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The following paper suggesting a way forward for education in New Mexico was written by Linda Henke, Director of the Santa Fe Center, and Alan Webber, recently elected mayor of Santa Fe.

Education is at least two things at the same time. It is one of the most critical determinants of how each of us does in life.

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We at the Santa Fe Center are excited to announce an exciting new partnership that has emerged from our work the last two years in St. Louis. Beginning in July, 2018, we will be establishing a formal hub in the St. Louis region known as the St. Louis Transformational Leadership Initiative (TLI), located within the Washington University Institute for School Partnership. We could not be more thrilled to be affiliated with this outstanding institution. Vicki May, the Executive Director of the Institute, has been an important colleague in bringing this partnership to fruition, and has served as an active member of the leadership team that directs our current projects in St. Louis.

We have now hired a project director, Audrey Jackson, who has extensive experience in both leadership and school transformation. Audrey has worked across a broad spectrum of schools and serves as a transformational coach for two of the schools in our current project. Her experience and skillfulness offer tremendous assets to our work, and she will be reporting to Vicki who has a great understanding and appreciation for human-centered school transformation.

Adding Five New Schools

This year we added five schools to our St. Louis fold in addition to the three elementary schools in Ferguson-Florissant who have been studying with us for a year. All eight of our partner schools serve a population that is primarily black and poor. In all of the cases, school leaders want more for their children than what the typical reform agenda offers them.

Sharonica Hardin, the dynamic young superintendent of University City, took the helm a year ago and immediately sought out our organization to support her as she determinedly took on the struggle to transform a poorly performing school into a rich learning environment for students and teachers alike.

You will be hearing much more about Dr. Hardin and her teams’ work on our website as our partnership unfolds. In the first year of her work at University City, she restructured school personnel at the four elementary schools in the district to include two teacher leaders at each school who support their principals on leadership teams. As a part of our partnership with the district, all of these leadership teams have participated in the introductory training for Elena Aguilar’s Coaching for Transformation. This training is a component of a three-year process to implement distributed leadership in the district, giving classroom teachers close access to leaders who can support their work in a much more focused and intentional way than traditional leadership models. (For more information about distributed leadership, see the Bain Report in our Reading Recommendations.)

Each of these eight school teams is assigned a transformational coach who meets with them throughout the year to support their work and who joins them in our seven-day Transformational Team Training that is held monthly throughout the school year.

University City’s outstanding teams are joined by teams from three terrific elementary schools in Ferguson-Florissant: Walnut Grove, Duchesne, and Bermuda. Each of the FF schools’ leadership teams participated in a three-day leadership retreat at the Santa Fe Center this fall where they built their team capacity to work together, explored deeper learning—the heart of our human-centered model—and studied an aspect of the model that was most interesting to them. Matt Hinzpeter, principal of Bermuda, and his team studied and practiced high-level collaborative skills; Jen Andrade, principal of Walnut Grove and her team dug into appreciative inquiry to nurture collective aspiration; and Sheila Ward and her team from Duchesne worked hard to build their understandings of growth mindset as a high leverage theory for transforming their school. These areas of focus remind us again that we are not seeking to develop cookie cutter schools. Instead we are helping leaders and their schools to explore the fundamental question, “What do we want to create together?” And then, our organization supports them in developing a tailored plan using the human-centered model to nurture that vision.

Every team leaving the retreats this fall commented on the critical nature of extended time to discuss important issues, to read, to enjoy one another’s company, and to build their own capacities and resilience for the hard work of genuine transformation. Sara Tehan, an experienced teacher at Bermuda, sent this follow-up note:

 Linda has high expectations. She has high expectations for us as professionals, our school, and the demographics of the students that we serve; and she believes in our transformational plan we developed for our school. She helped us make it specific and manageable for all of the participants. Everyone around the table had a voice, and the voices were honored and respected throughout some difficult and courageous conversations. At moments during the retreat, I become very uncomfortable with our dialogue since I am not an administrator; but Linda and our coach, Audrey, always made me feel cherished. They often reminded me that in order to transform schools, teacher voices must be heard and validated.

 In the end, the retreat experience has brought our principal and our ISL (Instructional Support Leader) and me closer in many ways. I see us trusting in each other by being more transparent in our dialogue, respecting each other’s ideas and thoughts, being more vigilant in our work, as well as keeping a sense of humor with each other. We had an experience and developed a bond that I will never forget or take for granted as an educator. The overall experience has made me more patient and reflective with my student, parents, and staff members, as well. In order to do this work and to do it well, it is important to see and respect the entire organization of a school.

 The final school to join our team this year is our only middle school/high school partner in the St. Louis Project, St Louis College Prep, a charter school in the city of St. Louis. Since its inception five years ago, the school has struggled with a purpose that seems at odds with the diverse student population that enrolled in the school. This year Lauren Chaney and her Executive Director, Mike Malone, decided to dig into the transformative agenda in a big way. They moved two capable part-time coaches to full-time instructional leaders, and each member of their leadership team (including the director of curriculum and the director of special education), took on a group of eight teachers to support with weekly coaching observations and conferences. Following some experimentation, the leadership team developed an effective coaching format that builds on Aguilar’s work. After only a semester with this structure, the leaders are seeing results from weekly, personalized conversations about instruction with every teacher.

 As our family expands, we are so proud of the courageous work our teams are doing. Genuine transformation is difficult work—but the rewards are breath- taking. Our goal is to insure our partners are supported in changing the learning landscape for every child they serve. We believe that together we can make it happen!

For more information about the St. Louis Transformational Leadership Initiative, check out the Transformational Leadership Initiative brochure.

Kevin Grawer, Principal of Maplewood Richmond Heights School District in St. Louis

In order to create a more responsive learning environment for our students and staff, we designed our high school schedule strategically to meet the challenge of consistently providing high quality, personalized programming for a diverse student body. We know, for example, that not all students learn course material on the same timetable.  Despite the fact that all students are required to have the same amount of seat minutes for each course they take, not all students require the allotted time to master the standards–some students need much less, and others need much more time to do so.

To provide appropriate scaffolding for students who need more time, we developed literacy labs and math labs where students get specific support for their work in the course they are struggling with and continued development of their overall skill set in the area. This lab serves as elective credit for our students. We also created credit support classes to assist our struggling learners.   In other words, if a student fails Algebra I with a 54%, what is the sense of requiring that student to repeat the entire year’s worth of class?  Our school data clearly shows that failing students tend to be even less successful when we put them back in the same exact class for the second time.  Instead, we analyze which standards students fell short on and create a The question then arises, “What about those students who need a greater challenge within the regular curriculum?  What do we do to support and challenge them?”  Our response to this question was to create honors options sections within our courses.  Students who want or need a greater challenge within our course offerings can willingly opt into this level of work.  The honors options students are in the same classroom with the non-honors options students and study the same standards.  However, the honors options students are charged with a 25% “advanced differentiation” workload.  Consequently, these students do more/different readings, class projects, presentations, off-site visits, and have more varied assessments than the non-honors options kids.   We ensure at least three honors option students are in a section so they are able to collaborate. We believe this approach works much better than traditional tracking because top students stay in the regular education class and provide examples of what high quality work looks like, a key problem with tracked courses.

High schools hear a lot of talk about their role in ensuring that students are “college ready.”  Of course, we work hard to do so by instituting a clear set of focused strategies:

  • Ensuring our students have dual credit options, not just in the core areas, but in the fine/practical arts and tech-related courses;
  • Offering an “open access” approach to dual credit options and certifying that our pre-requisite courses are aligned to, and prepare our students for the dual credit level workload;
  • Creating support classes for our most rigorous courses to ensure our students have intentional academic scaffolds;
  • Implementing a daily schedule that allows for easy access and enrollment in academic supports and rigorous courses;
  • Analyzing our data regarding who is enrolled in our most rigorous courses and developing strategies to ensure our dual credit enrollment mirrors our student demographic enrollment.

The icing on the cake to our college/world-ready programming is our response to our school metaphor, “School as Apprenticeship.”  As apprentices, our students are learning a skill set each hour from their mentors (the teachers) on a daily basis.  Still, this interaction is not enough.  We endeavor to insure our students have access to the real world of work and exposure to the talents and preparation required to perform skillfully and successfully on the job.  We have invested in our metaphor by creating the position of “Director of Career Connections.”  This office handles student job shadows, internships, meetings with professionals, and career interest inventories via our Naviance system.  Moreover, each classroom teacher must have an apprenticeship-related goal each year.  For example, the 2nd year English teacher included as part of his apprenticeship goal this year the following:

  • Inviting professional writers into class to discuss their career trajectories and college course of study;
  • Creating NPR Story Corps interviews related to the themes of Hamlet and Lord of the Flies.

With our Career Connections, we add another layer, exposing students to future careers and a deeper analysis of their interests and strengths.

Finally, we tweaked our schedule and the way we look at our school day to guarantee that each student will have a schedule that fits his or her needs and goals.  In Missouri, students are required to earn 24 credits to graduate.  This means the average student earns 3 credits per semester or 6 a year.  We, however, offer our students 8 courses each semester meaning they can possibly earn 32 credits during their 4 years with us.  The difference between 32 credits and 24 is rather large but also speaks to the individualization we can offer each student.  Not every student needs to enroll in 7-8 classes per semester as it may not be in their best interest or fit their learning profile.

