“Be Yourself, everyone else is already taken.”

I remember the day I got the call from Doug Ammeraal. Doug is the principal at Mona Shores Middle School and not only is he a colleague, but I would also consider him friend (if you want to see some awesome things at the middle level…visit Doug’s school)! Doug had submitted a proposal to present at the MEMSPA State Conference and needed help. However, this wasn’t a traditional type of session that Doug wanted to do. He was hoping to do something different. His idea was to have multiple speakers give a “Ted Talk” all focused on different aspects of leadership.  I thought it was a brilliant idea and was eager to say yes!

Then summer happened. Life happened. Coaching baseball happened. Then the email came in late September detailing the upcoming presentation and what Doug needed from the other presenters. I hadn’t given this presentation much of thought since the original conversation before summer. My first thought was to be excited again…but then fear and doubt crept in…not only did I have to create this but I found out I was going to be presenting with two other principals who I look up to…Laurie Poll of Zeeland and Amie McCaw of Vicksburg (during the conference, Amie was named Outstanding Practicing Principal for the entire state of Michigan). So not only did I have to try to create an awesome Ted Talk, I now had to now only not worry about letting Doug down, I was instantly worried about trying to measure up to Laurie and Amie…talk about pressure!

But as I started to plan, I kept thinking about Brene Brown and the inspiration she has provided in my life. I didn’t have to be perfect. I did not have to give the greatest Ted Talk of all time. I just had to be me. I have a sign in my office that says, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” It’s advice I often share with middle school students and advice I needed. I had to quit worrying about how I would compare to Doug, Laurie, or Amie. One of our teachers at my school once said to me, “Comparison is the thief of joy” (Thanks Natalie Klocko). How true! Once I had allowed myself to become vulnerable and sit with these emotions, I knew what to do. I had a plan. I was going to be me.

What came out of the plan was a Ted Talk that represented me. While I was researching on how to give a Ted Talk and watching several highly rated talks, I kept coming back to the quote about being me. And if you know me, I love to be humorous and use jokes to share my stories. Having that in the back of my mind, I decided to do my entire Ted Talk through a series of memes that curated the story of instructional leadership. In practicing for the actual event, it felt good to share my own story that represented my beliefs and the experiences I have had in my career. The Ted Talk was me.

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While I would love for you to watch the Ted Talk (go to https://youtu.be/_30NwShOj7A to see it), the real lessons I learned go beyond the actual Ted Talk.

1). Be yourself– While it is great to read and learn from others, we have to be ourselves.  While I loved hearing Joe Sanfelippo speak at the MEMSPA State Conference, I can’t be Joe no matter how hard I try. I can learn and be inspired by him…but I have to be me.

2). Embrace Vulnerability- Inspired by Brene Brown, part of being yourself is recognizing the armor we wear to protect us from our perceived faults. Not only should we be vulnerable, we need to EMBRACE it! We can do that by not running from our emotions or trying to compartmentalize them, but being ok with simply sitting with our thoughts and feelings. It is ok to share with others the struggles, hopes, and fears that live inside of us.  Doing so will bring them out in the open and create opportunities for personal growth.

3. Remember when you say yes to giving a Ted Talk:)




Heads Carolina, Tails California

Well it has been awhile since posting to this blog…but as they say, better late than never.  Growing up in rural America, there was always a country song on somewhere nearby.  However, despite this, I didn’t really grow up a country fan. It might have been my rebellious spirit to not conform into what everyone else was doing. However, I remember really liking a song written by Jo De Messina, Heads Carolina Tails California.

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The chorus is:

Heads Carolina, tails California
Somewhere greener, somewhere warmer
Up in the mountains, down by the ocean
Where don’t matter long as we’re goin’
Somewhere together, I got a quarter
Heads Carolina, tails California

If you want to hear the entire song, head here.

The past summer, I spent a week with a team of teachers from our school at the PBL World Conference in American Canyon, California. This conference was sponsored by PBL Works! (formerly known as Buck Institute for Education). When I talk to some about the experience, I have been asked about going all the way to California?  From my own research for my dissertation, I have discovered the power of learning when immersing a group for a deep dive into learning and then following with sustained professional learning.  The reason for our travels all the way to California?  The answer is easy…PBLWorks!  PBLWorks is a world leading organization dedicated to providing access for all students to high quality Project Based Learning.  Every year they host the PBL World Conference where hundreds of educators and leaders gather to learn from each other, network, and feel inspired.  This is why we went to California!


