Lessons Learned

13131671_10207591129954097_5381739106953807575_oLife takes unexpected turns and one year ago today I encountered a 180 degree turn that shook me to my core for 365 days. It has shaped my view of life, purpose, and work in ways that are tangible. This is the first time I’ve written about the tragedy on this platform and wondered about the appropriateness of it. I happened to hear Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech at U.C. Berkley and decided to lean in myself and write some of what I’ve learned from the tragedy in hopes that you might glean something from the lessons I’ve learned in the past 365 days.

365 days ago, I received the dreaded 3 a.m. phone call that no one ever wants to receive. My daughter-in-law and granddaughter had been in a “pedestrian-vehicular” accident. My daughter-in-law underwent surgery for life threatening brain trauma. After 3 months in a coma, she came back to us and has been recovering through intensive therapies and support from my son, her husband, ever since. The accident left her with memory loss which continues to come back bit by bit. A southern belle to her core, Belinda was and still is beautiful. The differences are slight between what I’ve come to know as “B.T”, before the accident, and “A.T.”, after the tragedy. One unexpected difference that is a delight is her lack of filter. She speaks her mind with no care of if you like what she is saying or not. She inspires me to be that free.

There is another difference in life from B.T to A.T; we lost my precious granddaughter, Bella. Bella was five years old and had just finished kindergarten. She loved to laugh and sing, draw and dance, and she was mischievous. She was the light in her father’s eyes and joy of our hearts. The pain of her loss hit deeply. As I watched my son struggle with the reality of what had happened, my heart ached with the pain of a mother who was at a loss on how to parent an adult through such grief. I watched as he walked with his own grief while celebrating that his wife was still breathing, and I was struck by his graciousness, his composure, his depth of love. How did I ever raise such a lovely human being?

It’s been a year of lessons learned. People said a year would make all the difference. Grief is still my companion; yet it has been joined by Healing which tempers Grief when he wants to rush in and consume me. Sometimes we walk together through this process. Other times we run, oftentimes we pause to reflect. It has been in those moments of reflection that I realize what they have taught me on this journey.

1. Live life to the fullest. It’s true what they say. You never know when life will end. Life has a way of marching along and before you know it, you are at it’s end. Or it comes to an end far too quickly and suddenly. Are you dreaming of traveling the world or writing a book? Don’t wait. Book the trip. I am at this moment researching a trip to London and another to Italy. It’s my very own Eat, Pray, Love trip and way, way overdue. Step outside your comfort zone. Embrace life and live it now. Live to its fullest.

2. Your most precious gifts in life are family and friends. My family and friends are my treasure, my lifeline. I now live closer to my family. I make every effort to arrange my calendar to be at their dance recitals and award ceremonies. I make time for ice cream parlor trips and walks on the square and building forts in the living room out of blankets. I may not always live in the same small town they live in now, but while I’m here I will be present in the “now” moments of their lives. Make time for your family. The small things you are missing matter. As for my friends, my extended family – I am blessed. I have a small circle that are scattered throughout the country. I’m flying to see one in St. Petersburg in a few weeks. I’m meeting another for lunch. My friends sustain me, laugh with me (and at me on occasion!), and while work keeps us all busy, we manage to maintain our friendships because they matter, because we are important to each other, and because we are real with each other and never “fake”. They are all a part of my Tribe of the Magic Sisters, my unique band of misfits, troublemakers, and super smart women who could run the world (some do run companies). They keep me grounded, give me space to be heard and seen. They make me want to be a better me. We carry each other and love each other. So, find your tribe. Cherish your family and friends. And to my tribe – I love each of you deeply.

