same echo chamber that can exist in my professional work environment if I’m not constantly attending to that. I’ve pushed myself to look for and follow people with different points of view, people who work in very different fields than education, people who ask hard questions, challenge authority, and who don’t accept the way it is as the way it has to be. I’ve found people with great educational expertise around the world who do things very differently from the practices used in my own work spaces.  Twitter has become a “go to” tool that lowers filters and helps me consider other possibilities, options, and potential new pathways for improving our work to serve learners well. Without access I wouldn’t know:

@catherinecronin @lasic @largerama @poh @colonelb @joemazza @liamdunphy @tomwhitby @flourishingkids @doremi @mrami2 @saorog @gravesle @jguarr @blogbrevity @jonbecker @grandmaondeck and literally thousands of valued voices sharing ideas, resources, and questions routinely on twitter as well as in #ce12 #cpchat, #edchat, #musedchat #edchatie #ccglobal #engchat #ntchat #ptchat #nwp #ideachat and around other waterholes every day,

hundreds of superintendents on @daniellfrazier’s supts list who offer perspectives on challenges I face daily in a similar role,

@monk51295 @maryannreilly @paulallison and the book Walk Out Walk On  and why we should consider a different option than simply “scaling up” educational programs,

@karenjan and @irasocol @devenkblack  the #spedchat regulars and Universal Design for Learning and a range of accessibility solutions that allow children’s capabilities to emerge,

@saorog and #Kinect2Scratch and to send some teachers to #scratchmit2012,

the work of @bkayser11 @mthornton78 @paulawhite @mtechman @epaynemls @chadsansing @mpcraddock @khhoward34 @lousygolfer45 @sresmusic  @jatcatlett @wingfriends @jengrahamwright and many other teachers who work in schools and with me in #acps district and,

@mcleod and other fearless leaders at every level of our educational work who contribute to #leadershipday12 this year and in the past.

So, when we reflect upon what we don’t consider, don’t ask, and don’t learn when we have our filters up, I’d suggest we consider these questions:

Why do we think that filtering social media and virtual learning tools – Youtube, Skype, Wikipedia, Twitter and others, even Google for heaven’s sake – makes sense for either us or our learners?

Why not teach them what we’re all learning here; how to navigate and learn the shifting protocols, rules, etiquette and boundaries associated with digital citizenship and literacy so we can take full advantage of opportunities to lower filters and learn?

Otherwise, we deny ourselves and our young people a world of opportunities that allow them to learn from experts and access the tools they need to search, connect, communicate and make.  Otherwise, we block them from being able to consider that the way they think could be informed by points of view from people all over the world with different knowledge and informed understandings of science, maths, history, economics, the arts, and literacy.

Filtering, virtual or not, limits all of us from exploring beyond horizons of what we define as possible to learn. It was true for those who tried to limit the work of Galileo.

image of galileo with telescope

Source: Galileo With Telescope Image

And, it’s true for young people and us today. So, unblock your filters and allow your learners and you to find a different learning world – one of panoramas, 360s, microscopic, bird’s eye to fish eye, and telescopic points of view.  We’ll all be better critical thinkers, creators, problem-solvers, designers, builders, producers, and engineers as a result of it.

kids drawing map on table

@mthornton78’s class at work

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Real change, not “better sameness” #edreform #edchat

A few days ago my friend Dave Murray, writer for The Grand Rapids Press and (no, I’m not kidding, I consider Dave a friend even when we disagree on issues, which is quite often) reported on Michigan’s plan to change its school accountability grading system from the traditional A, B, C… to a color-coded system (Parents understand an ‘A,’ but what about a ‘yellow’ on a school report card?). Dave’s article focuses primarily on the potential for confusion in the general public understanding what the colors mean. Usually when I read his articles I get angry primarily because he has a “monopoly” on communicating his ideas while I have to depend on word of mouth, blogging, and other means. I wanted to shout out to all who were reading it that, “The very idea you can’t change to a new system of reporting IS the reason public education doesn’t change!” First it was the inability of our neighboring Grand Rapids Public Schools to successfully change to a report-card system that focuses on student’s actually learning course content, not student failure, and now it was this. We’re stuck in an 1890’s rut and can’t get out of it because of the lack of support from Dave and others who appear to advocate “better sameness” as the only acceptable form of change.

I’m tough on Dave (and he has no problem giving it right back) because he puts himself out there when he writes in a manner that reveals how he feels about an issue. That’s his style and I admire him for his writing skills even when I want to stand on his front lawn and scream at the top of my lungs. But if public education is truly going to change for the benefit of kids, we need the help of the media and not just more hurdles thrown on the track.

We need to once and for all face up to the only logical conclusion: Educational outcomes are not going to significantly change until the practitioners of education ignore the overwhelming societal urge for sameness (i.e., I want schools for my kids that were the same as when I went to school) and abandon the industrial model of education, a.k.a., the factory-style graded school.