Many students simply cannot handle the 8-course workload; others crave it.  When we recognize that there is value in creating a more open and free flowing system within our schedule, we can truly support students and their individual goals while more closely mimicking a college schedule.  The student that wants to be a fireman may take 5 or 6 academic courses per semester (rather than 8) and leave early (or start later) to intern at the local fire department without endangering his progress to graduation.  On the other hand, the student who wishes to earn a maximum amount of college credit while in high school may opt to take the full 8-course load from 9-11 the grade, thereby getting ahead of the credit earning game, and allow time for internships, college visits and job shadows during the 12th grade year.  The days of every student having an 8-3 schedule are archaic, simplistic and downright hurtful to students who have outlined their future goals.  “One size fits each” is our motto, not “one size fits all.”

When we attempt to homogenize our educational experience for all students, we end up limiting their creativity, restraining their ambitions, and promoting bitterness among our students and parents that leads to mistrust in our relationship.  By tweaking our school designs we can not only improve our relationships within our school community, but also give our students (the reason for which we all have jobs) deeper insights into who they are and who they are becoming.

Transformation of our schools will require leaders who are prepared to repurpose and
reimagine schools rather than simply reform them. 
(Phil Schlechty, p. 8)

At the Maplewood-Richmond Heights school district(MRH) in planning sessions with teachers, parents, and board members, we developed our focus for an MRH education: inspiring and preparing students as scholars, leaders, stewards, and citizens. These four roles we took seriously, and we shaped a unique program for our students, a transformed education. Today if I were in the conversation, I would advocate for the addition of one more role—that of innovators. In this blog entry, we explore briefly the role of scholarship.

Becoming Scholars                                              

Senge calls it “deep learning” and Schlechty calls it “profound learning,” but what it represents is a commitment to scholarship in the classroom, a willingness to pursue topics and questions over a period of time—long enough to create a sense of “expertness” with ideas, long enough to develop a theory about how seemingly disparate concepts fit together, long enough to ask questions and seek answers that require analysis and synthesis. Scholarship is difficult to attempt in many schools today because of the reform movement’s focus on achievement which usually translates to increasing test scores. Recently I visited a fourth grade classroom in a turnaround school where students were completing a worksheet on American coinage.   A brief two paragraphs appeared at the top of the page and six questions at the bottom. When I visited with the teacher at the end of the period, she explained that the lesson focused on common core standards about citing evidence from a text. “So what learning was this lesson a part of?” I asked.

“Oh” she answered, “This was a social studies lesson.”

“Ah, so you are looking at coinage from an economic perspective? Or perhaps from an historical perspective? I queried.

The teacher looked puzzled. Finally she answered, “No, we’re not really studying coinage. It was just a worksheet on coinage. We don’t really study anything in social studies.”  I didn’t know what to say. That last sentence had quite taken my breath away. But as I reflected on the conversation back in my hotel room that night, I realized I should not have been so surprised. I watched with great sadness as the Department of Education implemented “The Race to the Top” and sent schools across the nation scurrying up an imaginary mountain in pursuit of high achievement. And as they raced, they left behind the heavy stuff that takes energy to carry—the deep inquiry, the complex projects, the intense writing and revision, the document-based study. The top of the mountain where the air is thin, offers little room for collaboration; the work is isolated and done in bite-sized bits. The Race to the Top in 2009 and all of the similar-minded reform efforts of the last decade were aiming to promote high achievement. In fact, they decimated scholarship. In an amazing number of elementary schools there is no social studies curriculum, and the science program is tucked in some place where it doesn’t impact math and literacy. Budget cuts have eliminated the arts in many places. In far too many schools, reading programs have retreated to teacher-proof programs where teachers read scripted lessons and students fill in worksheets. Scholarship has no place in these environments.

To be frank, scholarship was not a part of many school’s programs before the reform effort—particularly in poor schools where remediation carried the day. As we began our work at MRH, we surveyed the schools in the district and were struck by how dramatically different the schoolwork our students were doing was from that in the neighboring Clayton district, the wealthy suburb my assistant superintendent and I had just left. In Clayton, we didn’t pay much attention to the state tests; our students did well on them. Clayton parents expected their children to be prepared to enter Ivy League universities, and that work started in the earliest grades. Students in Clayton read books—lots of them– starting in kindergarten. They wrote daily in Writers’ Workshop. High school students had one-on-one conferences with their English teachers about their writing throughout the year. Tubs of wonderful materials to study science and social studies concepts were delivered to the elementary classroom doors. The science labs at Clayton High were stocked with amazing equipment and seemed not much different from the laboratories down the street at Washington University. The Early Childhood program was based on Reggio Emilia, the Italian preschool that has garnered international attention with its focus on scholarship and art for the youngest learners. Clayton children in all grades explored all the wonderful resources that were a part of the St Louis region—the zoo, the art museum, the arboretum, the symphony, the history museum.

At MRH, I discovered we didn’t teach algebra until the tenth grade. Teachers felt our students weren’t ready for it, which in truth was probably a correct assumption. In eleventh grade some students took geometry; many took consumer math. One afternoon in October of the first year I was there, I stopped by the algebra teacher’s room to see how things were going. I sat in a student desk; the teacher sat at his. “You know, I think we are going to have to look at how we start teaching algebra at an earlier grade,” I broached, mentioning its power as a gatekeeper for students’ academic lives. I wondered what his response might be and I didn’t have to wait long. He exploded. His face was red and he stood up abruptly and slammed a book on his desk. “Not on your life,” he shouted, “You send me chicken shit and expect me to turn it into chicken salad! It’s not going to happen. I won’t do it!”

I stood, stunned, sure my face was as red as his. I tried my best to keep my voice steady, “We’ll have the conversations,” I said, “I’d like you to be a part of them, but perhaps that won’t be the case. This is a collective problem. No one person is expected to solve it, but we all are expected to own it.”

The conversation was one of many we had across the district (most not generating such vehemence)…when we discovered middle school students did no science experiments; when we found that the eleventh grade English class was based on a workbook for special education students about workplace English; when we discovered that African American preschool children participated in an inadequate Head Start Program housed in our Early Childhood building, and the white children were placed in a separate district-offered preschool program that their parents paid for; when we discovered that elementary children did virtually no writing and the science program came from a ten-year-old textbook; when an art teacher refused to take children to the art museum because she would not accept liability for “these kids.”

I knew the national and state reform efforts were supposed to address poor education in schools like MRH—but what the reform agenda accomplished in far too many places, including MRH, was substituting a new set of piecemeal solutions instead of offering children the rich academic diet that was being served next door.

The end of October of that first year, the region’s Special Education Director sat down with me in my office to review the numbers of our students receiving special services. I looked at the page for the high school incredulously. I turned to her, “Thirty-five percent of our high school students are in special education?”

“Yes,” she noted, shaking her head, “You are the highest in the state of Missouri.”

“How can that be? How can one third of our children need special services? Are we built on an ancient toxic waste dump or something? These numbers don’t make any sense!” I could feel my frustration rising.

“I know,” she replied, “Some might call it educational malpractice.”

Years of what amounted to educational neglect had culminated in the figures staring at me from the page. Clearly that our first order of business in creating a different kind of school had to be building an understanding of scholarship and what it looked like and sounded like everywhere in our district.

The task was daunting…as it is for anyone who aims for school transformation, but successful models exist all over the United States. A primary focus of transformational work must be the development of highly engaging, authentic, experiences that call on children to learn and apply basic and higher order skills to solve problems. The work must be rigorous, well-scaffolded and connected to the world in which we live. It must give children time to explore, propose, rethink and revise, collaborate, and come to an understanding of what excellence looks like. A tall order, indeed.

At MRH we turned to Understanding by Design to help us begin to shape our thinking about scholarship. This curriculum design framework developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins gave us a common language for talking about teaching and learning; it offered a process for moving away from bits and pieces of learning and delving into big ideas; it helped us articulate our learning proposals from grade to grade, it put textbooks in a proper perspective as a resource; and it was respectful of the teachers’ professional knowledge. Our teachers became designers; and like architects and other design professionals, they followed certain standards but had space to create rich challenging learning agendas for children.

Our work with Understanding by Design was critical to the deep changes at MRH. We spent the entire first year involving every teacher in the development of one unit of their choice. They worked in teams and were given time for research of their topic and discussion of what kind of strategies would work best to engage and challenge students within the content they had selected. Some of the teachers’ professional development time was used to visit regional resources to see how these could support our work. Suddenly the zoo, the museums, even local businesses became options for enhancing study. Teachers learned to critique each other’s work, with revision a critical to the process.

The facets of understanding described by McTighe and Wiggins helped teachers expand their visions of learning. Perhaps most profound was the fact that three of the six facets focused on understandings that grew heavily from the affective realm: empathy, self-knowledge, and perspective. These were, by and large, new to our faculty and engendered much conversation about how to teach them in meaningful ways. Their conscious inclusion in the curriculum over time had a powerful impact on the culture of our district. Both teachers and children grew in their ability to discuss these facets in a story, a history lesson, at recess, or on the ball field. We had language that informed our thinking and learning experiences to broaden our understandings of how we would be in relationship to one another.

Facets of UnderstandingPerspective, Self-Knowledge, Empathy, Interpretation, Application, Explanation


Fundamental to this work was supplying each teacher a laptop. We created a system for posting the units online including all of the links to resources, and teachers could read and respond to each others’ proposals. We did gallery walks of the student work that came out of the units, commenting on the clarity of the learning outcome and the quality of the work. In that first year we began to deprivatize our practice and develop a sense of excitement and purpose in our teaching.

Certainly some people decried this focus. We heard comments such as this: Your school is falling apart around you, and you choose to spend an entire year creating a small number of units of instruction. The answer was an emphatic yes, because in truth we were doing much more than that. We were changing the culture by focusing intensely on learning, recognizing the power of design to shape learning experiences, building teacher efficacy, nurturing professional collaboration, and establishing teacher and student scholarship as the primary focus of our collective efforts. We were also restoring energy and excitement to our role as educators, and many teachers rose to the occasion in remarkable ways. Others did not, and that is a story for later in the book.