3. Choose to be kind. We all have a choice that we can take on any given day, in any given moment. We can choose to be kind, to be helpful. I can’t tell you how grateful I and my family were for the kind strangers who went out of their way to be helpful while waiting at the hospital. Some had loved ones of their own they were waiting anxiously to hear news of. Since then, scores of wonderful, kind people have come my way, and I now look for opportunities to be kind, to be compassionate to others. And don’t just look to be kind to others who look and act like you. Who are the “others” in your life? Maybe they have a different faith than you, or live outside the exclusive neighborhood you live in, or look different than you. Be kind. Reach out across the man-made designs that divide us as humans and create kindness for humans being in your life. That’s really what all of us are – “humans being”. It’s easier to “be” in this life with kindness and compassion.

4. Feed your soul and nurture yourself. I’ve learned to spend time on me. I moved to a loft on the river where the river runs over rocks and kayaking is a norm. I call it my Soul Space. Any tension I have leaves me immediately when I get home. And, I joined a gym (fancy high heels are not allowed so I’ll need some fancy Adidas) and I’m learning to eat well and take care of myself after stress eating my way through the past year. My first goal is to lose 10% body weight and work on cardio. My reward will be a hike in the Appalachians with one of the Tribe of Magic Sisters. I’ve learned to meditate and I’m learning yoga (slowly, slowly, slowly). I’m looking for a faith community in my new town. What inspires you? Nurtures you? Do that.

5. Reach for your highest aspirations and find your purpose. My purpose has always been education and I transitioned to a new job during this year of grief. I made the decision to leave a school I loved (and still do) to work as a school designer/professional development specialist. It was a hard decision but, when Bella passed, I knew I had made the right choice. I could not have emotionally made it through each day if I had continued to be an elementary principal. My love for the students, the hugs of first graders and laughter of third graders would have been daily reminders that Bella was never going to run through the halls of her school, or have another field day, or win a spelling bee, or graduate high school. When I took this position, I fervently hoped that the mission of the organization was something that truly lived within and across the organization. You know what I’m saying. Many companies have beautifully written mission statements that are just that, statements. What I found after one year was an organization that truly lives its values. We work hard and we are there for each other in the messy, hard work. My colleagues support me fully and push me to deliver my best self everyday. We are crew in every sense of the word. And, in my region, we are coined our own hashtag, ‪#‎baar‬. The Bad Ass Atlantic Region. They are my people, part of my tribe.

This has been the hardest year of my adult life. And it’s been, in many ways, the most wonderful year. I’ve learned to find “the beauty of survival, resiliency, and of hope in life”.






The Power of Storytelling


What makes a story compelling? What makes it powerful? We all love a good story but are we good at telling them? I’m fascinated by people’s stories – where people come from, how someone launched their product or career, how a company navigated change. I always learn something about the person and the company when I hear a story – don’t you? One only needs to check out the growth of companies like TED or BIF to understand our fascination as humans with stories.

How do we learn to tell good stories? Is it a skill we can teach and learn? I think so.

My students tell stories through what we call learning expeditions. They learn about a problem, research the problem, and look for actionable solutions for change. They are guided through several iterations – testing and redesigning solutions before arriving at one they think will solve the problem they chose to research. At the end of the learning process, students present those solutions to an authentic audience. Next week, the second graders will be presenting their solutions for restructuring the recycling effort at my school to the school board of directors.  A few weeks ago, the fourth graders presented possible solutions to the city parks department that would improve the local playground and make it more accessible for disabled children. Children can and do learn to tell compelling stories for change. One of my favorite stories from a student came from Camille Beatty. I was fortunate to hear Camille’s story at Business Innovation Factory last year. Listening to her tell her story about how she used her passion to launch a robotics business at age 10 inspired me as an educator and a storyteller.

Adults can tell compelling stories, too. My friend, Tim McDonald tells amazing stories that inspire people to end hunger at No Kid Hungry. Chris Brogan tells stories that inspire others to grow their capacity as owners, something I’m working on. My friend, Angela Maiers inspires countless people by simply telling them they matter. I was invited a couple of years ago to tell a story at TEDxPeachtree about why we should re-imagine how we view educators. I spoke about why connecting with them via social media sets the stage for cross-pollination of ideas across business, arts, and education sectors. Not a bad story but I’d like to learn how to tell better stories, more compelling stories. Stories that inspire change for good.