Not only did we spend time as a group, but we met so many amazing PBL’ers from across the world.  One of the highlights was the keynote from Pedro Noguera! To see his keynote, please go to this tweet.

I felt so fortunate to spend my three days in a deep dive on PBL Leadership with Dori Berg and Matt Best.  Both of these leaders were fantastic in helping our team process new ideas and plan for further PBL implementation in our school. I remember walking away each day mentally exhausted, but at the same time feeling exhilarated. I still remember having the opportunity as an evening networking event to spend time talking with Ron Berger.  Ron was one of the keynote speakers and has been a champion of PBL and Deeper Learning for years.

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Unlike a traditional conference where there are short sessions spread throughout the day, PBL World is designed to give participants a 3-day immersive experience in offering such as PBL 101, PBL 201, and PBL Leadership. This allowed our team of school leaders to take a deep dive into our next steps and it allowed our teachers to immerse themselves in the learning and connecting with other teachers…simply put it is a fantastic way to set up a conference aimed at supporting our own learning.

If you want to know more about our experiences, please feel free to reach out to me at any time!

But at the end of the day, I am glad we chose “Heads” as it took us to California…and we were all together!

The Story of How Socks Changed My Life

When I do a Google image search for the word “hacking,” all of the images that appear seem to be nefarious activities of what I would imagine of high tech crooks working at stealing computer secrets from global organizations.  I think back to this past year when I read about Equifax being hacked…to “name the most any company” getting hacked.  In fact, when I was talking with another principal about presenting on the topic of “hacking” leadership in schools, she quickly dismissed the idea because of her instant negative connotation to the word hacking.

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Looking up the word hack online at Merriam-Webster’s site, one has to scroll across to the bottom to find the use of the word “hack” as I now know it…

c : a clever tip or technique for doing or improving something

Despite this perceived negative connotation of the word, this has become a word that has changed my leadership…my whole outlook on how to move our schools forward towards deeper learning.  In my previous blog post, I talked about my friend and colleague Jon Gregory, Principal at Northern High School.  As I type this blog, a realization is occurring in just how instrumental Jon has been in supporting my growth as a leader…by being the one to call or email and say, “We should do this…”

Instead of a phone call from Jon this time, I received an email from him during the summer of 2016 letting me know about this program called School Retool (more information at schoolretool.org).  In looking at the program information, I was excited to see this was a group of people looking to push deeper learning in our schools and there was a cohort opening up in Detroit for the fall!  Jon and I both applied for this fellowship in hopes of being accepted…I was SO excited!

And then on June 30, 2016…I opened my email to read:

“Thanks for your thoughtful application to School Retool!  You had compelling reasons for joining the program, and we believe you would add a lot to the cohort. For our initial round of cohort selection, we worked hard to choose applicants that had a particular need and ability to create small scale hacks in their schools and have not yet started to make those changes. In addition, we prioritized applicants whose schools serve a higher proportion of free and reduced price lunch students. At this time, our cohort is full, and we are waiting for the selected applicants to confirm their ability to participate. We do believe that you both could add a lot of value to the group, therefore we’d love to have you on the cohort waitlist. If a selected applicant is not able to participate, we would love for you to join the fellowship.”

Bummed.  Sad.  Disappointed.

Those were my initial feelings.

Understanding.  Appreciative.  Ok.

These were what my feelings evolved into.

I completely understood and appreciated the thoughtful and intentional approach in the selection of participants.  It made sense.  The doors that we hope open don’t always…sometimes we just don’t get what we want…and that is ok.

Then it came. The most glorious two sentences I have read in my life…

“Thank you for your patience with us as we worked to finalize participants for this year’s School Retool cohort. Space has opened up on our list and we’re excited to say: Welcome to School Retool!”

The news got even better when I heard from Jon that he had also been accepted!  The two of us were going to School Retool (even though we really had no idea what we were actually getting into).

Without wading into the depths of the four days of School Retool and the Shadow a Student experience (see shadowastudent.org for more information on this nationwide event!), I will share the inspirations that came from my time at School Retool along with the relationships that have continued!

