The Letter of the Day

Creativity and excitement about learning are so innate in children, so how or why is it that we, as educators (present company included), can do or say things – usually inadvertently – to stifle it?

Thanks to my two year old daughter, I have had Sesame Street’s “Letter of the Day” song stuck in my head for weeks. If you aren’t familiar, click here (Warning: It’s really catchy!).  For the record, when we hear the song in my house, the letter of the day is always “M” because we only watch one episode over and over again. The girl is 2 and she likes what she likes. (I’m sure parents can relate)

At the risk of sounding like an overly proud parent, I must preface this blog post that my daughter recognizes all of the letters of the alphabet, knows their sounds, reads them when she sees them, and is a very clever witty little girl. Because of this, she can and has  made a joke of the aforementioned “Letter of the Day” song. How?  Sometimes when my wife or I sing the song to get her to choose a letter and when we get to the part where it comes time to say that letter, she looks at us with a frighteningly deviant smile and yells “CRANBERRY” (which is then followed by hysterical laughter).

Why have I shared this? As I use my winter break to regenerate for the next part of the school year, I began thinking about that awesome learning innocence in children, my own included, and their willingness to take risks, experiment, or answer a question without fear of ridicule or rejection. In their minds, the possibilities of what an answer can be or what something can do is limitless. There is no worry about logic or reason, they just want to share what is on their mind, ask a question, or make (what they believe is) a really funny joke/play on words.

Unfortunately, as we grow older, the social acceptability of these healthy risk taking behaviors seems to diminish; however, the innocent love of learning and creative thinking should remain strong, and, as educators, it is important to do what we can to keep it that way by remember a few ideas. They are this:

Learning is collaborative. We learn from others. Though the “copy cat world” is discouraged, a variation on something someone says or does turns out to be revolutionary (beg, borrow, steal, right?). The wheel has really never been reinvented (still round), but the right tire treads make a difference on a snowy road.

Learning is messy/loud. When I taught general music, some of the very best learning activities for my students came from stations (workshop). I would have students creating patterns on tone bars, composing on keyboard instruments, reviewing fundamentals with percussion auxiliary, and learning theory through music games. There were days when a cacophony of sound would echo down the hallway and it was by most accounts, anything but musical. Students experimented, tried new things, succeeded and failed, revised ideas, got frustrated, asked endless questions, and when it came time for summative assessment at the end of the unit, they demonstrated the knowledge and skills and I had hoped they would acquire.

Great learning is organized chaos (and fun). With learning stations or any project based/group task, there is weeks of preparation training students on how to work in groups. There are hours spent designing supports that ensure students are able to manipulate resources so when they are in those stations, they can focus on the content and not just the tasks. The classroom environment itself will be respectful and conducive to learning, but despite all this, there will STILL be times when it will seem crazy because of the excitement about learning.

It’s tempting to tell kids to be careful, to tell them to be quiet down when they get loud (learning noise!), or to be nervous about them failing. Get over that. Often times, what a teacher thinks is a disaster (because it feels like chaos) is the best day for students because they were able to let loose and engage in an authentic learning process that was FUN.

Learning requires good feedback. This is key. I will say it again: This is key. How we set up the activity, outline criteria, and respond to our students when they have questions and working sets the tone for learning. Asking questions that require an explanation of thinking and help students arrive at an answer (even if it is wrong) without explicitly giving it away is important.

A student can’t just hear, “that’s good,” or “try agin, ” because those phrases don’t have context or meaning. Feedback has to be meaningful and specific so that it guides students through the learning process. Explain what is good and why it is good or why a student needs to try again. One of my favorite questions that I see on many math classroom walls/anchor charts is: Does your answer make sense? If a student is multiplying whole numbers and the product is smaller than the multiplicand and/or multiplier, clearly some re-thinking needs to occur. We learn through constant feedback. If something goes well, we continue on. If something goes poorly, we learn more through solving problems and trying new things.

So let me ask…

What are your “Letter of the Day” moments with your kids (students or children)?

What will you do next time when someone answers “CRANBERRY” and gives that overly complex answer (that might look like attention seeking in a classroom, but shows a lot of thought behind what is said).

What will you do to make sure you continue that natural flame for learning and spark creativity? Are you doing all you can, in action and words, to encourage and not stifle?