So, what’s your story? What stories do you tell as a leader that inspires action toward what you value or a desired outcome? I’d love to hear your story.

Transformative Change in Education


Educators are no strangers to change; education is constantly evolving.  One only needs to look at implementation of Common Core, increased use of blended learning, leanings toward more individualized learning and the push toward student entrepreneurship to see some of the major trends in education. Whether you are a superintendent or a building principal, you will be tasked to drive change for a number of reasons. What will change and how that change happens require you to think strategically about whether you are seeing incremental change versus transformational change.

The definition of incremental change is that it usually involves small adjustments that are put in place toward an intended result. Typically, incremental changes do not pose a threat to existing structures or methods. Transformational change involves a shift in the culture of your school or district that results in a change in the underlying strategy and processes of the school or district and is enacted over a period of time.  Transformational changes in education are the result of a shift in the very fabric of the school culture and require a growth mindset.

One of the most notable transformational changes in the past few years in education involves how teachers are taking ownership of their own professional development through the unconference model, EdCamp. EdCamp is #6 in this year’s Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015, by Fast Company. Built on the premise that teachers can own their own learning, edcamps are a transformational change in how educators grow professionally. EdCamp has become the tool or structure that many individual educators are using to enhance their own practice.

But what about transformational change in your building that involves deeply embedded structures and processes? What kinds of tools can a company use to position its people toward change?

Enter the Concerns Based Adoption Model (CBAM). CBAM was developed by SEDL, an affiliate of American Institutes for Research based in Austin, Texas. According to SEDL,

“Successfully implementing a new program involves more than providing staff with materials, resources, and training. An often overlooked factor is the human element—the people actually doing the work. Each person will respond to a new program with unique attitudes and beliefs, and each person will use a new program differently. The three diagnostic dimensions of the Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM) provide tools and techniques that enable leaders to gauge staff concerns and program use in order to give each person the necessary supports to ensure success.”

As a school leader, I’ve used CBAM to address the concerns my staff has had whenever we’ve implemented new structures, tools and/or processes. As an educational leader and co-founder of EdCamp Atlanta, CBAM allowed a collaborative way for the founders to work together and move the edcamp movement forward in the southeast region.

So, what tools are in your toolbox? How do you address the unique attitudes and beliefs about change that each person you lead brings to the organization? I’d be interested to hear your story.

What Do You Need to Re-Think?

I recently attended an annual summit that focuses on stories and storytellers. The people at Business Innovation Factory believe that “business model innovation is on the critical path to transforming important social systems including education, health care, and government. Tweaking our existing models and systems won’t work. We need to imagine, prototype, and test new models and systems in the real world.”

School days have been structured in the same way for decades – the bell rings and school begins. Another bell rings and you are tardy. Another bell signals lunch. A final bell ends the day. Yet, if you walked into Amana Academy, you would see the shifts that have been made to regular school day routines or structures that invite innovation and imagination.  One of these routines is based on establishing traditions and culture.

Community Meetings are a common structure in Expeditionary Learning Schools that help to build a culture of pride, success and celebration in both academics and character. Most Expeditionary learning Schools, like Amana Academy, have some form of effective, regular school-wide gathering with a predictable, routine structure. Anyone whose business deals with sales understands the concept of a routine meeting– employees meet to review the sales quota, establish goals based on the projected growth of the department or company, and throw in a chant to end the meeting. Then everyone disperses to their office or cubicle and gets to work, oftentimes, unhappily. In many ways, CREW mirrors what happens in businesses around the nation.  So, how is CREW different? CREW is a structure that has been a part of Amana since its inception. CREW is where students gather in homerooms or small groups to begin their day with discussion, activities or initiatives, and goal setting. It’s precisely the predictability of the structure that allows the school to create a safe environment where students feel free to risk, fail, and try again.