We are averse to change because we fear it. We build or hold on to structures that make us comfortable and reduce our fears. Embracing change has potential for putting us in the spotlight as if we were living in a house made of glass, and we fear uncertainty, risk and failure. Adding to that, we also tend to be a bit on the lazy side and not wanting to invest time in the hard work of change including having to learn something new. It’s likely one of the reasons so many of us Americans – particularly my generation – only know one language (bad English) and rarely travel through foreign countries. To do so requires change that can be stressful and hard work. We’d rather remain within the comfort of the American way because it involves less change.

But schools MUST change for the sake of this and future generations. Our system of education, while tended to by professionals with the highest degree of care and concern for their charges, is outmoded and cannot be improved on enough to produce the different results needed. We can test our kids until the cows come home and it won’t make a damned bit of difference if we don’t actually change to a learning system that meets their needs for a 21st century technology-driven world economy.

The industrialized mass nature of school goes back to the very beginning, to the common school and the normal school and the idea of universal schooling. All of which were invented at precisely the same time we were perfecting mass production and interchangeable parts and then mass marketing.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

Of course, it worked. Several generations of productive, fully employed workers followed. But now?

As long as we embrace (or even accept) standardized testing, fear of science, little attempt at teaching leadership, and most of all, the bureaucratic imperative to turn education into a factory itself, we’re in big trouble. ~ Seth Godin, Stop Stealing Dreams

Here are just some of the outdated structures and habits that inhibit real change in public education:

1. Schedules – a nine-month calendar filled with class schedules based on a rigid length of the school day that’s divided up by bells (or the more modern tones), that serve primarily to teach our students that learning is only accomplished during certain months of the year and hours of the day. And you only learn math for this hour and English for that hour, etc. In the meantime, like Pavlov’s dogs, wait for the calendar page to turn or the bell to signal a class change. But summer and weekends are sacrosanct and parents expect order in their children’s schools, so don’t change these structures, even though I believe they can be shown to be some of the worst forms of child abuse there is.

2. Buildings – a rectangular structure labeled a school is the only place real learning should ever occur. Heaven forbid that learning takes place at a shopping mall, a beach, the bowling alley or even in the comfort of one’s own home. This is the source of constant friction instead of cooperation between teachers, parents and students over homework, summer bridge activities or even summer school itself. Learning spaces can be anywhere but unfortunately we think such things weaken the physical boundaries between the school building itself and the rest of the world. We can’t have that! School is, after all, for school.

3. Grade levels – it’s sadly pathetic that we still believe grade levels were designed to provide a structure that improves student learning. What’s more, we reinforce that belief by dividing up the curriculum into age groups and then test everyone each year to see if they are progressing or failing. We tend to ignore mountains of evidence that says physical, emotional, and intellectual development can vary as much as 2-3 years between children who by virtue of sharing the same year of birth are grouped together, for better or for worse, for thirteen years of schooling, and pushed through year after year regardless of whether they learned it or not. Add this to my list of child abuse.

I’ve just touched on some of the structures, including my earlier mention of report cards, that limit our creativity in building an educational system that’s based on the needs of kids, and not of the adults. School should not be primarily about efficiency, order, control, low-cost conformity, and separation of learning from real life. It should be a system of support for learning 24/7 regardless of when, where or how it occurs. Technology is just one tool that can help us leverage wholesale change.

I think it’s clear that school was designed with a particular function in mind, and it’s one that school has delivered on for a hundred years.

If school’s function is to create the workers we need to fuel our economy, we need to change school, because the workers we need have changed as well.

Changing school doesn’t involve sharpening the pencil we’ve already got. School reform cannot succeed if it focuses on getting schools to do a better job of what we previously asked them to do. We don’t need more of what schools produce when they’re working as designed. The challenge, then, is to change the very output of the school before we start spending even more time and money improving the performance of the school.

The current structure, which seeks low-cost uniformity that meets minimum standards, is killing our economy, our culture, and us.

School’s industrial, scaled-up, measurable structure means that fear must be used to keep the masses in line. There’s no other way to get hundreds or thousands of kids to comply, to process that many bodies, en masse, without simultaneous coordination.

And the flip side of this fear and conformity must be that passion will be destroyed. There’s no room for someone who wants to go faster, or someone who wants to do something else, or someone who cares about a particular issue. Move on. Write it in your notes; there will be a test later.

A multiple-choice test. ~ Godin

Let’s begin anew by ending our propensity for inhibiting real change and simply improving on the same thing. Get over our fears and get on with creating a whole new educational system, one free of industrial-age structures and personal bias, a system of learning for the age of real-time communication and collaboration.

A real school.

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Three Stories: Search, Connect, Communicate

I.  The Power of Connectivity :

“I am going to practice my freedom of speech today with you.”

I had the opportunity to observe a high school class recently in which students participated in what’s become an ongoing Skype discussion this year with an Egyptologist known to their student teacher. In this course, students consider issues in the modern world. The curriculum evolves in real-time based upon the critical events driving learners’ search to understand the contemporary dilemmas of nations. Seeking primary sources to inform their understanding of different points of view, they analyze and debate the big ideas of history as they play out today.

