What is Deep and Joyful Learning?

March 11, 2021

I believe that ALL students can and should learn deeply and joyfully every single day.  (I also believe that everyone should find great joy–daily–in their work, but that’s for another post.)

So, what is Deep and Joyful learning, anyway?  Sometimes when I wonder whether or not I should use the phrase.  In particular, I worry that the “joyful” part sounds fluffy–that it sounds like I care more about superficial happiness than I do about rigorous learning. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

I liken deep and joyful learning to the way you feel after a really great run or a spin class or game of soccer.  You know, how you give it everything you have, you dig deep, and you end both exhausted and elated.

It’s like that.

You see this in classrooms regularly.  Students are buzzing with enthusiasm as they solve problems, make new meaning or transfer their learning in one area to another. I ask you, is this happening for all students every day in your school? If we’re truthful with ourselves, probably not.  

Even setting that expectation probably feels overwhelming. After all, teachers have so many standards to cover and their jobs are so complex, that to ask them to make sure each student is joyfully learning seems like a huge ask.  And sure, as with any goal, we set ALL or 100% of students as an aspiration–knowing that the higher we set our targets and expectations, the better chance we have at getting better results.

OK, but HOW do we do this. From what I’ve observed, it’s all about regularly and repeatedly using a few high leverage strategies that allow students to develop multiple competencies simultaneously.

In synthesizing the work of Michael Fullan, Monica Martinez and the Hewlett Foundation, CASEL, and Tony Wagner, three distinct competency areas emerge:

  1. Academic–skills like critical thinking and complex problem-solving built around standards
  2. Interpersonal –skills like collaboration and communication
  3. Intrapersonal–skills like self-awareness and self–management and the ability to set and achieve goals and learn from mistakes.


In subsequent posts, I’ll go deeper into the importance of each area and share some strategies for developing them in and alongside our learners.



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How To Appreciate Teachers? Give Them More Time.

May 7, 2020

There is no better way to appreciate teachers than by honoring their time and professionalism.  

Yet, in so many cases, time for deep, collaborative professional learning is minimal– 3 full days a year seems to be pretty standard, with common planning time during the day sprinkled here and there.

I recently conducted a programmatic review of a district that had not been able to budget full professional days for years.  This was rightly viewed by teachers and administrators as the greatest barrier to progress.

The need for professional development has been highlighted by the pandemic and the forced move to “distance learning”. 

In my home state of Rhode Island, the governor and education commissioner have responded to that need by issuing a common statewide calendar.  In it, they provide dedicated PL days as well as common vacation days.

This gives students a much-needed break. There’s no expectation of logging into a Google meet or needing to be on their screen. Some students, especially older ones might use that as study time as they prepare for AP exams.  But for younger students and their families, it’s a much-appreciated pause.

It also gives teachers protected time for professional learning without the expectation of also managing instruction.  As I talked with district leaders across the state, I found that the time is being used wisely.  Some are learning more about online teaching tools from district and state partners. Others are engaging in much-needed departmental or PLC teams.  Some of these meetings are synchronous, others are not.

It’s  wonderful that our state leaders recognize the need for protected professional learning time right now, as teachers are trying to navigate this unanticipated crisis.

Yet the need for professional learning isn’t crisis-dependent. 

And providing and protecting time for that learning should be a basic condition of the profession in this country (as it is in several other nations).

So, how do we create more time?

A few ideas…

  • State agencies can and should rethink “seat time” requirements–including the minimum number of days and/or instructional minutes.  We know, and this time is proving it, that with the right support and direction, students can manage time and assignments outside of the classroom walls.  
  • Districts can scaffold PD days so that district coaches and PL leaders (including teacher leaders) can work with groups of teachers over a series of days. That might mean a series of half days for students or some other formula that allows teachers time for collaboration.
  • Schools, especially middle and high schools, can allow for students to work independently and/or collaboratively  in libraries orsettings on or off campus and still have that “count” toward attendance.  That frees up teachers for more common planning time.
  • In elementary schools, forward-thinking teachers and principals can collaborate with outside agencies for authentic experiences on or off campus that give students meaningful learning while giving teachers collaborative time. Many grant opportunities can pave the way for this.  
  • We can increase the use of micro-credentialing or badging, allowing teachers to work at their own pace, on their own time.


Of course, once the time is created, it must be used well.  

To that I say, let your teachers lead the way.  

Far too many administrators are stuck in the compliance paradigm. 

  • We run sessions we think teachers need –and make sure there’s an administrator in the room to facilitate the work.
  • We have sign in sheets so we can track attendance.
  • We collect minutes and notes (and very likely never read them).

What if, instead, we trusted teachers to lead their own learning?