The leadership of the school met to determine what needed to be “re-imagined” in the process to promote the culture of the school consistently across all grades and the suggestion was for CREW to happen in every classroom at the exact same time. Shut down the entire school shut for CREW. This is a deliberate shift would signal the importance of the structure and the value we have as a school for building character along with academics. This year, we began that shift which now signals that everyone should pay attention because something amazing happens in CREW – relationships are formed.  Character is built as students learn explicitly what it looks like to demonstrate empathy to each other, how to question, how to listen, and how to express themselves. Second, the building of relationship gives CREW purpose and allows an environment of success and failure to thrive. This tweak is in the structure that deliberately invites students to talk about what went wrong and share their stories. Knowing what’s not working is half the battle to achieving what works.

CREW culminates weekly with a campus-wide community meeting called Community Circle. Grade levels or CREWS rotate presenting to other students based on a determined set of value statements that Expeditionary Learning calls design principles. Students learn storytelling skills as they draft presentations and skits based on their learning and present to authentic audiences composed of peers, parents, and teachers.  This structure and process is not without failure either. Microphones are often not working. Students forget their lines, sometimes caught up in the silliness of the moment or just too shy to continue. Yet, the magic of Community Circle is always there despite, or maybe because of, the failures.

A recent article from Harvard Business Review emphasized the importance of storytelling in business.  Robert McKee writes, “A great CEO is someone who has come to terms with his or her own mortality and, as a result, has compassion for others. This compassion is expressed in stories.” The article goes on to explain why becoming a good storyteller is important to the future of a company – something BIF advocates through its annual storytelling summit.

At Expeditionary Learning Schools like Amana Academy, rethinking the structure of the school day invites students to re-imagine and investigate new models of thinking, and fosters curiosity.  Through structures like CREW and community meetings, students are given dedicated time to develop their storytelling abilities through public speaking.  These routines have little to do with direct instruction or student achievement on the surface, yet they build the skills in students that talent management executives look for in candidates – critical thinking, risk taking, and public speaking. Sounds like CEO material in the making, doesn’t it?

So, what are your structures and processes? Your routines? How are you empowering your people to tell their stories and what do you need to re-imagine or re-think?

Success and Failure

I often feel challenged to write. As a principal, my days are filled with students and teachers learning and growing together. And it’s busy! But, one of my goals is to be a writer and this is an area where I know I need to grow. I am taking a step, a leap really. I’m putting on my cape. I’ve been a member of Chris Brogan’s Brave New Year group for some time. If you haven’t heard of it, you can check it out here. (You should join. No, really.)

I’ve met some interesting people in this group and I’m learning a lot about success and failure. In school we spend a great deal of time working toward success, yet we speak little to failure. I recently spoke with Drew Marshall at Primed Associates about why teaching students what failure looks like and feels like is important. Don’t get me wrong, success in school is the ultimate goal. But where do we teach students how to be resilient? To persevere?

And I’ve been asking myself since that interview how often I allow myself to fail and learn from that failure. How about you? What’s your resilience factor?

Creating Innovators

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research lately on creativity and critical thinking. If you’re an educator, you’ve probably spent (or are spending) a lot of time and resources learning the “shifts” toward the Common Core standards, deeper learning, and applied learning strategies. In the sea of great resources, one stands out that, to me, begins to go deeper into how to teach creativity and critical thinking. Written by Tony Wagner, Innovation Education Fellow at the Technology & Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard, Creating Innovators gives real-life models of what an innovator is and dares to challenge those of us in education to think differently about how we teach creative and critical-thinking skills.

Tonight’s chat is based around some of the questions that the book raises:

1. What motivates the digital generation?

2. What skills are you teaching students that build critical thinking and creativity?

3. How are you assessing students skills? Do students have time in class to work on application?

4. If you could “re-imagine” your school, what would it look like? 

Transcript for the chat posted here.