Tahrir Square Feb 2011 (Wikipedia

They heard from their Egyptian contact that the initial euphoria felt in Egypt about the advent of democracy has been tempered over the past few months by the politics of multiple parties vying for control. Discussing their perspectives on the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the English “Glorious” Revolution, they chatted with their “boots on the ground” Egyptian contact about how qualities of these older generation revolutions are or are not reflected in that of the Arab Spring. These students talked so confidently via Skype. We were all pulled into a first person account of the meaning of freedom to him as he described living through challenging times in Egypt.

While the opportunity for students to make such connections becomes more common daily in our schools, there are still many students who are not afforded such rich opportunities for a variety of reasons. Access occurred in this case because of a personal connection with a student teacher and a teacher who was willing to open the door to experiential learning via Skype. And, they were fortunate the technology needed was available in their school.  Shouldn’t these kind of experiences be the norm for all young people, not the exception?

II. Universal Design for Learning Works for All Kids

“I worry about the kids like me who might not be seen by a teacher.”

A high school senior met with me in the late fall to describe her experiences as a learner with risk factors. She’s finishing her public school education at the top of her class with a full boat ride to the Ivy League school of her choice. As a minority student with economic challenges, she shared that she considered it her good fortune that teachers “saw” her.

This young woman, so bright-eyed and articulate, noted that teachers early on in school took time to look for something inside a child who had little opportunity living in an isolated rural area. She noted, “Reading’s expensive when a child’s parents have dropped out of school, when there are no books in the home, and when one lives too far from a public library to ever go there. I don’t think it’s about whether a student likes to read at all when you’re poor. It’s about factors that middle class America would never consider.”


This young person also represents the digital divide accessibility issues of zip code. She lives an area where there’s no cell phone signal or broadband penetration to her home. As her courses in high school relied more on access to the web, she found herself catching rides to and from school to arrive early and stay late to use her school’s technology resources because “when there’s no dictionary in your home, there’s not going to be a computer either.”  This past year, a teacher bought her a smart phone so she could extend her tech reach. She filed her college scholarship request on her phone. Don’t all kids deserve access to the tools they need to accomplish learning work in their homes? Doing school shouldn’t be so hard.

III.  Beyond the Horizon of High School

“I don’t use an alarm clock to get up. My touch works just fine.”

In a conversation over break with a recent high school graduate, he shared how he’s expected to work in college courses. It’s a different world in many ways than the colleges most people attended even five years ago.

This year in college, he’s been expected to collaborate with peers in Google docs on science lab projects, use sophisticated electronic resources for online research, and “dropbox” his papers to a history professor. He described his involvement in managed chat rooms for online study groups- and that this summer he’ll complete an online course through his college while at home. He was expected to come to college with a laptop and once there had to purchase a personal response tool for use in a lecture class. He corresponds with friends and family via text messaging, Facebook, and Skype – and chats with his parents almost daily. The professor in one of his classes put every lecture on a podcast so students could review language lessons. This learner also taken online language tests weekly- including oral assessments using a laptop microphone. One of his graduate assistants communicated using twitter with a small cohort of students for one course to share resource links and respond to questions.

VaTech Math Emporium
(via WaPo)

He says that college students own multiple tools -some that fit in a pocket, others in a backpack. He owns a smart phone, an iPod, and a laptop. He’s created his own personal tool crib so that he can “on demand” compute, listen to music and lectures, read interactive texts, complete simulations, take tests, and create and complete assignments independently and with peer teams. He has access to the tools he needs to get his work done – in a coffee shop, a friend’s apartment, the library, or on the Metro.

He shared how much more independently he has to work in college than in high school. There are no bells to keep him on schedule. He doesn’t own an alarm clock – it’s way too old-fashioned for this generation.

We also talked about the need for high school to offer opportunities to learn how to work differently. He hasn’t had a high-school like exam this year. Multiple choice items are rare – his college assessments demand much more of a “show your work and understanding” than a “pick the right answer from four choices” kind of test. Some professors conduct traditional lectures but check students’ understanding and preparation with personal response devices.  At least one expected him to come to class knowing the background information needed to engage in more of a seminar discussion model with classmates. Shouldn’t kids experience transition opportunities in high school that help prepare them for a workforce and post-secondary education future?


These recent moments with young people and educators also have led me to reflect upon the Pew Internet and American Life 2010 Project Report. Pew’s description of the widening digital divide alarms me about the current state of access to contemporary learning tools and current expectations of students in school and at home.  Whether we’re considering to “BYOD or not BYOD” or shifting at-home old-tech assignments to include web-driven work ala flipped teaching, the geography and economics of broadband penetration and access to devices in the home and school determines which young people will gain equity of opportunity in today’s learning world. Learning that integrates contemporary technologies should not occur by chance or be limited to those with access – in any school or learning community.

Over the years, I’ve seen more and less effective uses of learning technologies. There’s nothing more disheartening than to observe a computer screen used as an expensive, mind-numbing worksheet or an Interactive White Board serving as a substitute for the chalkboard on a dominant teaching wall. It’s even worse when some educators allow such technologies to gather dust while continuing the traditions of factory schooling even as their learners unplug from such classrooms. It’s a waste of both the technologies and the resources used to purchase them.

To Whom Do the Tools Belong?