Dance far away.
Now clap your hands.
To the letter of the day. Clap, clap.
What’s the letter? Clap, clap.
What’s the letter? Clap, clap, clap, clap.
What’s the letter? (4X)
The letter of the day is…




No time…

There isn’t enough time. I have too much to do. Just one more thing to add to my plate. Sound familiar? The amount of time we have is never going to change, so the way we use it has to.

It isn’t hard to make a case that people are busy, time is at a premium, or that there are more demands on the education profession than ever. Comprehensive standards, state assessments, school accountability, new technologies, parent communication, and a greater understanding of how children learn all create a need for dynamic, differentiated instruction and high achievement. Not to mention progress monitoring, data analysis, meetings, team collaboration, grading, newsletters, endless email, and somewhere in all that, delivering the dynamic, differentiated instruction to students for 7.5 hours a day. I’m overwhelmed just reading about it! Well, actually I’m not.

This fall, I wrote an article for the school newsletter about PBIS and responsibility. In that article, I used the term stewardship and encouraged families to have conversations with their children about taking care of their possessions. As professionals, we also have a responsibility to be stewards of our resources including, one of the most precious (yes, you guessed it), TIME.

Time is a resource that, in reality, we can never have more of. We are stuck with 16-18 hours of wake time a day (because you should sleep for 6-8), students are only at school 7.5 hours a day, and we only have students in classrooms about 180 days a year. It’s a lot of time, but yet it isn’t very much. The truth is, the amount doesn’t matter, and it isn’t worth worrying about, because it’s all we have. Our focus shouldn’t be on how much or how little time we have for education, but how that time is spent on education.


Spend it on your own well-being:

This fall, I met with teachers about their Personal Professional Growth (PPG) goals for the school year, which I enjoy because I love to hear about how teachers plan to better themselves so to have a bigger impact on students and achievement. In one of those meetings, a really good teacher told me that they wanted to focus their PPG on increasing their own happiness through relaxation, taking care of their body, sleeping more, worrying less, etc. Though my instant thought was, “How do we measure this as it relates to student achievement?” I couldn’t really argue with their rationale because a happy teacher at the top of their mental game is going to be exponentially more effective than one who is burnt out or run down. (For those of you wondering, the goal was approved, but revised to place emphasis on locating and implementing classroom strategies that contribute to a positive learning environment.)

Spend it on your students’ well-being:

Similarly, one of my teachers devoted a small portion of their remedial summer school session helping students center themselves through yoga. This teacher understood their students’ social-emotional needs, and those students raved about the yoga and how much better they felt at school. Now, there isn’t time to spend 20 minutes on yoga at school each day, but you can take 5-7 minutes here and there to allow students to hit the mental reset button. That time “lost” to a brain break or movement activity is going to be made up when students are focused for the next 20-30 minutes because of it. Give and take.

Time should also used to provide students opportunities to engage in class discussion about non-subject related content. A brief share about “favorite ice cream flavors” or “what’s worse: Barney or Teletubbies?” allows students to build deeper, more meaningful working relationships with you, and each other, in the classroom. If students feel like they belong to a community and see that their teacher is a person who REALLY cares about them, credibility and a cultured bond will make them eager to engage in discussion and learning.

Spend it efficiently…

It all comes down to evaluating the areas in our professional lives where we can use time efficiently and productively.  To do that, we start by asking the following questions:

What occupies the majority of our time during the day (when we are not with students)?

What are the things we really, truly worry about the most (because they are important)?

Hopefully those answers are the same, but chances are, they are not. I know when I was teaching, the time I spent planning rehearsals and on the podium directing my instrumental ensembles (most important!) was a small fraction of the job, and that always bothered me. Below are more questions we can ask about time efficiency, and if the initial answer to any of these is, “No,” then it might be time make some adjustments.

Are we using an appropriate method of communication professionally? Ah, email. So convenient, right? Send it when you want, and answer when you can. Honestly, I’m guilty of over-emailing at times. My school psychologist and I have offices that are 20 feet apart, and yet I catch myself having email conversations with her from our offices. After the 3rd exchange, I usually figure it out, and finish the conversation in person over the span of about 2 minutes. I type fast, but not as fast as I talk. “Old-fashioned” phone calls and actual face time can be much more efficient.