The dictionary definition of scholarship is this: the systematized knowledge of a learned person, exhibiting accuracy, critical ability, and thoroughness. This definition was powerful for us. We discovered our units aimed much higher when we were developing students’ scholarship than if we were just collecting interesting activities or teaching isolated standards. Scholarship required us to look at learning with a much more critical eye as to exactly what and how our students were learning. We recognized that isolated skill drill was necessary on occasion, but as a steady diet it left our students’ scholarship wanting. As we waded into increasingly sophisticated pedagogy, teachers became systems thinkers, exploring the interrelatedness of the experiences they were designing and the knowledge they were helping students weave together.

A focus on scholarship can look different in different settings. Envision Schools, a consortium of charter schools in the Bay area of San Francisco, offer wonderful examples of schools where scholarship is a clear focus. The schools have garnered national recognition for innovations in performance assessment, a graduation portfolio system, and a rigorous approach to project based learning. Seventy percent of Envision students come from low-income families, but that fact has not kept them from highly successful high school careers, and almost 80 percent go on to be the first in their families to graduate from college.

The Envision organization began in 2001, close to the time we began our work at MRH, and when No Child Left Behind was legislated. So the envision founders were swimming upstream when they opted for a robust approach to their curriculum and what they described as “deeper learning.”

The schools work closely with the Hewlett Foundation, and Hewlett’s list of desired student outcomes for deeper student learning looks like this:

  • Master core academic content
  • Think critically and solve complex problems
  • Work collaboratively
  • Communicate effectively
  • Learn how to learn
  • Develop academic mindsets

(Lenz, p. 7)


Envision adapted this list, adding the important outcome of “creating something that did not exist before.” Fundamental to the work at Envision Schools is the following rule of thumb: for learning to be meaningful and long lasting, it should culminate in the creating of something that never existed before. (Lenz, p. 9) Envision school founders define creativity expansively, and they refer to the revised Bloom’s taxonomy as they craft their learning plans. Creating at Envision involves a broad range of products and processes, all designed to engage students in sophisticated application of skills and understandings not well assessed with a bubble in or short answer.


Perhaps one of the most impressive parts of the Envision School work is their commitment to project based work as a way to deeper learning. Anyone who has attended Buck Institute’s wonderful workshops knows that project based learning is heady and complex, learning requiring skillful teaching and real commitment. Envision Schools have made project based learning an art form among its teachers and students. The launch of a project begins not with what students will learn but what they will create.

Project based Learning Envision Style includes the following:

  • An inquiry into a student-friendly, provocative essential question that drives the learning. This is part of PBL’s philosophy that learning is most engaged when triggered by a learner’s “I need to know” rather than by a teacher’s “because you should know.”
  • A demonstration of key knowledge and skills in which students show evidence through a product or performance that they have mastered predetermined standards or desired learning outcomes.
  • Academic rigor and alignment with standards, allowing students to master content knowledge and skills and to demonstrate or apply that knowledge.
  • A timeline that is short or long, ranging from a few days to several weeks, so that students learn how to benchmark and manage projects of different sizes.
  • An engaging launch to hook students into taking on the project.
  • Applied learning so that students think and do something new with their knowledge or skills.
  • An authentic audience, which ensures that the students take the project seriously, challenging them to present their learning professionally and inspires their stretching for quality.
  • High quality products and/or performances that not only provide evidence of rigorous learning, but also knocks people’s socks off.

(Lenz, p. 68)


For secondary schools looking for a place to dig into scholarship, the Envision book by Lenz et.al. Transforming Schools: Using Project-based Learning, Performance Assessments, and Common Core Standards is a great place to start.   With an accompanying DVD showing students’ defense of their work, the book gives enough specifics to support a deep dive into what scholarship looks like in a high school that puts it front and center.

When genuine deep scholarship is front and center of a transformation effort, schools change, in part because implicit in the focus is a professionalization of teachers and their own scholarship. Teachers who aim for scholarship are not given scripts; they are coached to be designers who study their students and their content and create rich environments where critical thinking and broad inquiry are embedded in daily work.

*  *  *  *  *  *

Lenz, Bob, et.al.  Transforming Schools: Using Project-based Learning, Performance    Assessments, and Common Core Standards. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2015

Schlechty, Phillip C. Leading for Learning: How to Transform Schools into Learning Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009

Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency, 1990.


For the last two years I have had the opportunity to work with the outstanding teachers and administrators at Grand Center Arts Academy, a young 6-12 charter school in the city of St Louis. Grand is a wonderful success story, attracting a diverse student body from across the metro area and outstanding teachers drawn to the mission of the Academy. Situated in a transformed parking garage, the school is located in the city’s arts district, and the staff has become skillful in partnering with organizations such as the Fox Theatre and the Symphony. Grand students get first hand interaction with professional artists from many fields.

Creating a first class curriculum was a critical step in the school’s development, and it was at this point I joined the school as a consultant. We used Understanding by Design to build robust units that engaged students in authentic exploration of big ideas and generative questions. From the beginning, we looked to integrate the arts into the other disciplines, and the arts staff did an amazing job of finding ways to accomplish that. Every time I visited, I found a beautiful performance or installation that grew from study in one or more of the academic disciplines.

The first year, I visited Grand 15 days, helping teachers learn the skillful application of Understanding by Design as each teacher developed one unit. Usually my visits occurred in two-day sets, one day devoted to large group learning and a second day conferencing with individuals and small groups on unit design. At the end of each of the three stages of UBD, teachers participated in critique groups using a protocol specifically designed for the stage. I wrote personal responses to each of the stages for all of the teachers.

During that first year, we also focused on building leadership capacity so that all teachers felt comfortable assuming leadership when needed. We learned to develop and follow group norms, to use the ladder of inference and the iceberg model for systems thinking, to build quality agendas, and to support authentic dialogue and discussion. This kind of professional development dramatically improved the quality of department and critique group meetings. I created a small ebook for the staff where all the leadership materials were organized and accessible to them.

In order to stay in touch, answer questions, and provide support materials and useful websites, I developed a blog personalized to the Grand Center work. It was an easy way to communicate, and teachers knew where resources were when they got stuck as they were working with their units. By May of the first year, teachers were comfortable with the format of Understanding by Design and this first set of units were some of the best I had ever read.

Over the summer, each department spent a week together creating a curricular infrastructure document that included a philosophy, graduate outcomes, overarching enduring understandings, a list of courses, and an outline of the units in each course. I supported the teams in this work by providing a sample agenda for the week’s work, training team leaders in the process and the design of the infrastructure, offering samples of each of the items they were to develop along with suggested reading materials; and helping problem-solve when groups got stuck. Common Core, State, and National Standards where appropriate were part of the materials that all departments accessed.

On our return in the fall, we spent a day as a faculty examining other departments’ infrastructures and finding ways to collaborate across disciplines. This resulted in shifting the order of some units, doing some refocusing of units, and tightening interdisciplinary agreements. With this foundation structure in place, we were ready to settle into the development of new units.

The best professional development engages teachers in working with curriculum and instruction and creating course work that is tailored to their students and their environment. The second year at Grand, all professional development was devoted to unit design and critique, with time for teachers to collaborate across disciplines as well as within their departments. By the end of the second year, teachers had each designed two more outstanding UbD units.

This kind of curriculum development process takes time; but once teachers embrace Understanding by Design, their teaching changes in important ways. Outcomes become clearer, assessment packages include performance events, and the learning plan is focused on deep understanding rather than superficial coverage. This is why I find this approach to offer great leverage for schools searching for curriculum development strategies.

A critical part of the success of this kind of curriculum initiative that aims to deprivatize practice is a system for easy storage and access of the units by staff members. If, for example, a social studies teacher is searching for ways to connect with his English colleague’s course work, he can easily find the units he needs. Grand Center chose to use Sharepoint as their system. The program works beautifully and inexpensively to accomplish what the school needs. The principal created a folder for each of the departments, and within this folder, additional folders for each course and the infrastructure document. With a brief training, teachers were able to upload their units and access others’ units easily.

Another advantage of Sharepoint is that it preserves all links that teachers put into their units. This linkage is something I encourage teachers to do—linking all study guides, labs, descriptions of assignments, rubrics, etc. In this way, the unit stands ready to teach, and there’s no searching for materials they were sure they had store…somewhere.

Year three of the curriculum initiative will be led by Grand administrators and teachers. The department chairs will continue supporting the unit development and critique work on professional development days and a series of book studies about learning will enhance teachers’ practice. Teachers will identify books that they feel will be most useful to answering their current questions and choose which of four or five they would like to study. Teachers are currently considering Visible Learners: Promoting Reggio-Inspired Approaches in All Schools by Mara Krechevsky, Transforming Schools Using Project-Based Learning, Performance Assessment, and Common Core Standards, the Envision Schools’ provocative book on project-based learning by Bob Lenz, et.al.and Ron Berger’s book on student self assessment, Leaders of Their Own Learning.  All great choices.

This thorough, thoughtful approach to curriculum design has a multitude of benefits; perhaps, most importantly it creates a professional culture where teachers freely collaborate and critique and see their work as continuously improving. Grand Center demonstrates this. I am delighted with what this fine staff has created, and honored to have been a part of it.