When I was an assistant superintendent, we created a district-wide professional learning steering committee.  Our district-wide Professional Learning Days (or Professional Development, as we called it then) had been met with “just ok” feedback.  In addition, the head of the paraprofessionals’ bargaining unit let me know that they were extremely dissatisfied with what the district had been providing for professional development.

So, we set about to change that–to put people in charge of their own learning.  Ultimately, two teachers became co-chairs of the committee and we collectively transformed the feeling of PD days.  Faculty and staff gave positive feedback and, more importantly, more ideas for improvement.  Some administrators attended sessions, others facilitated, some did a mix of both.  By the time I left the district, we had ideas and plans for even more personalized and asynchronous opportunities.

No babysitting.   No compliance.  Just lots of good learning–which translated into deeper and more joyful learning for our students. 

And with even more time, and more creative uses of time, we can do better and better by our students and ourselves.

So, let’s appreciate teachers with more than signs and gifts during a single week.  Let’s give them the time they deserve to hone their skills and their craft.  Let’s appreciate their intellect and expertise by giving them the gift of time. 


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Now is the time to simplify our learning standards

April 16, 2020

Simplify-essential standards

Teachers are overwhelmed.  Parents are overwhelmed.  Leaders are overwhelmed.

And, to be fair, this feeling isn’t new for educators, though it’s magnified now.

It’s time to simplify.

Simple does not mean easy. Simple does not  mean that we are letting up on learning.

Instead, when we simplify, we arrive at what’s really essential.

When I’ve worked with curriculum teams, we usually start with the work of  DuFour, et. al.

Here are their “big questions” to guide teaching and learning.

  1. What do we want all students to know and be able to do?
  2. How will we know if they’ve learned it?
  3. How  will we support students when they struggle?
  4. How will we enrich the learning for students who are already proficient?

Educators always love these questions.

Great, I say.  So, now, let’s answer that first question.

Teachers pull out their state standards, textbooks, final exams, etc and soon our response to question 1 fills up pages.

It becomes clear that we cannot teach everything if we want students to learn deeply and joyfully.

We need to strip down to the essential standards.

Teachers understandably have trouble with this.  EVERYTHING feels essential.

But then I ask them to picture a capable student in their class.  Now, consider that this student will endure some tough circumstances this year–perhaps illness–that causes him/her to be out for a significant portion of the year.

Most teachers can’t conceive of having this student repeat an entire year or course. So they then consider what the student would REALLY need to know and be able to do in order to move beyond this class or course.

We use this guidance from Larry Ainsworth to choose our essential standards (aka Power or Priority Standards.)

Essential standards are those that exhibit:

  1. Endurance–skills and knowledge needed for life outside this course
  2. Leverage–skills and knowledge from this course that help us learn and understand standards in other courses
  3. Readiness–skills and knowledge that we must have to advance to the next year/course

In fact, there are schools  and teachers that do this regularly for students with special circumstances. 

We just never considered that we would need to do this for all students…in all subjects.

But we can. Simplify. Get down to the essentials–the real and true essentials and go from there.

Right now, I would ask teachers to consider the ONE thing students must know or be able to do between now and next year.  How can we teach that? How will we (and students) know if they’ve learned it?

Then, go on to prioritize the NEXT thing on the list and so on.  If the first is all we can reasonably achieve this year, so be it.

Kudos to those districts that have made this focus on essential standards crystal clear, reducing overwhelm and giving space for deep and joyful learning.







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How do I lead school from my living room?

April 9, 2020

Principal's Office Sign--How to lead your school remotely

This is surreal!

“This just doesn’t feel right! I miss the kids.  I miss the teachers.  I miss visiting classrooms, shaking hands with students as they enter the building, laughing with teachers at lunch duty!”

This, or some version of this, is what I’m hearing from the principals I work with.

Most school leaders hate to be out of their schools.  Whether it’s being called away to a district meeting or staying home sick (a rare occurrence), most principals will do anything to avoid being out of the building.

So, sitting at home–or behind your desks in empty schools–is no doubt a jarring experience. 

Yet all over the country, principals like my friend Anne in Maine tell me the current crisis has raised their game.

In conversations with school leaders over the phone, Zoom, and Twitter, leaders have shared the ways they are making connections, supporting learning, and–perhaps most importantly–demonstrating their own vulnerability.

Here are some awesome examples of leading remotely:

Fostering connection:

  1. Asking teachers for names of students they are concerned about.  Depending on the size of your school, call one or 2 from each class, each week/day. On a schedule that works for you.
  2. Sending a thank you note to each staff member with something you’ve admired about him/her and perhaps never said. One or two sentences goes a long way. 
  3. Creating themed weeks–connect to school spirit and/or school mission

Instructional Leadership:

  1. Dropping in on a synchronous zoom session.
  2. Sharing an article/podcast resource. 
  3. Offering  1:1 office hours with teachers to check in and provide any support or feedback requested

Vulnerable Leadership:

  1. Set up calls with teachers–ask them how you can do more for them–in crisis and not.
  2. Try a new tool publicly.  It won’t be perfect, but that’s ok–we’re all in the same boat right now! 
  3. Use this time to try something new–painting, poetry, etc–and share the results.