School Retool is about a mindset on how to approach change and shape culture within our schools.  Often times (especially me), we think big in education…too big! We get caught in discussion, planning, more discussion, more planning until we realize over a year has passed and we have done nothing.

Through School Retool, we create an Aspiration to get us closer to deeper learning in our schools!  We get specific on the behaviors we would see in our school if our Aspiration was a reality.  We then borrow ideas (PBL, Internships, Student Portfolios, etc.) from the network of Deeper Learning Schools that support our Aspiration.  From there, we look at the different levers (ex. schedule, events, finance) that we control in our schools and create hacks (quick, cheap experiments) that attempt to move our schools and culture closer to our Aspiration.

The Hack Mindset from School Retool is based on three simple, but powerful ideas:

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As discussed earlier, I have big dreams and ideas for education.  Over thinking can often lead to inaction.  With School Retool, I learned to just try something (bias to action), reflect on the failures of different ideas (fail forward), and do something I could actually implement within 24 hours (start small).

An example of a hack from my school was to invite students to an informal round table during lunch to learn more about their school experience.  While this is something many do and is not at all innovative, it started because I aspired for students to have a voice in their learning.  My pre-School Retool self would have spent a couple of weeks creating a formal survey for students and then working through the logistics of how to implement the survey.  Ultimately, there would be a chance I would have never been able to do the survey because “schools get busy!”  However, within 2 days of the idea, I had met with students (fed them pizza), learned more about how they experience school, and connected more deeply with students!  I was closer to my Aspiration with this simple hack!

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Not only does School Retool provide a framework for understanding change and moving our schools closer to deeper learning for all students, it has given me a lifetime network of friends and colleagues that I still connect with on my journey.  I can’t wait to see many of them in a few weeks at the Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego.

Last year at the Deeper Learning Conference, I had a chance to meet Annette Diefenthaler, a Portfolio Director ‘s Design for Learning and Education Studio.  She is a passionate leader who helped create School Retool.  We had a great conversation about School Retool’s impact on me…a fitting end for this blog post!  Stay tuned for my journey towards Deeper Learning in coming posts!

BTW-The socks were a gift from School Retool and were our “hacking socks.”  I still have them and wear them today to inspire my hacking:)

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Jon and I are dreamers…

When I think about life, I think there are distinctive moments that shape the direction of where one heads.  Moments where life feels like it becomes a “choose your own adventure” story.  If you choose this, turn to page 34 of your life…choose the other option, turn page 46.  Just like in those stories, some choices lead to success and some lead to disastrous outcomes!choose-your-own-adventure_a-G-12831960-13198931

During a couple of weeks in February 2016, my choose your adventure set the stage to change my life as a principal.  If you recall from my last blog post, I was on a journey with the staff at my former school to create a culture of thinking throughout our entire school.  We had developed a deep-rooted conviction that this culture would support learning that inspired our students…support them to go beyond the answers…to change the narrative of the education so many of us experienced growing up.

Leading up to February 16, 2016, our district had been publicizing the showing of an educational film to our community called Most Likely to Succeed.  mltsI had not heard of the film and was going back and forth on whether to attend as my previous week had been super busy.  Knowing my superintendent had been pretty excited about it, I thought it would be a good idea to attend.  Reflecting on that decision, I truly believe that moment set in motion a series of actions and decisions that got me to where I am today…

“This is it!”  “This is what school CAN be.” I remember vividly thinking those things as I watched the film that night.  I saw the natural evolution of cultures of thinking playing out at a school in San Diego.  I was enthralled…amazed…inspired. The next day at school, I kept thinking how we could do those things?  It was overwhelming, though-provoking, and exciting.  It was all I could think about!

I still remember the moment.  It was around 9:30p.m. the day after we watched Most Likely to Succeed.  I was sitting at my kitchen table working on my dissertation proposal (which I was defending in less than a month).  I remember which chair I was sitting in…which direction I was facing…it was like it was yesterday.  Then my phone rang…

Answering it…I heard, “Hey David, got a minute?”  The call was from Jon Gregory, principal at Forest Hills Northern High School.  Jon and I had gotten to know each other during my first couple of years in the district and we both shared aspirations for making school a better experience for students.  We had attended some events such as Ism’s Day at Quicken Loans, where we would find ourselves talking about “What if?” in thinking about the education of our students.