     A story is a fundamental way that humans organize and store information.Jane Friedman (Friedman)

Indigenous people the world over have long recognized the power of story to give their lives coherence and purpose. Across geography and cultures, rich story captures history, cultural mores, and identity. Steve Denning, who has done a great deal of research into story and leadership describes story this way: A narrative or story in its broadest sense is anything told or recounted; more narrowly, and more usually, something told or recounted in the form of a causally-linked set of events. (Denning, http://www.stevedenning.com/Business-Narrative/definitions-of-story-and-narrative.asp) While we sometimes use the two terms interchangeably, one useful distinction is that story has an arc, a beginning, middle and ending that develops a plot. Narrative, on the other hand, can remain quite open ended, although it uses the elements of story to create meaning. Both, however, serve leaders as they attempt to influence the culture in an organization, tapping into the human brain in ways simple facts cannot. Story triggers emotions and connections that are seldom accessed in other kinds of language.

Companies including Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway, NASA, and the World Bank have begun to draw upon this power to support their innovation processes.(Schwabel)  In today’s school environment, however, story has been given little significance. Schools today are flooded with information, plans, data—all the language of logic; narrative is considered soft, emotional, perhaps even manipulative because it moves people without facts and numbers. Yet Stephen Denning in his book The Leader’s Guide to Story Telling, suggests that story telling is critical to a leader’s success in introducing change in an organization. In fact, he implies it is much more than just another communication tool, but a way of leading, one that focuses on interaction and shared meaning rather than top down demands. (Denning, xi)

Denning’s idea that story actually supports a different kind of leading fits well with our understandings of the relationship between language and transformational leadership. In truth, every school has an overarching narrative that reinforces ways of thinking and doing, evolving most usually by default and articulated only in bits and pieces. These narratives shape perspectives and possibilities. The transformational leader, however, sees narrative as a stream of energy that can motivate people and propel change. The transactional leader most often doesn’t even notice its existence.

Research supports the idea that linking change to a narrative can be transformative. In 2002 the McKinsey Quarterly published a research study that explored the success of forty companies making major change in the approach to their work. The study evaluated twelve different factors that were used to support the change. Sadly, over half of the companies were not successful in making the changes they had put forward. But of the 42 precent who were successful, most used story telling as an important part of their strategy. (LaClair, 41) These companies discovered that an appropriate told story does what analysis cannot—touch people’s minds and hearts. And as Noel Tichy says so well, “The best way to get humans to venture into unknown territory is to make that terrain familiar and desirable by taking them there first in their imaginations. (Tichy, 208)

In an interview with Daniel Goleman, Howard Gardner also suggests that the narrative around the introduction of something new is imperative. He comments, “I’m absolutely certain that a very important part of any new invention whether it’s mechanical or literary or artistic, is a narrative vehicle which helps people relate to it. This helps them understand the ways in which it is complementary to, or consistent with, or directly clashing with, what they did before.” (Goleman, 2012)

While increasingly cutting edge business and industry leaders are helping their leaders learn to tell their own stories and the stories of their companies, schools shy away from all of this. So what is the difference between offering an analysis and offering a story? Story speaks to both the conscious and the unconscious parts of our brains. It is a form of mental imprint that assists people to organize their thinking and make sense of things. In this way, story provides a schema that connects our work to important senses and emotions. Narrative can help people rise above frustrations because it appeals to the humanity in all of us—the universal need to connect and understand what we do as important and worthwhile.

Over the course of several months as we began our work at MRH, my assistant and I paid careful attention to the language that was used by teachers, administrators, students and community members. What we found was an overarching narrative filled with disappointment, distrust, and lack of hope. The negative mental maps of MRH held by those involved in the work of the school shaped the teaching and learning, the interactions of individuals and groups, and the sense of self worth of the adults and children in the district.

Prevalent Beliefs at MRH in 2000

  • The children who come to us have so many problems that we cannot expect to produce the same results of other schools.
  • These students need the basics: drill and practice is the best way to help them.
  • Teachers and administrators have different goals and can work together only with union monitoring and formal agreements.
  • MRH is not a place where you build a career.
  • Schools within the district must fight each other for community respect.
  • Parents are the enemy.
  • Resources can be pulled away at any moment. It is every teacher for 
  • Improvement efforts are primarily about fulfilling state mandates rather 
than about real change. Wait awhile and the initiative will be gone.
  • I do the best I can in my classroom—what goes on in the rest of the 
district is not my responsibility.

We talked about this list for a long time with our Board of Education and administrators. How do you counter these negative and defeating views of self, student, and school? Laminating a different set of values and posting it on the walls or dictating a different way of being…we knew these strategies wouldn’t work. We decided that part of the answer came in articulating a different story. Story became an integral part of our work over the years. We told stories about ourselves, but we also learned to listen to stories in a much deeper way than we ever had before. And in the reciprocity of story, we built a different kind of school.

We began with that very first institute only two weeks into our administration by taking a very big risk. We decided the afternoons each day of that two-week period would be devoted to writing and sharing the stories of our lives and of our work. Obviously there was huge risk in this. The new superintendent and assistant superintendent were asking people to write and share personal and professional narratives. What right did we have to probe into lives of those we were now going to be supervising? But I remembered an anecdote Peter Senge told us once as he was describing Chris Argyris’ work with the left hand column exercise. In this exercise, leaders were supposed to script what they were actually thinking when they were having a conversation with someone about a tense part of their work. Chris wanted to mine the disconnect between what was said and what was thought. A student asked Chris, “Doesn’t that feel dangerous for the participants?”

“Yes,” Chris replied, “It’s supposed to.” And that, in the end, is the truth about narrative and leadership, as well. It is risky being real with one another, exploring and exposing what is human and vulnerable…but it changes everything. So during those two weeks as teachers and administrators sat and wrote and shared parts of their lives and their work, an amazing bond was formed. Within the first week a quiet high school teacher described his battle with alcoholism, an elementary teacher wrote about the suicide of her teenage son, the high school principal shared his terror when he discovered in August of his first year that none of the students had been scheduled for fall course work. We laughed at funny stories of children’s antics…and we cried at the loss and pain that also wove through our lives.

Each afternoon I taught a lesson on how to tell our stories more effectively: we had time to write; and we practiced responding to writing as human beings committed to honoring every storyteller. It was a simple format, but it left room for everything important.

During that workshop I wrote about a short vacation my family had taken that included a few days at a small hotel in Vancouver. The hotel had billed itself as a “boutique hotel” and family members had initially chuckled at the designation. But we soon learned that the hotel staff took that designation very seriously and attended to our every need. They made it their business to learn what we liked to eat, what we liked to do, where we liked to sit for breakfast and took great delight to insuring our needs were met. The hotel celebrated their unique location and characteristics and capitalized on their small size to do what no big hotel could accomplish. “Maybe,” I suggested, “Our little school tucked in next to the urban center should begin to think of ourselves as a boutique district, offering our families things no big school could ever offer.” The idea inspired a great deal of conversation over the two weeks and beyond, and ever so subtly the narrative of MRH changed. We began to let go of the victim story and to take on a story of power and possibility.

Narrative can do that. It can lead people into places they have never been before. Story telling can help explore an emerging vision for a school; it can communicate values that undergird the school; it can capture the ethos of a school either past or present; and it can help build relationships and support people in seeing why you do what you do as an educator and leader.

Eight years after those initial interviews, we worked with a group of teachers who served on a district curriculum council to identify the current prevalent beliefs about the school district held by teachers as we applied for a professional development award. The teachers identified the following set of beliefs:

  • MRH is a place where creativity and innovation are valued.
  • Collaboration is critical to our work in the district.
  • Our students thrive in environments that support them in building 
their understandings through active, social learning.
  • The learning work our students produce is important to us: we display it, 
analyze it, and celebrate it.
  • MRH hires and supports high quality teachers who assume important 
leadership roles in the district.
  • Parents are an important part of our success.
  • Genuine change takes a long time and requires both outside experts and 
our own best thinking to take root.

This dramatic change from the previous list came, of course, in large part because of the change in practices that we implemented. But it also emerged as a narrative that was deliberately part of the leadership work.

The new narrative that was shaped over the years went something like this:

MRH is a small district with big ideas. We aim to offer a distinct quality private school education in a public school setting. We believe our children and our community deserve and want something more than standard suburban education. We nurture innovation, individuality, and excellence and resist cookie cutter approaches. Our programming celebrates childhood and learning and sees our learners as active, engaged participants in the world.

We are deeply committed to our community and believe we must make our children and their learning visible to the entire community. We want everyone to celebrate these beautiful children, to partner in their education, and to help initiate them into their hometown. We want the children to feel a deep connection to their school community and to the broad range of people who live there. We support our students as they learn in and serve their community.

MRH teachers and administrators are adventurers who are willing to take risks. We work extraordinarily hard and take our scholarship and teaching very seriously. MRH teachers expect to collaborate, to fail occasionally, and to be passionate about our vision of education that goes far beyond achievement on standardized tests. We expect everyone to be able to step forward and lead as the situation demands.

Most of all we demonstrate to our students that we love them unconditionally. We set high expectations for them; we allow them to fall down and are there to pick them up; and we are relentless in nurturing them to be the best leaders, scholars, stewards, and citizens they can be…because after all, we expect them to change the world.

One thing that is important to understand: we began talking the talk before we were consistently walking the walk. But every time we found some event or action or personal behavior that demonstrated this narrative, we highlighted it, and over time this story was articulated throughout the organization. On our application paperwork, for example, we used this language to describe the kind of teachers we were looking for. We used elements of this in speeches, in articles, in the way we framed community events and celebrations, and in what we honored. At the end of the chapter are examples of my writing that drew upon this over-arching narrative to help the community connect to our vision of schooling.

Two years after I retired, the principal of the high school sent me the comments a teacher had made on parent night explaining what it was like to work at MRH. Her comments are below and reflect the overarching narrative that had been woven many years earlier.