Creativity – Having Wonderful Ideas

No doubt you’ve probably watched Sir Ken Robinson’s famous TED talk on creativity in education by now.  With over 4 million views, this is likely one, if not the, most watched TED Talk. Why? Why does the topic of creativity continue to be such a hot topic? As Sir Ken Robinson says, creativity is our future. He defines creativity as, “The process of having original ideas that have value”.

Tonight’s Twitter chat will explore the topic with four guiding questions:

1. How do you define creativity?

2.How do you create an environment at your school or organization where the skills needed to learn creativity are fostered?

3. What processes/structures can be put into place to foster creativity? Which processes/structures at your school or organization need to be re-structured or eliminated?

4. Does the use of exemplars/models diminish a student’s original creative thought? Or does it support the creative process?

Adobe recently launched a series on creativity with Sir Ken. Here’s a peek: 

See you tonight at 8 PM EST on Twitter. #edchatel

Transcript is posted in Storify. Click here: EdChatEL: Creativity 

Dream Big…Then Do It!


You’ve no doubt heard of TED and probably TEDx, but many people are not aware that TED also hosts TEDxYouthDay. TEDxYouthDay is a series of worldwide TEDx events that coincide with Universal Children’s Day in November. TEDxYouthDay events are designed to inspire, empower, and engage young people by igniting new ideas and giving the next generation of leaders an opportunity to speak and be heard.

This year’s theme was Dream Big…Then Do It, a theme played out at TEDxAmanaAcademy, the TEDxYouthDay event hosted by the school where I am the Elementary Grades Director and the brainchild of one of our talented, innovative teachers, Maria Annunziata. Maria’s idea was to connect the TEDxAmanaAcademy talks to the Expeditionary Learning Design Principles which are a foundation of Amana Academy. I was, frankly,  blown away and humbled by the amazing students whose passion for their topics came through with each presentation.

Parent volunteers helped to make the event happen, among them the talented Monique Russell-Messavussu of CLEAR Communication Solutions LLC. I asked Monique to reflect on her experience as an organizer, as a parent, and as a member of the Amana Academy community:

“I am so impressed at the success of this past Saturday’s TEDxAmanaAcademy event. It gave me great pride to see the young men and women come together to share their ideas and be supported by their parents, school, community and friends. The students came up with their creative ideas all by themselves, and were interested, and passionate in communicating them.

As a co-organizer over the past 8 weeks, it has been a joy watching the young men and women grow in their critical thinking thought processes as they developed their talks. They also grew in confidence while receiving honest feedback from their peers. The peer evaluations not only gave the presenters a chance to justify their positions, but it empowered the reviewers to identify, and constructively share areas of improvement.

At the beginning of this process, I was nervous about the short time frame we had to prepare, but working alongside such a dedicated and professional teacher as Ms. Maria Annunziata some of my fears were held at bay. Ms. Annunziata made herself available three times per week for 90 minutes to help students brainstorm, develop, and practice their talk. I especially enjoyed the activities before each Tedx Thursday, which I considered a mental gymnastic exercise that involved thinking about technology, or relating to the Expeditionary Learning design principles. For example, one activity involved having students gather in a circle where each individual would mime an object they could think of that related to technology. The person to the right of the mime would try to guess the answer, and then receive the object to develop their own. Students as young as first grade thought up things like fans, helmets, televisions and more. It got them thinking about the way technology has evolved, and prepared their big minds for even more creative work. Whoever said that creativity is being stifled would disagree in this environment. The level of engagement, and excitement blew me away.

When we selected the final speakers for the event, working with them was a joy. I loved pulling out what they had inside of them rather than providing them with answers, or clouding their thoughts with an adult, realistic point of view. I would often ask them why they thought of a certain topic, and I challenged them on their stance. I pushed them to think outside their limits—and what was most surprising was that they had answers—and ones they were confident in!

The day before the event, a bit of nervousness set in. I was concerned about the delivery of some talks since the practice time was limited. What I saw on the day of the event amazed me. I saw how literally overnight…having parents encourage repeated practices improved the delivery, and familiarity of their talks.