On the other hand, really brilliant uses of technology inspire learning through powerful experiences that otherwise couldn’t happen. The resultant remarkable outcomes define the shift from the Gutenberg mode of write-print-read to a Post-Gutenberg mode of search-connect-communicate.

All three stories illustrate this shift. The learning paths opening today are akin to the spice trade routes that emerged well over five hundred years ago and drove the world economy from the middle ages into modern times. I believe we’ve entered a new Age of Discovery defined by virtual worlds that can only be explored through access to contemporary, ever evolving technologies, existing side by side with older tools. Such worlds offer extensions of that which excellent teachers make possible through face to face connectivity.

the intersection of old and new tools needed for learning

This new Age of Discovery delineates why the learning divide among “digital haves and haves nots”  is unacceptable. This time of Renaissance thinking is why we must invest in learning tools and services that allow young people and teachers to go to learning spaces that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Should any child be denied entry to those spaces? I think not.  I’d prefer working on turning our dreams of access to and equity of learning for all young people into reality. You?

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What’s Our Responsibility?

 Here’s one conclusion of many I’ve come to adopt about how the traditions of school fail both teachers and learners:

Access to contemporary learning tools is as important as extraordinary teaching for learners to be successful. Expecting a learner, and a teacher, to use any tool s/he needs to access learning should be an educational basic; indeed, a learning non-negotiable. We educators should be embarrassed to possess tools that create pathways to learning and not make them available to any learner who needs them.

Those responsible for setting funding priorities in Washington and our state houses should be held accountable for moving swiftly to close the widening opportunity gap created by an economic digital divide. Teachers and learners can’t accomplish 21st century learning work without tools and training.

Those responsible for ensuring that educators have access to the professional learning they need to use contemporary learning tools to power up learning should be held accountable to that- including me. This means moving professional learning through the classroom doors so that young people can access tools to create, design, make, engineer, build, produce, and conceptualize work that challenges the hands to think and the mind to act.

Those responsible for using  contemporary tools in classrooms so that all learners’ gain access to challenging, engaging, joyful learning should be held accountable for doing what’s necessary to create learning spaces for that work to happen.

Responsibility lives along a multi-level, two way street.  We all need to consider our role in advancing the learning work our young people require. It’s our job to provide our kids with the best we have to offer. It’s our job to stay current with professional skill sets. Its our job to advocate for the resources we need to do the job we’re hired to do.

We may not accomplish what we attempt. We may fail in our efforts. But, when it’s all said and done, we all need to be able to say we never avoided taking responsibility for doing the right thing for our young people.

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Walking the Art Show Wallpaper: Musings in 3 Parts

Part I: Art, Making, and Designing as Access Points for Learning

After visiting our fabulous, district-wide student art exhibition with me, Ira Socol (@irasocol) wondered where students’ work with print, design, font, and typography might fit into such a show? That question led to an exploration of projects that kids had created, mixing artistic media and design think for art’s sake as well as a way of learning in content areas. We considered how the art work represented in a school’s portfolio provides insight into a school community’s value for developing lifelong learning work, collaboration efforts, and communication competencies among students and educators.

I’ve walked a lot of school “wallpaper”, looking at things differently inside and outside the walls of classrooms along with administrators, teachers, and the occasional student. We’ve often discussed how what’s shared in hallways or posted on classroom walls represents regard for students’ work – or not. Walking the art show and looking at the work from a school community collective portfolio point of view reflectively challenged my assumptions about what we include and what we exclude as art from our learning portfolios.

Ira wondered that day how we  might extend the reach of art and design think in our crib of engagement tools far beyond the walls of art and CTE (career/technical education), learning spaces that build construction and creativity relationships that otherwise might not be seen. I was reminded in the discussion that work occurring within the National Writing Project to link writing with the “maker movement” offers a similar perspective of connectivity.

Walking the artwork of twenty-some schools also added depth to my understanding of the relationship of the arts to the lifelong learning competencies we aspire to embed in our pedagogical, content, and technology integration work. It’s apparent in students’ work that art teachers understand the complexity of those competencies and how art as a “way of learning” embodies many of them. For example, I loved this fourth grader’s piece at the show, showing the use of traditional art media to capture a perspective of jumping through time from early American history into today’s world.

jumping through time

Despite my love of traditional art, I also am concerned about the omission of contemporary media tools from the engagement tool crib of some teachers and learners.  It struck me that all of us in the business of teaching and learning need to consider the value of integrating art, maker, design thinking, and digital tools as key to full spectrum learning for all.

Kids create interesting digital media reflective of their learning work in our schools. I observe examples almost every day, from black and white digital photos of simple machines taken by third graders to movies made by middle schoolers. In one middle school I visited recently, a hallway gallery of amazing film posters designed by students advertises their film projects as a part of an annual school-wide, student-created film festival. The posters span several years of movie making through which kids develop team-driven, collaborative projects to create, design, and communicate stories to an audience of their peers.