Parents’ Night Speech by Patrice Bryan

When Mr. Grawer said I could have five minutes and I asked him what I should focus on, he said, “Talk about what it’s like to be at MRH.” As someone who’s in my 22rd year of teaching, only 4 of it here, I have a lot to say about what makes MRH different and special, but I’m going to stick to my five minutes, so I narrowed it down to what I think are the 2 most important differences.

 #1 The work ethic

There’s no way you can walk onto this campus, look around you and feel the climate, and not recognize the sheer amount of sweat and tears that must have gone in to accomplishing such a transformation. When I interviewed here, the one thing everyone brought up was “you’re going to work harder than you’ve ever worked.” I thought “Whatever. I’ve worked pretty hard up to now.” I had no idea what I was talking about. You don’t truly understand work ethic until you’ve worked at MRH.

When you start working here, the first thing you do is begin observing other teachers and going through what I call the calibration phase. This is the phase where you’re in your first month and you walk out to your car at 4:00 and realize you’re the first one leaving. This is the time when you start reading other teachers’ agendas in D2L [daily plans written for students posted on our online curriculum tool] and realize you have to step up your game if your agendas are ever going to look like Mike Cassell’s.

The word curriculum actually comes from the Latin word “currerr” which means to run. One of the commonalities among staff is many of them are wired to not only gauge how fast they can run, but to constantly push themselves to run faster. These are the kinds of people who teach 6 classes a day, sponsor two clubs, write curriculum in the summer, read professional books, and do it all while juggling a spouse and a variety of offspring. They are super people, and you have to aspire to be a super person to make it here.

#2 The second most important difference is that these teachers have been given license to be creative in their curriculum. They create experiences in the classroom and those experiences are often nothing short of masterful.

I was in the Research and Design Center last week talking to the media specialist, Ms. Baker, and she was trying to find a way to connect a new resource to a class and she said, “Oh I think Rowley does a unit on Picasso.” I said, “Oh yeah! That’s a beautifully written unit.” She looked at me like I was a big dork, but the truth is, much of our curriculum is pure artistry because it’s nuanced with the expertise of our teachers, and each one brings something unique, creative, and often cosmopolitan to their curriculum.

Notorangelo doesn’t just teach a foreign language, she lived in Honduras and served in the Peace Corps, immersing herself in developing world Spanish. Nims and McWilliams don’t just teach science, they go to exotic places like the Galapagos and study hawks—for fun. Henske didn’t just do an activity about the anniversary of Auschwitz, she’s been there and has stood in that space and felt the impact. Rowley didn’t just write a unit on Picasso, he’s studied art and brings that unit to life with a deep understanding of the intersection of art and literature. Sonntag doesn’t just recommend young adult literature to students, she reads from 80-100 young adult literature books a year so she can know what the kids are reading.

 In my very first interview with the superintendent, I was prattling on about all the things I thought I could change and fix. I was saying “This can be fixed by blah blah blah” and “we tried to fix this at my other district by doing blah blah blah”. After a few minutes, she calmly interrupted me and said, “Quit talking about what you’re going to fix and tell me what you can create. That’s transformative.”

It was the moment that I realized I was in a special place where my creativity would not only be valued but encouraged.

 So when you talk to these teachers tonight, tune in to the artistry in the curriculum. Ask them about their passion. That’s what sets us apart from everyone else. That’s what makes MRH different and that’s what makes me love this job.

Below is a list of tips I shared with my administrators as I urged them to draw upon the power of narrative in their school newsletters and in their conversations with parents and teachers.

  • Schools are filled with wonderful stories. Pay attention to them; celebrate them; encourage everyone in your school to become a story teller.
  • Don’t try to pack everything into any one telling of a narrative. Select a few important elements to convey based on the situation.
  • Think of your story as a Super Bowl commercial—convey strong emotion and a clear sense of character tied to who we are as a school community.
  • Show, don’t tell. Put your audience there so they can experience what it is like. Create a movie in your audience’s minds.
  • Use vivid language—strong verbs, hefty nouns first and foremost and then adjectives and adverbs that add clarity,
  • Even if you choose not to tell a whole story, you can use narrative elements—rich details, a sense of place, strong character description to help make your point.
  • Practice before you tell a story. Everyone gets better and the story is sharpened as we practice telling.

Perhaps one of the most important and unexplored roles of the school leader is that of weaver of narrative. Annette Simons captures it so well when she says, “People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—faith in you, your goals, in the story you tell. We need to learn to tell the story.” (Simmons, 2006)

Give It A Go

  1. Use the MindTools site to explore ways to build your storytelling capacity.


  1. Take the free Stanford webinar on using storytelling to fuel innovation.


  1. Listen to Steven Denning talk about the power of story in an organization.


  1. Begin to develop your story telling skills. Keep a journal in a compositionbook or in a file on your computer and begin to jot description and story as you work in your school. You will discover you become much more aware of life in the school as you approach your work as a story teller.

Examples of the Use of Narrative

Opening of School Comments to Faculty During Year Three

So not many of you probably know that one of my favorite movies is Terminator II. I watch it almost every year, usually before school starts. “Ah,” some of you are thinking, “this explains a lot.”

In truth, however, it’s not the terminator that is appealing to me…it is John Conner who is the human lead in the story. If you will remember, the film opens with a horrific battle between machines and humans some time in the future. It is pretty clear that the machines are winning and are well on their way to taking over the world. A small band of human beings are fighting to keep this from happening, and they are led by an amazingly brave hero named John Conner.

For those of you who have seen Terminator I, this is very interesting, because you were introduced to John in that first film as a bratty preteen who made his mother’s llfe miserable. John stole money from little old ladies; he swore like a sailor; and he totally disrespected his mom (and any other adult he encountered.)

Well, in Terminator II, some really evil robot is sent back into the past to knock off John Conner before he grows up to lead the human army. Most of the film is about a good robot and John’s mom trying to save the kid from an early death.

Why do I like this film so much? Well, in addition to providing some great action scenes, Terminator II reminds me that some very unlikely children could grow up to save the world. You know the kids I am talking about—the ones who make our lives miserable with their unwillingness to follow simple rules; who treat homework like an optional activity, who offer world views frequently peppered with four letter words. These are the kids we sigh over…and struggle not to give up on.

And that we must not do– give up on them! Because in all likelihood they will lead something…a gang perhaps if things don’t work out the way we hope. But they can also lead a family, an organization, a town…we just don’t know where their lives will take them. And we have to ensure they are ready to lead, that we have been relentlessly nurturing of their leadership as well as their scholarship. If we don’t take this on, then in all likelihood no one else will. And what a shame for humanity. The machines will win!

 A Letter in Our Community Newsletter

Holy cow! I am finishing my fifth year as superintendent. How is that possible? The time has really flown. These have been amazing, complex, exciting years that I wouldn’t have missed for anything. The MRH community has become my extended family and I cherish the opportunities to celebrate with them when life goes well, and mourn with them when we suffer losses. I grew up in a farming community where everyone helped to raise us. I remember once in the confessional I was reviewing my teenage sins, when the priest suddenly stopped me and told me he had been at the game on Friday night and I didn’t have the right spin on my free throw shot. Or then there was the time the sheriff followed my new boyfriend right down the lane to tell my dad that the young man had been speeding. Yikes. Yes, small towns are intimate places.

How wonderful it is that right in the middle of a metropolis we have an amazing small town where we all can share in raising our youngsters. Our senior citizens are active in helping. Nelda Hoeman wouldn’t miss a band concert; and neither would Jane Moeller. Millie Hardy cheers on our teams at football games; and Rudy Gaston and her husband, John, are avid basketball fans. They serve as honorary grandparents who celebrate our children’s accomplishments.

Our churches also partner with us. Andrew Vander Maas, pastor of Crossroads Presbyterian, is the chairperson of our Joe’s Place Board and gives countless hours to the work. Immaculate Conception, United Methodist, and Maplewood Baptist are always there to support our WOW program (Weekend on Wheels) that helps provide food for our some of our families most in need.

And local businesspeople such as Kay Basta, Jerry Gibbs, Joe Pieber and Jay Hardy and so generous in providing us with their time and with funds for special programs. We would not be the school we are today without them.

As I think back over these years, there are things I will always remember. The pure pleasure of Friday night football under the lights with a hot dog in one hand and a Blue Devil clapper in the other, cheering on the team, standing shoulder to shoulder with other MRH fans. The hugs and excited chatter of returning grads who want to report on all of their successes. The joyful accomplishment of kindergartners harvesting their first crop of tomatoes. The proud elementary students who serve as docents for the exhibits they designed. Middle schoolers returning from one of their big expeditions, exhausted and amazed at what they had done and what they had learned.

MRH is the school that it is because of the passionate people who believe that the future will be determined by the kind of education we provide our students. We are committed to insuring that all students emerge from our schools genuinely equipped to be leaders, scholars, stewards and citizens ready to make a difference in our world. My thanks to the MRH community for the support we receive in meeting that goal.

 A Speech at Our Achievement Celebration (to all students grades 2-12)

Last month I read about a female humpback whale who had become entangled in a spider web of crab traps and fishing nets in the Sea of Cortez off San Francisco. Humpbacks can remain underwater without breathing for a maximum of about 35 – 40 minutes, and this whale was struggling to stay afloat. She was weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that were pulling her toward the ocean bottom. She also had hundreds of yards of rope wrapped around her body, and a line had become trapped in her mouth.

A rescue team was called by the fishermen who found her, and for more than five hours they worked to save this whale. Team members had to dive under water and use curved knives to cut the nets. She didn’t struggle—she seemed to know they were trying to help. Hour after hour the team pulled away the ropes that bound her. The diver who cut the rope from her mouth said her eyes followed him the whole time, and he will never be the same after that experience.