Jon was probably even more excited about what we had watched the night before!  In fact, he had already been on the website of the school featured in the movie, High Tech High.  Hardly able to contain his excitement, he said there was a conference coming up called the Deeper Learning Conference and it was held at High Tech High.  He let me know he had already emailed our superintendent about going and said I should do the same…

I couldn’t contain my excitement.  I started typing away the email to our superintendent, Dan Behm…

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Writing this blog caused me to go back and search for this email.  Written almost two years ago, I had not looked at or read this email since sending it.  The words I wrote in this email seem almost surreal…”Jon and I are dreamers of what FHPS can be.”

At the time of writing this email, I was principal of a 5th/6th grade school in a different attendance area than the high school where Jon was the principal.  However, after reading this email, it seems like my move to become principal of the middle school that feeds into Jon’s high school was meant to be…I just didn’t realize it at the time.  Isn’t it interesting how things work out? Anyways…

Jon and I were so fortunate that we worked in a district that was excited about this type of innovation and we were given the green light to attend.  Our school district’s education foundation helped to make this happen in supporting with the necessary finances.  The month leading up to our trip to High Tech High is a blur in my memory.  I remember the constant exchange of phone calls, the sharing of ideas through emails, the meetings to prepare for the trip to change our lives.

Our lives are full of moments.  With the gift of time, we are able to look back at our moments…the one’s that help to define us and our contributions to an idea…to a movement.  As I write this today, I think back to the moment in deciding to attend the showing of Most Likely to Succeed.  That moment started a chain reaction in my own choose your own adventure story that is continuing to this day with one of my best friends in education.

I can’t wait to tell you what happened next!






“And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?”

“And you may ask yourself, well how did I get here?” – from the song Once In A Lifetime by the Talking Headswalking

Over the course of the next several posts, I will share my story of how I arrived at this moment…this moment of believing so strongly in the reimagination of schools to focus on deeper learning so that all student can feel the power of personalized learning!  I didn’t just wake up one day thinking, “PBL sounds like a great idea!” or “What’s the latest buzzword I can start using?”

My journey started back when I was a middle school assistant principal on the east side of Michigan.  I had a few colleagues that had started reading the book, Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison.  Always loving a good read, I ordered the book ready to read in the spring of 2013.  While my intention was to begin the book right away, the reality of springtime in a middle school made reading it impossible.  Scheduling, end of year activities, and “8th graders in June” took over and I wasn’t able to start it.  It was that summer at Ludington State Park and a family camping trip with a friend/colleague, Dr. Amanda McKay, that I finally sat down and began to read…AND I COULDN’T STOP!

The thoughts and arguments being made in the book just made so much sense.  In fact, I remember thinking, “Why haven’t I been focusing on a Culture of Thinking in my school?” If you have not had a chance to read the book, I would suggest doing so immediately!  If you are a teacher, there are a number of thinking routines that you can use right away to allow thinking to happen in your classroom at deeper levels.  Anyways, I can point to that summer as a watershed moment when I realized our aim in schools should be to promote thinking and discourse among all of our students.

After that summer, I took a principal position of a 5th/6th grade school in Forest Hills Public Schools.  During the course of the year, I invited my school improvement team to join me on a book study.  (In a plug for why you should be on Twitter to grow your professional learning network) I sent out a tweet asking if anyone had done a book study with this book.  Here is the response I received from a teacher in Troy…

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At the time, I had never met Scott (he has since gone on to become an outstanding Principal), but my team took him up on the opportunity to visit his school.  When we were there, we saw a K-5 school where students were engaged and the student talk happening at all grade levels blew our minds!  I heard 2nd grade students saying things like, “I would like to add to their thinking,” and “I respectfully disagree with his thinking.”  It became clear that at this school, a culture where thinking was valued and elevated was occurring in every classroom.

From this point forward, we worked as a school community with students, staff, and families to create a culture of thinking where all stakeholders (including families) knew we valued the thinking and creativity of our students more than being right and wrong.  We were able to get to the point where visitors could walk in our halls and ask a random student what our school valued, and they would respond with an answering referencing their thinking.