At every level in our schools, some learners also get the chance to use digital fabrication software and printers to create, design, print, and construct 3-D structures that meet the tests of both utility and design think. The high school girls in this video designed and built guitars with 3-D printed elements, wrote, performed, and videoed a song, then uploaded the result to You Tube. I’m not sure where the art began and the STEM ended but their exploration of how to “make” represents a different kind of learning; a deeper learning, a more accessible learning than that of the “test prep” curricular strand kids often experience in today’s classrooms.

Part II: Access for Whom to Create, Design and Make?

The quality of trans-disciplinary learning opportunities afforded to learners often depends upon a learner landing by chance in the classroom of an “academic” teacher who values art, design and construction as a way of learning through “creating and making.” This kind of work most often occurs in what we label as exploratory or elective classes, learning some consider as parallel play to “real” learning work, especially after the primary grades. How might our expectations for all our learners be different if we saw design thinking and artistic processes as tools for learning rather than as something extra?

I’ve noticed in “petri dish” learning spaces where construction, creativity, and design play out as routine ways for young people to show understanding of their learning, the playing field of academic capability is far more level for all learners than in those teaching places where instruction and testing occur more traditionally. This leads to a real conundrum question in schools today: How do we create school agar, a culture medium, upon which our pockets of excellence will go viral? What entry points can help spread creativity and design think into all learning spaces?

What if we had a continuous strand in all curricular areas that set forth the expectation that kids make, design, and create in school? What then might we see occurring in our learning spaces? Would kids create both for purposes of utility and aesthetics – and in their work find key pathways to access learning across all content areas? Would more learners pursue learning for learning’s sake, not just for the purpose of passing tests? Would we generate more inventors and designers capable of powering up a new “maker movement” economy and culture?

Steve Jobs dropped out of college after one semester, choosing to take classes on a drop-in audit basis that reminds me of the current “walk out, walk on” philosophy described by Frieze and Wheatley. After dropping out, Jobs began to pick and choose courses that were interest-driven and consistent with his own determination to learn. His choices changed his life – and the world of technology.

“If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts.”  (Jobs, 2005)

I suspect Jobs couldn’t find a space in school or college to practice design and making work. Instead, he took his designing mind to the work world, a place where he created the design ethos of iEverything and partnered with brilliant generators and makers to breathe life into ideas that others didn’t see. While few students will grow up to become a Jobs, many do have the potential to offer much more to our communities and the workforce than they do. We do have the capability to influence their potential.

Part III: The Will to Make, Create, and Design Access Paths for All Learners

Yong Zhao also caught my attention recently when he wrote that perhaps it’s not so much that America’s schools have encouraged creativity as much as that they haven’t suppressed it, as in China. In America’s schools of recent decades, we’ve mostly ignored the potential for kids to make, create, design, build, and engineer unless it’s in art, CTE, or gifted classes – or those magnet academies and schools that cater to a specialized, by application, cohort who obtain access by lottery or overt talent.

“What we can do — what America does better than anyone else — is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.” State of the Union 2011 …  President Barack Obama

Despite the call by everyone from the POTUS to corporate heads that we elevate imagination and invention work to bolster our economic future, recent school budget downturns have decimated the arts, library, physical education and CTE staff and courses across the U.S.

The very spaces in our schools where the kind of thinking occurs that will lead to creative ideas, inventions, and innovations to fuel this century’s economy and make our young people more self-reliant are the most at risk in today’s public education system. Matt Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soul Craft , speaks in this Ted X East video about the difficulty of being self-reliant in contemporary society.

He says the “modern personality is getting reformed by passivity and dependence.. less responsibility for physical environment..”

Unfortunately, our value for consuming as an expression of having made it to middle class has denigrated in our schools the value of “making” work, the kind of hands-on invention work that used to reside under the shade trees, inside garages and even in classrooms. (Counselors say that many college bound kids today don’t see much value in arts and/or CTE – courses perceived as not adding value to transcripts or as with CTE courses seen as ones for so-called “low-level” kids.) Is it possible to turn this attitude around? I’m heartened when I read that even the education commissioner of Texas thinks the current testing climate is a “perversion.” One of the first steps we must take is away from the test prep curriculum.

Water over the Dam or a River still to be Freed from the Dam?

Some ask, have we reached a point where it’s water over the dam or do we still have the potential to free the educational river from the constraints of the test prep dam?  If we had put national energy behind creativity and design think learning goals in the last decade, we would be well on our way to a different kind of learning experience, outcome, and trajectory for students than we predict today through tests that are labeled as rigorous, but increasingly are designed to fail.

Despite the past and current thinking about what’s important to measure in schools, I believe there’s a wellspring of hope and desire for something different brewing. It may still be an undercurrent in the river, but I feel an energy in a younger generation of teachers to make a difference with kids that doesn’t look like 20th century learning. I hear passion in the voices of our experienced educators who have always known that the best learning occurs when kids are driven by challenging hands-on, minds-on work, not multiple choice tests.

When I walk an art show, visit schools and see the amazing project work of kids in some of our classrooms, or talk with educators and parents across the country about their desire for learning that inspires rather than “dis-spirits” our children, I believe we can, and will, take down the dam and free the educational river – not to sustain industrial model schools as teaching places, but to invent new schools that are learning spaces.

Imagine how different the learning passions and possibilities of our students and educators would be if creativity was encouraged. And, imagine how the United States might flourish in the coming decades if we constructed the full learning curricula with a “creating” strand that built upon the “maker” culture we once saw as critical in our communities? What products and projects might result from that work? How many generations would it take to effect a curricular shift that would perceptibly change us back to the “maker” society that fueled the genius of America over the last two centuries?

What if we abandoned the consumer-driven, test-prep strand that dominates our curricula today for one that set expectations for engagement in designing, creating, making, building, and engineering opportunities, what might result?

Maybe – at least more interesting wallpaper?

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Avoiding Back to the Future and Groundhog Day: Traditions of Reform

Last night I tweeted this to @johnsonmaryj “Statue of Liberty schools are America” in response to her own tweet of a #6wordessay  “Public schools welcome all, teach all.” Larry Ferlazzo, @larryferlazzo picked up that educators on Twitter were generating their own #6wordessay tweets after Michelle Rhee put out a call for what makes a great teacher. Larry subsequently published some of what he considered as “best of” #6wordessay tweets. When I read those tonight, I paired them with a tweet from Scott McLeod, @mcleod, and his post about the “back to the future” proposal in Iowa and other states to fail students who can’t “read” fluently by the end of third grade.

When I saw Mary J.’s and Scott’s tweets, I was reminded that what we do either opens or closes the door to opportunity for each child who walks into our Statue of Liberty schools. Currently, multiple states have initiatives pending to return to the days of failing children in school who do not meet literacy objectives. In most cases, the “powers that be” seem to be pinpointing children around third or fourth grade. Decades-long research shows that labeling children as failures and then holding them back in school is a sure-fire way to not just leave children behind, but to contribute to their truancy, mental health, and discipline problems as they move through school.

It’s been pretty much documented that retaining students who don’t meet achievement benchmarks will increase dropout rates. Period. At the same time,  research is also pretty clear that children who struggle to read and get passed on, social promoted,  from grade to grade despite their literacy disconnects, also continue to have difficulties. They become a different kind of example of high truancy, disciplinary, and, inevitably, dropout rates.

Could it be that in our “holding back” children for their failure to read, we skip the obvious failure in all of this? I believe that eight- and nine-year old children aren’t failures at all. Maybe, just maybe, we ought finally accept responsibility for a system that’s  the real failure, not the kids. I know we educators employ some pretty archaic practices when it comes to determining who gets promoted and who does not, but we haven’t provided much support for educators to do anything much different either.

We average factors into grades that have nothing to do with meeting academic achievement standards. We put a lot of stock in measuring aspects of achievement with quick and dirty tests that tell us little about what kids really know, understand and can do. We choose some standards for success that aren’t what really matters most as indicators of deep learning, but which we can measure efficiently and cheaply. We create curriculum that demands “mile wide, inch deep” coverage and then wonder why we lose kids as we fly through piles of worksheets, scripted lessons, and mind-numbing teaching at the wall.


What’s scary is that this begins in some districts, in some schools, as early as in kindergarten. Then, when some children, as they always have done, check out, can’t make sense of what’s being taught, or find themselves lost amidst a stream of letters and sounds, we sit around table assigning blame and determining whether the child will be assigned the trauma of being passed on – or the trauma of being failed. We pick who will get held back in a grade, creating a role for children in a macabre educational version of the movie Groundhog Day – children who go through the motions of the same curriculum, same worksheets, same teaching, and same tests with little attention to how they learn and their personal needs for learning support.

The reality in all this comes down to this. Our schools are the Statue of Liberty for America’s children. We take every child who walks through our doors, regardless of handicap, language of origin, race, religion, ethnicity, economic background, gender, or any variable which differentiates one from another. That isn’t true in some countries to which we are compared; countries such as China or India where children may be excluded from school or never get access to school for one reason or another. It’s also not true in many of the elite private or charter schools that exist today in communities across this country.

I’ve also not seen a five-year old enter public school with the idea in her head that she’s going to become a failure. Most novice teachers also don’t enter the profession with the idea that they’ll be failures at teaching. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, some children fail to learn to read well enough to succeed in school and some teachers fail to learn how to teach. The system fails both.

Is there a solution? We can look to other countries that don’t have similar problems. Finland figures prominently in the twitter verse, but it’s not the only success story out there.

We know that the most highly educated nations in the world understand the power of safety nets for young children, beginning long before kindergarten. Children in those countries benefit from a family support package that educates parents about parenting and provides children with services of health care, decent nutrition, early childhood stimulus learning, and preschool.  It makes a difference. Countries with a commitment to educating all children well level the playing field of poverty and erase the face of poverty in school. When I asked colleagues on #Finnedchat if they fail kids, I had to explain what I meant. They said, “Our kids learn to read. It’s our job.” They had no concept of failing a grade level because of not reading well.