When at last she was freed, she swam in joyful circles, breaching into the air again and again as she celebrated her amazing abilities to swim and leap and play. And then, to the divers’ surprise, she returned to every one of them, one at a time and nudged them gently with her giant body saying thank you.

So perhaps you wonder why I am telling this story of the humpback whale at this academic celebration. Every one of us from time to time encounters nets and lines that stretch around us, entrap us, keep us from using all of the abilities given to us. Most often these nets come in negative images of who we are and what we are capable of creating. For example, have you ever said, ”I’m not college material,” or “I’m no good at math,” or “I’m just not one of those creative types.”   How about “Writers are special people—not someone like me,” or “Reading is boring.”

Every one of the sentences holds you back, keep you from dancing in this world in the way you were intended you to dance. These words are no different than the treacherous net that trapped our whale. But just as the whale, you have a team to help set you free. Your teachers again and again slice away those nets; they hold you above water; and they encourage you to create in the world what only you can create. You have an amazing life to live… Live it with ferocity. Live it like a whale.

And make sure that you are as smart as our whale… returning to each of those who helped you on your journey to say thank you before you swim out into that great ocean of your life.

  A Graduation Speech

My dear graduates, where did the last twelve years go? You grew up and I grew old…all in the blink of an eye. And here I am addressing you one last time, preparing to send you out into the world to make your way. I have thought long and hard about my final message to you. When you have only a few minutes, you worry about everything…including the title. If you are going to make a long speech, then the title doesn’t matter all that much—you have a lot of words that follow it to make up for a so-so start. Here it represents a significant part of my speech.

So here is the title: What the Madagascar Flatid Bug Can Teach Us About Living a Life of Grace. What do you think?   Catchy, yes? I better get started…five minutes goes fast when you are trying to communicate something important to people who are important.

I hope that we here at MRH have prepared you to live your life with grace. Now some people may be disappointed in that—they will say we should have focused only on preparing you for college or a career or to make lots of money. In fact all of these are fine goals …but they will not serve you well without grace. Only with grace are we able to transform ourselves and our world into something better than it is now. Only with grace are we able to lift ourselves out of the rubble of humanity at its worst and into the light of what is possible when we are at our best.

If you are religious, then you believe grace is bestowed by God. But even if you are not…you can think about living with grace, because grace comes when we are being our best selves in this complicated world. I believe three characteristics define a life of grace: connection, compassion, and courage.

Living toward our best selves begins with our willingness to be in conscious and positive relationship with each other and with the world. This is where the Madagascar flatid bug comes in. I have a bookmark for you with a picture of the flatid bug on it.   Note that it has beautiful coral wings. Actually the wings come in many shades of brilliant orange-red. When the flatid bugs assemble themselves on a branch, they resemble an exquisite flower not unlike a lilac. And because they appear to be a flower, none of the usual predators bother them. The bugs accomplish collectively what none of them could individually—they preserve their species.

Reflect often on your connections to others and to the world. See yourself as part of something bigger. A world of equality, peace, health, and abundance is struggling to be born…but we must link our arms and our hearts with others to make it happen.

People who live with grace practice compassion. I believe compassion to be one of the few things that will bring immediate and long-term happiness to our lives. In fact there are scientific studies that suggest there are physical benefits to practicing compassion — people who practice it produce more DHEA, which is a hormone that counteracts the aging process.

We have offered you many opportunities over the past years to develop your capacity for compassion—from a wide range of community service actions to encouraging committed caring for one another in our daily lives. At the root of it all, we are all human beings. We need food and shelter and love. We crave attention and recognition, and affection. Reflect on these commonalities you have with every other human being. Focus on how you might help others in their quest to become their best selves, in overcoming the struggles that are a part of their lives, struggles you may never even know about…and you will develop your capacities for compassion.

And finally, a life of grace is lived with courage. We have seen amazing courage in our lives here at MRH…Marcos rising from his wheel chair and walking down the school hall. The 2008 state champion basketball team winning a breathtaking final game with one second left to play.   In this graduating class are students who have faced homelessness, loss of loved ones, serious injuries, and they have done so with a resilience that is almost beyond understanding. Any of these individuals could have complained to the world about how unfair life is. But instead they found courage to walk through the fires and into their future… and in so doing they brought grace into their lives.

Connection, compassion and courage. This is my wish for you…because, of course, I am rooting for all of you to live your lives with grace. I am expecting each of you to do your part in changing the world. And through it all, MRH will be here for you. Because no matter where you go or what you do, you will always be the sons and daughters of MRH. We love you and wish you well on your journey.


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Zinn, H. A Power Government Cannot Suppress. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2007.

We believe that we human beings are suspended in webs of significance that we ourselves have spun. (Bennis and Nanus, 1985, 112)

One of the most powerful tools a transformational leader has at her disposal is language. Our use of language shapes to a large extent the way people see us, how much they trust us, and how willing they are to commit themselves to the work we share. As Michael Jones, amazing pianist and organizational consultant, notes, “The visionary is the teacher and purveyor of language who transforms our reality through the power of story and voices.”(Jones, 75)

Language can transform reality, ignite the human desire to create, and inspire personal courage in the face of great adversity. Throughout history we see leaders in the darkest hours who have done just that. In the midst of the depression of the thirties, it was Franklin Roosevelt who summoned the American people to rise above their fears of pressing poverty when he spoke, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” (Roosevelt, 15) And Martin Luther King, Jr. forced the American public to face the darkness of ubiquitous racism as he urged us to our better selves: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”(King)

Malala Yousafzai, shot and wounded in Pakistan for being an advocate of education for young women when she was 15, issued the clarion call to all of the world: “Today we all know education is our basic right. Not just in the West; Islam, too, has given us that right. Islam says every girl and every boy should go to school. In the Quran it is written. God wants us to have knowledge. He wants us to know why the sky is blue and about oceans and stars.”(Yousafzai, 165)

At the Santa Fe Center, we have identified four categories of language that can support leaders in creating transformative school cultures. Each of these categories contain specific genre that require study and most importantly, practice. Leaders who are serious about effective language use must create practice fields for themselves and for their leadership teams. Reading about scenario building, the sentence stems that support inquiry, or how to frame an issue is a wonderful introduction, but honing language skills requires experience and feedback. We wouldn’t go onto a stage or a field without rehearsal; we should give the same attention to the language we are using to shape our organization’s present situation and its future.

 The language of vision

  • Framing
  • Metaphor
  • Narrative

The language of exploration

  • Design
  • Scenario-building
  • Improvisation

The language of collaboration

  • Dialogue/Discussion
  • Consensus-building
  • Coaching
  • Invitation

The language of self-knowing

  • Personal narrative
  • Reflection
  • Self talk

This entry will explore the language of framing.

  •           What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine
  •            our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do
  •            something. If we remember those times and places—and there are
  •            many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the
  •            energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top
  •            of a world in a different direction.
  •            (Zinn, 276)

The Language of Vision: Framing

In the mid 1990’s, Margaret Wheatley, in a conversation about crisis leadership, suggested that one of the most critical things a leader can provide in such a setting is an “unanxious” presence. (Wheatley) That stayed with me—in part because on occasion it felt as though that was all I could provide when I waded into some of the wicked problems we faced at MRH. Providing an “unanxious” presence is a kind of framing—a message we send to others with our language and behavior about the context of current or future work. While we cannot control everything that comes at us in our schools, we can help our colleagues focus and understand events in the context of our purpose and vision. We can support them in remaining generative and positive about the work, even in difficult times. We can inspire them to rise to the challenges facing us, adhering to our values and principles.

Fairhurst and Sarr, authors of The Art of Framing, note, “At its most basic level, framing reality means defining ‘the situation here and now’ in ways that connect with others.  ‘Reality’ is often contested. Framing a subject is an act of persuasion by leaders and requires us to risk managing meaning.” (Fairhurst and Sarr, 3)

Framing does involve us risking by stepping forward and offering our interpretation of events and context. We could be wrong. We could be leading people down the wrong path with our frame. And if our frame lacks honesty, then we risk loss of our colleagues’ view of us as a moral leader. In a class on leadership, one of my graduate students challenged me that framing sounded a great deal like manipulating people. It’s important to understand the difference. Framing is not hiding information or lying…but it does involve making conscious decisions about our language and behavior with the idea of exerting influence on the organization. As such, it certainly has an ethical dimension.

Framing in leadership is not so much different from framing done by painters and photographers as they consider how their subjects will appear on paper. It involves making important decisions about perspective, focus, and point of view.

Deborah Meier, former principal of Central Park East and a pioneer in transformational school leadership, describes the impact of framing to focus her team, “If we focused not on something arbitrary called ‘eighth grade’ reading but on engaged readers we might have a better chance at turning nonreaders into voracious readers.”(Meier) The language of transactional leadership seldom engages the heart. Transformational leaders, however, know that their language must move beyond metrics to touch the human spirit. Thoughtful framing can assist us in doing that.

Fairhurst and Sarr caution that in order to frame effectively for those in our organization, we need to frame internally…and that means getting clear about our own mental models.(Fairhurst and Sarr, 67) Mental models are those deeply held constructs and values that shape our interactions with the world. We MUST take time to surface what we believe, to get clear about our role as leaders and what we hope to accomplish in our work. The authors suggest leaders must learn to prime their unconscious through reflection and conversation if they are going to be successful with framing.They note, “Priming is a conscious act that imprints the unconscious with a path for the brain to follow.If a particular thought process was a part of one’s recent conscious experience, then that thought process remains accessible and used by the unconscious mind to filter information we later taken in.”(Fairhurst and Sarr, 66) What we are creating then, is a path for our mind to follow as we talk about the work with others. Priming is a critical readiness tool as we prepare to interact with our stakeholders.