In retrospect, the lessons learned would be to get more parent support earlier in the process with research, brainstorming and definitely practice. In addition, developing a budget, and testing technological pieces ahead of time will make the next event even better. Because it was the first event, logistics and technology were a concern; however, I am happy to say that there were no major glitches or obstacles, and everything ran seamlessly. Throughout this process, I realized the importance of having a strong team, and committed volunteers.

Overall, the experience reminded me that no matter how young, students all have innate passions, and ideas really worth sharing.”

Videos of the students talks will post soon. In the meantime, check out the great pics on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=all&q=tedxamanaacademy&m=tags and be inspired!

Citizen Scholars – Expeditionary Learning National Conference 2012

I’m in Denver this week at the Expeditionary Learning National Conference. Expeditionary Learning (EL) is a national network of high-performing schools serving approximately 50,000 students nationwide and internationally. EL schools are exploratory, inquiry-based, experiential schools that utilize “design principles” for student engagement and rigorous academic achievement.

The theme for this year’s conference is Citizen Scholars. The keynote speaker yesterday was Steven Seidel, professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education who has been working on the “Digital Museum of Student Work”  in collaboration with Expeditionary Learning. The Digital Museum of Student Work (DMSW) is an online, open resource of exemplary EL student work. To say the keynote was inspirational is an understatement.

“EL Principles model what is possible in learning and teaching,” said Seidel. He spoke of his use of EL student work archives in his graduate class last year for teacher educators and the exemplary work of EL students. He then charged the educators present with the following challenges:

  • How do you rekindle your own passion for learning?
  • Why are the educational principles I believe in, like the EL Design Principles, so marginalized in today’s education?
  • What could it mean to be a citizen scholar today as a young person or as an adult and why isn’t this the purpose of education?
  • Why isn’t “Getting Smart To Do Good” not written above every classroom’s door in every school?

Throughout his keynote, Dr. Seidel elaborated on these challenges while referring to the autobiography of famous American, Frederick Douglass. Dr. Seidel spoke of the level of risk-taking this American hero undertook to achieve his own education.  He spoke of Douglass’ spirit, his burning desire to learn, and his compassion to give back. He spoke of the inspiration we derive from heroes such as Douglass as children and as adults and he reminded us that ideas for inspiration can come from anywhere. He concluded his keynote by stating that imagination and creativity are keys to inspiration and to learning.

Dr. Seidel stated, “Inspiration and creativity are understudied.” As elements of the imagination and of learning, how are you sparking inspiration, creativity and imagination in your organization? In your school? In yourself? Are you innovating learning in your organization? In your school?

“Imagination is the only thing that will save us from ourselves.” Moises Kaufmann. Indeed.

For more information on EL schools, go to the El website at http://www.elschools.org

EdCamp Atlanta

Did you hear the news? EdCamp is coming to Atlanta! I’m so excited about the possibilities of this ‘unconference”. You might be wondering what an “edcamp” is – so was I a few weeks ago. I happened to be participating in another chat on Twitter, #ecosys, run by great folks including Chris Jones. The discussion was centered on systems reform in education and opinions were flying! (I love a lively discussion!) As it turned out, I later started following some very knowledgeable people from #Edchat  and #Edcamp based on that discussion. Now I knew what #edchat was (if you don’t, check it out here), but I had not heard of “edcamp” before. So I began researching and found this fantastic group of people who are passionate about education and innovation in education!

Edcamps are designed by educators for educators. They are participant driven – no predetermined sessions. Very organic, very innovative, and very lively! Imagine wanting to go to an education conference and it being totally free. Sounds like my kind of people. Check out EdCamp Atlanta’s website for more information. Many thanks to the EdCamp Foundation, Dan Callahan, and Mike Ritzius for the help and support in getting EdCamp Atlanta moving in the right direction! More posts to come as EdCamp Atlanta grows!

Thoughts on innovation and leadership in education

%d bloggers like this: