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  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 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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