Equally important, to our success is an awareness of the mental models of those for whom we are framing. Part of the effectiveness of the frames we create depends upon others’ ability to see themselves in the images. If we are not accomplishing that, framing is of little use. Thus, listening intently to a broad range of constituents is a critical aspect of our capacity to frame effectively.

James Krile of the Blandin Foundation has been training community members in leadership skills for over two decades. He sums up framing with three critical statements:

  1. How an issue is framed influences what gets done.
  2. Framing is complex, linking factual analysis, values and motivation, vision, and strategy.
  3. Framing creates focus. (Krile,14)

Helping our schools and community get clear on the goals, understand the context of the work we are doing, build on the values they have articulated, and focus on positive action requires skillful leadership and skillful framing. Arbitrary and spontaneous communication seldom provides the leverage necessary. And one more note, no amount of framing can fix a disconnect between what we say and what we do. If we communicate our commitment to collaboration, for example, but don’t offer structures and processes to support that, attempts at framing just make us look silly.

A final comment on the power of framing—our actions offer frames as well as our oral language. We show people what we value by what we give time and attention to. Our buildings and grounds communicate more clearly than a giant billboard on a freeway what we think of the community, its children, and our staff. If a school is not sparkling clean, we are articulating our lack of concern for community property, a disinterest in the environment where children spend a big part of their day, and low standards for what is in our care. If our grounds are not well kept and filled with interesting places for children and adults to explore and enjoy, we suggest we are disconnected from nature and its impact on our lives and learning. If teachers don’t have attractive places to gather to learn and collaborate with easy access to necessary tools and materials, we are conveying that adult learning really isn’t important. If the first thing someone sees as they enter a building is not a welcoming invitation to our learning spaces but a direction to go directly to the office to register, we have framed our view of parents and visitors. Our decisions send nonverbal messages everyday. What a shame not to use every one of them to reinforce a culture of invitation, warmth, passion for learning for adults and children, and a commitment to making our schools the beating hearts of our communities.

 Framing at MRH

As my assistant superintendent and I began our experience at MRH, a district on the cusp of being taken over by the state of Missouri because of poor performance, we realized that framing our work was critical to our success. I was to be the fourth superintendent in five years. Each of my predecessors left in the dust of a scandal. The little community had given up on its school, and perhaps on itself, as the downtown was filled with boarded up buildings and many houses stood in disrepair. They mayor of Maplewood explained as she toured us around the town one June afternoon that people bought a little house in the town as a starter home, and then when their children became school age, they moved west to a better district. ”This,” she pointed out, “keeps property values low. Buying a house here, you can’t expect it to increase in value.”

MRH, bordering the city of St Louis, seemed to represent everything that could go wrong with an urban school. All around us were successful suburban schools; and there we sat in dilapidated buildings, with nonexistent curriculum, and over half of the community’s children choosing to attend private schools or go into the city where they found education better than in our little district on the boundary.

In discussion with our Board of Education, early on, we had suggested a summit for administrators and teacher leaders in the district soon after we arrived. We felt we needed to begin real conversation with our colleagues as soon as we could. We also wanted to begin some of our own framing before others began to frame us. The Board agreed, and we organized two weeks in July with a group including all the administrators who wished to come and selected teacher leaders who were identified as leaders by their colleagues.

I had gotten the keys to the schools in June, before I even had a contract; and every weekend Catherine, my assistant superintendent, and I wandered around the schools in the district looking at the dismal dirty classrooms. One afternoon we stumbled on a storeroom on the second floor of the high school. The room was piled to the ceiling with broken desks, rolls of used carpet, and boxes of old books. It smelled awful, but we could see around the edge of the room what looked like a beautiful herringbone wood floor. As I squeezed around the corner, I found a spectacular fireplace and the room was flooded with light from huge windows. These were amazing remnants of what this old school must have been at one time. I turned to Catherine and said, “This is it. This is where we will have the institute and it will be the professional development room here at the high school.” In an intense month, the buildings crew emptied the room, painted it, refinished the floors and filled it with book cases, comfortable chairs and tables that were purchased with a special grant I had gotten from an old friend at the Kauffman Foundation. Our colleagues at our former school donated over $2000.00 of professional books to begin our professional library. On the first day of the institute we were able to introduce the participants to a beautiful new space tailored for adult learning.

During the two weeks of the Institute, we discussed our school district honestly and openly, and we explored two fundamental questions: How do we want to be together? What do we want to create together?   We read articles about school districts that had transformed themselves; we examined curriculum models that might give structure to our instructional work; we practiced daily a new leadership skill from the Adaptive Schools repertoire; (Garmston and Wellman) and perhaps most importantly, every afternoon we wrote about our lives and our work and shared our stories with one another.

This institute was designed to set a different course for the school. The two questions that shaped much of our conversation were generative, focusing on possibilities, not deficits. These two weeks were our first and perhaps our most important framing. We wanted to create a sense of abundant potential in an organization that was deeply focused on scarcity. We wanted to demonstrate work that was imaginative, collaborative, intellectually challenging, and deeply respectful of the experiences and stories of everyone who was a part of our learning community.

We structured our work for those two weeks with great precision. This group of twenty-five people would forge a leadership unit that helped us shape our work in the coming year. During the two weeks, every board member individually visited the “Institute for Learning and Leading” as we called it, and thanked the participants for their service and leadership. Each board member sat quietly and listened to the conversation. This in itself was a kind of nonverbal framing. There had been very public arguments between the board and the teachers union, and the administrative team felt the Board did not respect them. To see board members demonstrate their support and listen to the conversation sent a clear message: Things really were going to be different around here.

During the two weeks, we spent many hours discussing our visions for an ideal school serving this little community. We identified the following characteristics:

  • A school that was viewed as part of the community, one that was respected for the work it did. (Not surprising that this was listed, as two weeks earlier the city manager had been quoted as saying the school district was an albatross around the city’s neck.)
  • A school with a clear curriculum and much higher expectations for students. (We were not introducing Algebra until grade 10 and English 11 was based on a simple career education workbook.)
  • A school that was unique—capitalizing on our location that made us part urban, part suburban and offering proximity to many of St. Louis’ community treasures.
  • A school committed to social justice that supported students (almost 50% African American) in helping to shape their school, influence their community, and influence the world.
  • A school that focused on active learning. (Much different from the workbook driven culture that was in place.)
  • A school where teachers’ learning and professionalism was respected and where educators wanted to build careers. (Dramatically different from the current situation where turnover was near 30% as new teachers got a year or two of experience and left for better schools.)
  • A school that was committed to personalized service akin to top private schools in the area. (Selected in part, I think, because class sizes were so small with the widespread disenchantment with the school.)
  • A school where we examined student success based on a broad array of factors, not just test scores. (This was going to be difficult because we were only one point from unaccreditation by the Missouri Department of Education as defined by test score metrics.)
  • A school that was so valued by the other county schools that people came to see how we were doing the work.

These descriptions framed our thinking about MRH as a school; and at the end of the two weeks, we had twenty-five leaders eager not only to talk about the work but to dig into the creation of this school. In August the Institute’s work was the heart of a Board of Education retreat. The Board used the Institute’s description to expand their own thinking about the ideal school. Then they worked with us to develop what they called “a plan for planning.” This document outlined how we might broaden and deepen our initial conversations with community members. We needed the community to know we were committed to a new agenda and we wanted community members to be part of the visioning process.

Interestingly, in these first months we spent no time trying to form a vision or mission statement during our conversations—we were much more interested in honest and straightforward communication about how we would be together and what we would create. There would be time enough for vision statements later—we wanted robust exploration of possibilities, not refined wording. The images that were created out of these thoughtful and sometimes difficult conversations were fundamental to the framing that was part of the leadership work those first years. The Leadership and Learning Institute and the work that flowed from it offered us transformative possibilities—language, images, and dreams to build upon.

 Give It A Go

Sharpen your language with rehearsal; prepare your unconscious for the conversations to come.

1. Role-playing is a great way to practice priming. With your leadership team take turns playing a city council member, an angry parent, a member of the Chamber of Commerce. Then one of you prime your mental models by practicing a conversation about the school’s vision or the plan you are implementing, or a bond issue you are taking to the tax payers. The rest of the team can critique.

2. Try the Talk Times Three Activity. Whether it is a vision statement, an important project, or a new idea, give yourself and your colleagues time to talk about it, expand your thinking, and sharpen your language. Divide the group into dyads and give them the topic. The dyads will have 12 minutes to do the following:

Partner 1 explains his thinking about the topic for three minutes;

Partner 2 has three minutes to ask questions about that thinking;

Partner 2 explains her thinking about the topic for three minutes;

Partner 1 has three minutes to ask questions about that thinking.

The group then has three minutes to jot notes individually about how their thinking and language was influenced by this activity.

Ask the dyads to break apart and find new partners. The new dyads will follow the same protocol and conclude with three minutes of reflection.

Complete this with new dyads one final time.

Conclude the activity with a large group discussion.

3. Visit the website http://www.leadershipframing.com/dft.php for additional tools and an assessment you can take to help you understand how you might approach framing.

4. Identify in the MRH story examples of framing. Think about your own school. What might be some initial frames that could move you forward?


Bennis W., and Nanus, B. Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Fairhurst, G. and Sarr, R. The Art of Framing. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1996.

Garmston, R. and Wellman, B. The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 2009. (This is the most current edition.)

Jones, M. “Transforming Leadership through the Power of the Imagination.” In J. Barbour and G. Hickman (eds.), Leadership for Transformation. San Francisco, 2011.

King, Jr. M. “The Nobel Peace Prize 1964.” On http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/ Jan. 18, 2015.