It was powerful work and I owe it to the staff of my former school for being the leaders in taking on this fundamental shift.  It was through their collective efforts that helped transform the school, and in turn, transform me as an instructional leader…an innovative leader.  In reflecting deeper on the growth of our school and of us as individuals, a veteran teacher, Brian May, said “I used to think I was a pretty good teacher.  But when I started to focus on their thinking and pushing to encourage more discourse, I could see what a huge difference it has made with them.”  Seeing this growth among both students and staff left a lasting impression on me!

The work to create a culture of thinking laid the foundation…for the night when I was sitting at my dining room table, and my phone rang…

To Be Continued…



Deeper Learning

Deeper learning is a term being used in education more frequently in education circles.  Hopefully it is replacing the term 21st Century Learning (since we are now 18 years into the 21st century).  Apologies for that quick rant…

Anyways, if we want to elevate the the educational experiences of our students, we need to get clear on what we mean.  When thinking about Deeper Learning, I turn to the work supported by the Hewlett Foundation.  They describe Deeper Learning through:

6-deeper-learning-bannerMore specifically, the Hewlett Foundation defines each one as:

Master core academic content: Students develop and draw from a baseline understanding of knowledge in an academic discipline and are able to transfer knowledge to other situations.

Think critically and solve complex problems: Students apply tools and techniques gleaned from core subjects to formulate and solve problems. These tools include data analysis, statistical reasoning, and scientific inquiry as well as creativity, nonlinear thinking, and persistence.

Work collaboratively: Students cooperate to identify and create solutions to academic, social, vocational, and personal challenges.

Communicate effectively: Students clearly organize their data, findings, and thoughts.

Learn how to learn: Students monitor and direct their own learning.

Develop academic mindsets: Students develop positive attitudes and beliefs about themselves as learners that increase their academic perseverance and prompt them to engage in productive academic behaviors. Students are committed to seeing work through to completion, meeting their goals, and doing quality work, and thus search for solutions to overcome obstacles.

Over the course of this school year, I have been fortunate to be part of a group of educators from my middle school and our high school to look at “Reimagining the 7-12 experience” of our students.  Instead of looking at what we do in middle school and what they do in high school, we are coming together as a school campus to innovate together.  This exciting journey is one that I will be chronicling through this blog in the coming months.  This blog will also serve to encourage others to think about “reimagining” the experience for they students they serve.

This journey with these amazing educators will take us to the Deeper Learning Conference in San Diego, hours of collaboration after school, and a 3 day visit from the Buck Institute in August to deepen our learning on using Project Based Learning as a tool create authentic learning opportunities to go deeper with our students.

A while back, I visited another school that was focusing on creating a Cultures of Thinking within their school.  One thing the principal mentioned tome was his belief that if schools did not begin to focus on the thinking of students, they would no longer do well as students would not prepared for both the new standardized tests, but more importantly for the demands of the world in which are students will enter.

Basically, he was saying schools needed to INNOVATE by focusing on thinking otherwise, previously successful schools would begin to lag behind in terms of student outcomes.

The first part of The Innovator’s Mindset reminded me of this.  In his book, George Couros makes reference to a satirical video produced by The Onion, in which they take a fictional look at a Blockbuster Video museum.  The video is actually pretty funny and can be found at https://youtu.be/3TrPwOrf4sM

Blockbuster Video was in business not too many years ago and I am sure many of us can remember going there.  What happened?  They failed to innovate and they became obsolete against the likes of Netflix, iTunes, and Hulu.  They were comfortable with the status quo.  They were content.  They felt like they were “good.”

As often is said, good is the enemy of great.  In my district, we have always been a “good” district.  Our students and parents have been happy with the education received.  Our test scores on the traditional assessments were good.  By traditional measures, we are doing great!

But on our campus, there exists a group of teachers who did not want to rest on just being good.  They aren’t satisfied with our students just doing well.  They are looking at not what our students were learning, but how?  We see students who were already beginning to play the game of education.  The game where students memorized the answers to demonstrate success, all the while not getting to deep learning or thinking.

We wanted more for our students!  It is through this passion for our students on our 7-12 campus that Deeper Learning WILL become a reality for students.  We will create an experience where students will learn at deep levels and be able to transfer their knowledge into new situations in the future!

Get ready…because this journey is going to be a blast!