Sticking with technology, I find value in interacting with my PLN on Twitter and enjoy reading/viewing the #thatissofunnycuteinspiringandamazingIcantbelieveIdidntth inkofthatviralvideosgifspicturesongmyself as much as the next person, but in reality how often do we really need to check social media? You’re reading this blog right now (thank you by the way) and taking that time for yourself, but how many times have you done this today, and what could you be doing instead? Sadly adults now spend more time in front of screens than teenagers do.

…so it results in quality instruction

Are we planning dynamic instruction that targets multiple standards and engages students from the start?  Would it be better to focus on what we believed to be the 70-80% of grade level standards that are really important and worked to ensure students understood them on a really deep level instead of scrambling to gloss over every single one standard because the “curriculum said we had to?”

Do we take the time to really understand what students know at the beginning of a unit to avoid spending unnecessary time reviewing content or skills they already mastered? Are we creating assessments that really measure learning, or are we merely seeking a grade through menial tasks?

Are we properly managing resources in the classroom so time isn’t being wasted passing out papers or supplies? Better yet, are we teaching students to initiate the classroom routines and procedures so they take ownership of transitions and maximize time on task?

Are we assigning meaningful class/homework activities that allow students to share their learning outside of the classroom? Though developing the activities will take time, it’s going to create better results in the classroom,and take less time than making copies of worksheet packets, grading those worksheets, and probably disciplining students because they aren’t intellectually engaged in a lesson.

The questions go on and on, but if we aren’t constantly reflecting and asking ourselves, “Is there a better way?” we will always feel as though we don’t have enough time to get everything done.  Be a steward of time, and embrace the reality that it isn’t the amount, but the method in which time is utilized.

The Guess Who: No Time

(No time left for you)
On my way to better things
(No time left for you)
I’ll find myself some wings
(No time left for you)
Distant roads are calling me
(No time left for you)


Oh, take me back to the start…

As administrators, we all started somewhere.

While I searched (endlessly!) for my first administrative position, I discussed what it would take to make that leap from band teacher to administrator with my superintendent. He understood my frustration with the fruitless efforts of applying and interviewing and told me something truly great. He said, “When you make that leap, and it will happen, remember that when things are tough, or you wonder why you decided to make this career choice, how you felt when they offered you the job.”

And I do! I remember driving in my car the day after the final round of interviews thinking I had struck out again because it was taking so long for them to call (it was 9:00AM). My phone rang (oh brother, hear we go again)! I answered and I heard the words “we’d like you to be our next Director of Student Services.” Though I remained conscious for the rest of the conversation, I only being told I could take time discuss it with my family. After hanging up, I fumbled to dial my wife (1 touch speed dial) and vividly remember being overcome with tears of joy as my wife said to me, “You did it, [Joe], you did it!” (She used her pet name for me).

This moment, though, comes well before what we face in out job every day: Reality.

  • It comes before the reality that if you don’t like something, you can’t just fix it in a day because you don’t just have a classroom. Change now requires a lather of shared vision, patience, relationship building, data collection, and carefully crafted professional development. (Rinse and repeat…rinse and repeat…has it changed yet?)
  • It comes before the reality that you have to document and organize dozens of observational artifacts and complete a written narrative at 9:00PM in bed before you can do what you love (and in my opinion matters) the most: the coaching conversation with the teacher who is on the cusp of going from good to great. (aMAZing!)
  • It comes before the reality that you will receive phone calls from an upset parent wondering why you haven’t done anything stop their child’s classmate from tormenting them every day for the past two weeks. Keep in mind, you knew nothing about this until right now (Have they informed to the teacher yet?…No.).
  • It comes before the reality that you want to bang your head against the wall because no matter what you do or say to students about bus behavior (PBIS is legit!), students can’t still seem to sit and stay in their seat, talk quietly, keep hands to themselves, and eat the food when they get OFF the bus. (It sounds simple to me!)

Sure, the reality of school leadership can be harsh, but what was described above is just a day in the life of someone with a job they love. I maintain a  good sense of humor, I am a bit of an eternal optimist, and, maybe, just maybe, I am a bit of a glutton for punishment.

It is a privilege to lead teachers and impact students each day, and their successes are  motivating and inspiring. That being said, after a super tough day when success. motivation, and inspiration may be scarce, I push my own reset button and remember how I felt when I was offered this job. It helps me visualize that greater success with staff, bigger smiles from students, and deeper appreciation from families will surely come.

Coldplay: The Scientist

Nobody said it was easy,
No one ever said it would be this hard.

Oh, take me back to the start.