We don’t have a commitment in this country to comprehensive educational safety nets for young children to increase the likelihood they will enter kindergarten on the starting line, not behind it. Instead, we accept that the children who enter our schools will include a certain percentage who will never catch up, even if we do get them over the multiple choice test hurdles of every state in the union. For those who don’t, we consign them to repeating a grade or two or three. Or, we  move them up through the system with little sense of control over their capability to learn and a lot of what we call remediation support. Either way, we fail children. I don’t think it has to be that way. As Bill Glasser, the creator of reality, control, and choice theory once said to a room of educators including me, ” I hesitate to give this advice to a paying audience, but if you are doing something and it isn’t working,  consider whether you should stop doing it.”

Unfortunately, we’ve stopped very little of the things we know don’t work in education. Instead, we repackage our traditions with different labels under the guise of new programs as we continue to repeat our past. When politicians repackage reform, it’s simply another way of  doing what we’ve always done. The unfortunate downside of reform is we keep getting what we always got. So, we set ourselves up to pass laws that ban social promotion, dooming some children to fail in our schools. Then we act surprised at all the negative impacts of retention already documented in stacks of research from prior cycles of using the same strategy from different chapters in the history of American education. (At least, if it occurs again, it will fuel a current crop of graduate students with more opportunities to confirm prior studies of the effects of failure on young people in school. )

So in the spirit of not just pointing out that we need to stop doing some things, we should at least pause to consider what we know works. If we did these things and stuck to them, our nation and children would both benefit:

1) Create and fund a family support safety net that begins before a child is born and continues onward throughout school – nutrition, health care, family leave, quality child care,

2) Fund preschool learning to jump start  playful, high interest, high vocabulary-building academic background opportunities and “doing school” skills- the kind of early learning experiences that parents know help a child enter school on or in front of the starting line, parents such as the President of the United States who enrolled his own children in a “money does make a difference” private school in Washington, D.C. and Rahm Emanuel who did the same in his return to Chicago.

3) Revolutionize teacher education so college students actually apply “how children learn” neuro-research in simulation centers and practitioners’ learning spaces as they learn to set up learning situations that make sense and ensure that children get all the right “verb” opportunities. In doing so, we must select for pre-service educators who have the capacity to inspire young people to engage, process, acquire, use, create, analyze, choose, imagine, wonder, and then take learning with them for a lifetime. The medical schools are doing this, why not education schools?

UVA medical school learning studio

4) Elect political leaders, regardless of affiliation, who understand that education is not cheap and, neither are the outcomes of cheaply funding education. We need to attract those with the capability to teach well to enter and stay in the profession- not merit pay which we know doesn’t work but simply pay commensurate with doing the most important job in America- teaching. We need to reboot the profession and our professionals. Our kids need access to top-notch teachers, the learning tools to accomplish the contemporary work of “search, connect, collaborate,” and the time necessary to learn whether it’s less, more or about the same. Needing more or less time should not come with penalties as it often does today.

5) Expand the concept of literacy as the acts of “getting information into and out of learners’ minds. We know that even though a majority of children learn to read with comprehension and fluency, America reads on average somewhere around a sixth grade reading level. We need to use the comprehensive literacy research that exists and is continuously evolving to inform practice, professional learning, teaching and learning expectations, and structures that are time dependent.  We need to acknowledge and address that the lack of high quality early learning leads to some children failing at literacy, not because of their lack of capability, but because of the system’s failure. We need to realize that some children have such significant lifespan literacy disconnects they must have accessibility tools (TTS and SST) to enter the world of literacy.

Of course, I could generate change orders for public education to fill more than a few blog posts, but listing those has little meaning unless we follow Glasser’s advice and stop doing what’s not working.  I appreciate that Scott McLeod and others at least recognize and are resisting the legal imposition of retention of students as one of those traditions of education that’s a system failure. It’s a long way from the full scope of what we need to do to imagine an education system that works for kids and teachers, one whose members resist the urge to sustain conventions and traditions because they’re comfortable and known.

Challenging the current push to return to a future of holding kids back in school is a start. Thank you, Scott.

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Inequity of opportunity – free e-book!

A compilation of my recent blog posts from Rebel 6 Ramblings:

Inequity of Opportunity

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The opportunity to learn — for ALL children

I’ve been writing lately about the abhorrant inequity of opportunity for our kids and the growing equity gap between schools serving wealthier communities and those mired in poor neighborhoods. While the reasons for this are complex, it persists because of a lack of political will to change. At the same time, political leaders and school reformers jump on the bandwagon of simply raising standards, requiring more frequent curriculum-narrowing assessments, ranking school performance, and firing teachers in low-performing classrooms.

Setting high academic standards for schools and students is important but relatively easy to do. The harder, yet more effective, strategy is to adopt and implement standards that create optimal conditions for learning. This means ensuring that all children, regardless of where they live, have access to high-quality schools. (Boykin and Noguera, 2011)

While having high expectations for each and every child to succeed in school is important, regardless of where they come from or where there school is located, in the end, all of the state, national and international tests and studies conclude its not enough. Yes, there are “pockets of excellence” sprinkled across the country but typically the results are not sustainable over the long haul and not replicable on a larger scale. Many factors go into creating successful schools and without adequate resources, the children who attend under-resourced schools are not likely to be successful.