Thanks to all who are leading…and sharing!  To share more examples or get some coaching support, you can contact me here.




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Padlet Block Parties: The Jazzed-Up Online Staff Meeting!

April 1, 2020

For years now, great principals have moved away from the nuts and bolts staff meeting in favor of interactive professional learning and dialogue.

While the current crisis likely demands a return to orderly info sessions, there will soon be time to engage with our colleagues around professional matters.

So, why not host a Block Party?

If you’ve ever used this, you know how engaging the Block Party can be.  It’s my go-to opener for staff meetings and professional learning sessions and it’s never disappointed. (I’m a huge fan of protocols and rely on the School Reform Initiative for their great list of resources.)

It goes like this:

The facilitator chooses quotes related to the topic or theme of the meeting.  (You can do this with pieces from one specific article/reading, but I’ve had great luck with these quotes.)

In a face to face meeting, I print the quotes and cut into strips.  (There are usually multiples.)

Then, spread out the strips on a table and allow folks to choose one that resonates with them. Give some thinking time and then have people get up, find a partner and share what they chose and why.  After both have shared, they move on and find new partners. Repeat as long as you wish. (Usually 3 rounds)

In a large group, people share themes, poignant remarks from partners, etc.  

A well-planned “block party” never fails to ignite minds and prepare us for good work.

Now, take the party online…

  1. Create a Padlet in Grid format. 
  2. Put a different quote at the top of each column.  (As many or as few as you want.)
  3. Make sure you’ve adjusted settings to allow for comments and reactions.
  4. Ask participants to make sure they choose at least one quote, comment  on at least one other person’s response and make sure every response has at least one comment. 

Click on the link to access a Block Party Padlet that I’ve pre-populated with relevant quotes.

You’ll need to make a copy.  Here’s a quick tutorial for how to do that. 

I hope this provides a space for meaningful staff engagement.  I’d love to hear reactions and suggestions – contact me here



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Teachers, are you afraid to say yes?

March 11, 2020

Are you afraid to say yes?

I bet you are, at least a little bit.

Saying NO is easier.  It’s safer.  It lets you maintain control.  NO is the word of restraint.

I think that’s why it’s a first response for so many teachers.  Too many “yeses” and all hell breaks loose —or so we think.

And, like everything, that can be true when the response is reactive rather than proactive.

But a well-placed YES can change everything.

Just a few days ago, I was working with a team of High School English teachers who are working to make their classrooms even more student-centered.  One of the tools we’ve used to contemplate the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered learning is Scott McLeod and Julie Graber’s terrific 4 Shifts Protocol.  We use the protocol to review lesson plans and determine a focus area for observation.  We then visit one another’s classrooms and provide feedback.

Sabrina had a terrific plan. She and her colleagues had developed a research unit on genocide.  Students first read The Book Thief, did some group research on the Holocaust and were now researching other genocides.  They then had a wide choice of methods for demonstrating their learning to one another—including infographics, slide presentations, etc. Thinking about the shifts, I asked her who had determined the assessment products–Was it the students, the teachers, or both?  It was the teachers, she told me.  Had they asked the students for ideas, I wondered? Or had they considered leaving a space for “other” in case the students wanted to try something different?  No, they just hadn’t thought of it–but she agreed that would be great.

In her classroom, we observed actively engaged students. Their curiosity was ignited and several were toggling between researching their topic and determining which of the products would be the best vehicle for displaying their knowledge.

The plan called for students to create individual products, though they could and were talking to one another to get feedback, discuss the pros and cons of presentation choices, etc.

One group of students, however, appeared to be collaborating at a deeper level and out of the blue they asked Sabrina if they could create a podcast as their final product. It was as though they had been eavesdropping on our lesson review conversation!

Sabrina immediately gave an emphatic “YES!”.

Later, she told me that a day earlier she might have said, ‘no”.


Because she hadn’t considered this possibility.  She was more comfortable staying within the lines of what the teacher team had created.  But, based on our earlier conversations, she decided to say yes and give the students more ownership.

So, what changed her mind:

  1. She’s convinced that more student ownership leads to deeper engagement AND deeper learning.
  2. She put the responsibility on the students to make sure their proposal still met the requirements of the assignment.
  3. She plans to have all students write a reflection about what worked and what didn’t and what they might do differently next time.

What’s the worst that can happen? The students might find this wasn’t the best way to demonstrate their learning. So what? In addition to self-reflection, students will also give feedback about their peers’ products.  All of this will build their metacognition while also providing Sabrina and her colleagues the information they need if they decide to use the project again in future classes.


And all because she said yes.

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