…throughout the United States, public schools exhibit a high degree of inequality that is fostered by both inequities in per-pupil spending and the personal resources that families provide. Throughout the country, school funding policies are characterized by an allocation gap; we typically spend the most on children from the wealthiest families, and we spend the least on children from the poorest families. (Reed, 2001 cited in Boykin and Noguera, 2011)

As superintendents and other district leaders, we have a moral responsibility to ensure we collectively foster an educational system that provides equity of opportunity for all kids, not just the ones who attend schools in our own district. My state of Michigan in particular has done poorly at closing the equity gap despite the promises and intent of Proposal A in the mid-1990’s. The state has taken over responsibility for public school funding yet our political leaders continue to perpetuate a system that fails to recognize that a growing number of children have significant disadvantages that require more resources to be successful in school. These deficiencies are not effectively resolved simply by raising the bar on the tests or opening more mediocre charter schools.

Closing or at least reducing the opportunity gap is essential if disparities in achievement are to be lessened. We should not be surprised to find that disadvantaged students…do not perform as well as affluent students who attend schools with abundant resources. Inequality in school funding, combined with a pervasive and growing inequality in income and wealth, creates an environment that makes closing the achievement gap challenging. It is unreasonable to expect that poor children will do as well as middle-class children if we ignore these inherent disadvantages and pretend to promote equity by holding all students to a common set of academic standards. (Boykin & Noguera, 2011)

I encourage you, if you have not yet done so, to read my posts below from earlier in the week. They expand on this topic and include specific examples of how inequity in funding impacts education. Then I encourage you to act.

K-12 Funding Perpetuates the Inequity of Opportunity

Successful School Reform Must Include Equity of Opportunity in Funding

Setting High Standards for All But Ignoring the K-12 Opportunity Gap

Citation: Boykin, A. Wade and Noguera, Pedro. Creating the opportunity to learn: moving from research to practice to close the achievement gap. ASCD, 2011.

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Stop Managing and Lead!

Now is not the time to end with periods, it’s time to start with questions. No matter your role — student, teacher or administrator — I pose these questions:

  • Are you willing to do whatever we can to meet the needs of all students?
  • Are you ready to try something new so you can produce better results?
  • Are you willing to ignore the negative and focus on the positive?
  • Are you ready to learn?
  • Are you ready to LEAD?

I’ll be the first to admit that my perspective is biased. Today when I walked into my office and looked around the cluttered space I saw a total lack of management. An office cluttered because I didn’t take the time to put it back together after a flurry of activity.  An activity that had me digging through old files, rereading sections from the last three or four books I read and compiling notes from online research I had plowed though, guided by my PLN. I admit, in these thoughts I have applied my lens to a big issue, and management and detail are a weakness of mine. I go 100 miles an hour and work like my hair is on fire. I try to do too many things at once. Sometimes I speak when I should listen. I am a flawed leader. I take my lumps with the best of them and admit my mistakes more than I would like. But my belief is strong, we can’t change our system for the better if we spend all our time managing, too afraid to lead.

I have been struggling for a while with the negativity that abounds in education today. Negativity piled upon us because when we simply manage our systems, we let others tell our story.

  • YES, the public is less than enthralled with us as a system.
  • YES, legislators across the State and Nation are bashing us at every turn and enacting legislation for a variety of reasons that will effect our next steps.
  • YES, teachers are feeling the stressful effects of change.
  • YES, our students aren’t “testing” as well as their global counterparts.

YES, I could continue for a page or more full of affirmations of negativity. I have made a choice not to, because I “CHOOSE” to focus on the positive……… I choose to lead.

We are leading and learning in the most exciting educational time in history! Opportunities for learning abound. We have a chance to craft and tell our stories in ways some educators never thought possible. That won’t happen if we focus on management. What can happen when we lead is endless and I look forward to those stories being told. For a long time, management and closed door teaching and learning got us by. Getting by has never been good enough for our students. It isn’t good enough for my children and shouldn’t be good enough for yours.

What we do is clear……We educate kids. How we educate kids is clear (insert my lens here)……in single classrooms, based on an industrial model, executed through a time-bound, agrarian calender. Why we do it…… this where I get excited! Why? Because every child deserves a chance to learn and create, to be prepared for anything and everything when they walk across that stage and we call them graduates. Graduates of one portion of their life, ready to continue to learn in the next stage of their life. To do that we have to focus on educating students for their future, not our past. We have to embrace change and being comfortable with uncomfortable. Willing to live on the edge of our knowledge, moving between success and failure, willing to embrace that we will never arrive.

I am excited for tomorrow, purposely ignoring the negative. I am blessed to be able to lead in an organization that wants to grow and provide personal experiences for our students with exceptional results. I acknowledge the position education has created for itself and work everyday to shake up the status quo, to embrace learning and support educational experiences for adults and students alike. As an educational system we made the bed we have today, but I choose not to sleep there. I get up everyday looking for opportunities to craft a new reality for education.  We won’t eliminate the negative unless we embrace the can’s and find a way around the can’ts. For me, I may not be great at managing, but everyday I look forward to being able to lead. Now is not the time to end with periods, it’s time to start with questions.

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