Krile, J. The Community Leadership Handbook: Framing Ideas, Building Relationships and Mobilizing Resources. St Paul, MN: Fieldstone Alliance Publishers, 2006.

Meier, D., “Problem Versus Solution.” On http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2013/05/dear_mike_let_me_begin.html?cmp=ENL-EU-VIEWS2 Jan. 18, 2015.

Roosevelt, F. “Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933.” In S Rosenman (ed.),The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933. New York: Random House, 1938.

Wheatley, Margaret. Cape Cod Institute presentation, Eastham, Mass: 1986.

Yousafzai, MI Am Malala. London: Orion Books, 2013.

Zinn, H. A Power Government Cannot Suppress. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2007.

So, I’m especially excited about our most recent publication, The Community Leadership Handbook: Framing Ideas, Building Relationships, and Mobilizing Resourcesby James F. Krile of the Blandin Foundation. For the past 20 years Blandin Foundation of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, has been training community members in leadership skills. The book is refreshing in its can-do spirit and faith in the positive outcomes when people join together to address common challenges. Politically, it is not of the left, of the right, or even of the center. It is, rather, “of the people.”

This issue of Tools You Can Use is excerpted and adapted from part one of the book, pages 1-171. If your nonprofit work does not directly involve some aspect of community leadership, please keep reading. The leadership principles described here are useful whether you are galvanizing your staff, your organization, a collaborative, or an interstate coalition.


Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business is one of our recommended resources for transformational school leaders this month. Lencioni defines a healthy organization as one “that is whole, consistent, and complete—that is when management, operations, strategy and culture fit together and make sense.” [1]

This sense of wholeness of our work is critical, as well, to transformational schools. Too many educational leaders, however, faced with the mandates and demands that are part of running a school, move attention to the culture of their organizations far down on their lists. Recently I heard one assistant superintendent describe it this way, “Yes, yes, I know all that culture stuff is important, but if we receive less than full accreditation, we are all toast. I’ll get to culture when I’m sure about accreditation.”

I understand what he is saying and the real pressure he faces. The problem with this perspective is that you just can’t wait on culture. As Deal and Peterson explain in their book, Shaping School Cultureculture is simply, “the way we do things around here.” [2] By design or default, your organization will have a culture. And whether you purposefully consider its effect or not, your behavior as a leader will influence that culture. The question is: Is your school’s culture helping you to succeed, or is it dragging your effectiveness down?

Both culture and the school’s program must receive a leader’s full attention in order to maximize school effectiveness. The work with culture, however, is far more complicated than many school leaders realize. Contrary to what Michael Fullan says, we can’t re-culture a school.[3] You can reupholster a chair and redo your hair color, but a school culture is a rich and complex social organization made up of human beings, relationships, history, patterns of behavior, and ways of thinking. It takes time and a leader’s clear attention for the culture to become deeply changed; and it happens incrementally. Our role as leaders is to influence the culture of our schools by putting important new ideas, expectations, and ways of doing into the field of consciousness of all those involved in the work of the school.

Equally important, we may need to end some of the practices that are currently occurring in an organization and are counter to the vision–and explain why they are ending. Attending to culture, then, is not about making sure everyone feels good. Sometimes our focus on culture may make some people feel bad because we are changing the way we, as individuals, are now behaving together and how we, collectively, will do the work of schooling.

There will be people who think the current culture is just fine no matter how toxic and ineffective it is for the students we serve. That is, unfortunately, because many school cultures are not influenced by students’ needs very much at all. It is not uncommon to find school cultures centering almost exclusively on adult needs and wants. For those schools, transformational work is especially difficult…because transformational schools begin with the commitment to children and the way they learn.

For those of us affiliated with the Santa Fe Center, an effective culture grows from seven deliberate and persistent patterns of behavior that we have mined from the research on organizational culture and change and our own experiences. Transformational leaders attend to the following as important foci of their work:

  • Develop an ethic of excellence
  • Involve students, teachers, and the broader community as co-creators of the school
  • Create an aspirational vision that places the school and its students as active participants in a broader community and the world
  • Build respectful, healthy relationships that support personal and group efficacy
  • Nurture broad and deep leadership of “what we are creating together”
  • Design an environment that inspires and nurtures collaboration and inquiry
  • Institutionalize organizational practices that promote both cohesion and elasticity

Taken together, these seven patterns impact a school culture in ways that generate high levels of teacher and student success and satisfaction. In today’s blog post I am going to explore just one of them: developing an ethic of excellence. We’ll dig into others in upcoming posts.

Developing an Ethic of Excellence
Few things are more important than helping all of those in our organization expect the best from themselves, from their peers, and from their school. Yet I am fascinated by how extraordinarily difficult this is to do today. As I visit schools all across the country, I am overwhelmed by the rush for quick wins and improved numbers. An ethic of excellence can be developed only if we put an end to the overwhelming national desire to fix schools, fix children, and fix teachers. A focus on excellent work can only come when we deliberately give time to genuine and important work and end the addictive and destructive race to an imaginary top.

Instead of worksheets designed to teach a single strategy so children can score an additional point on an upcoming test, we offer rich and real learning work that requires them to stay with ideas over a longer period of time, apply multiple strategies, rethink their first ideas, struggle, ask for help, get frustrated, and feel the incredible pleasure of doing something really well. Instead of asking teachers to develop quick solutions to insure students don’t miss small bits and pieces identified on manufactured tests, we ask them to develop units of instruction built around big ideas and intriguing questions that give students time to explore, tease out their misconceptions, and change their thinking.

It is in this context that an ethic of excellence can take root and grow. There are many ways for a leader to begin to build a focus on excellence into the culture—all take time and attention, and again, the recognition that no single action will reshape a school. Remember, we are putting important ideas and ways of doing into the cultural field of the school…and over time, the culture shifts. As Ron Berger reminds us so well, Thinking that projects or critique or portfolios are a magic solution is as silly as thinking high-stakes testing will turn schools around.  Only as part of a strong classroom culture or school culture are those tools valuable.  Culture matters.”[4]

We can, however, amplify our journey toward excellence when specific practices are nested throughout the organization, contributing to the sense of coherence, and most importantly creating a strong sense that “just getting by doesn’t to fly in our school.” We will explore five such strategies here: multiple iterations, peer critique, after action reviews, midcourse correction, and models of excellence.

Growing an ethic of excellence in a school means consciously nesting these and other similar practices in all levels of the organization—from children in the earliest grades to board members, revising and rethinking should become part of “the way we do things around here.”

Multiple Iterations
Our best thinking seldom happens in a single setting. Instead, most of us need to revisit and reexamine our work with a bit of distance between the visits. Yet few schools support iterative thinking. Curriculum work is on five-year cycles in many schools—and five years is far too long to wait for the inevitable revision that should come with implementation. The Japanese work with lesson study suggests what successful iteration looks like for teachers—deliberate, shared examination of teaching practices built into the schedule as part of the teaching experience. Lesson study offers a much difference stance toward teaching than the current frenetic work being done in most American schools.

Children, too, are often rushed through work so that they begin to see nothing they do as very important. Thoughtful revisiting builds understandings in ways that a harried rush through assignments can never do. Portfolios are now easy to maintain in a simple form with technology, and giving students consistent time to revisit favorite pieces of work to revise and improve offers a simple way of supporting iteration. Students can learn a great deal from time spent walking through the iterative process, particularly if it is scaffolded with specific positive feedback from their teacher and peers.

Board members benefit from iteration, as well. Revisiting important policies and board practices almost always results in better work. Because board members frequently feel as though they move quickly from one important decision to another, regular retreats to revisit and rethink their work builds confidence in decision-making and a sense of shared ownership for their work.

Peer Critique
Closely related to multiple iterations, the practice of peer critique is fundamental to a transformational culture. Peer critique strengthens group cohesion and effectiveness. Even young children can participate in helping circles when provided with simple protocols for interaction about each other’s work. As students mature, they learn how to deliver specific feedback that helps their peers view their learning work in new light. This practice of looking at work from multiple perspectives offers a sophisticated strategy that will shape their approach to learning.

Teachers, too, find peer critique an extraordinarily useful tool in beginning to break down the isolation plaguing many schools. Unit and lesson critique can transform teaching and curriculum design work. Peer observation in classrooms with clear and focused look-fors and follow-up conversations build shared responsibility for the work of the school as a whole.

One of the tools that I have found particularly useful for administrators in terms of peer critique is the step-back consulting process. I’ve posted a copy of it in the resources section of our website. This simple process supports administrators in accessing the wisdom of colleagues. A single leader describes an issue she is facing and her current thinking on resolution. Then her colleagues step in, assume the problem as theirs, and discuss their approaches and rationales as the presenter steps back, listens, and takes notes. My experience is that this opportunity to seek multiple perspectives is extraordinarily useful to leaders who often feel they have little time to deliberate and explore alternative solutions.

I have also seen board members who were practicing the norms of collaboration use peer critique to improve their practice. Watching videos of conversations carried out in workshop settings help them see ways to improve their skill level on a safe playing field. When they are having honest conversations with one another about the way they are doing the work, not just the work itself, improvement is almost inevitable.

After Action Reviews
The army developed after action reviews to support them in reviewing a military action. Army leaders felt these were an essential part of practice—lives were at stake if they made poor decisions. Schools who take the time to follow a similar process don’t find themselves repeating mistakes. They learn from reflection on practice. These reviews follow a simple format involving three questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What did we learn? The questions, answered systematically by all those involved, support continuous learning and can transform a difficult situation into one that moves the team forward.

Children can learn to use this process to get clear about a playground incident, why a group project floundered, or what happened when the substitute teacher didn’t seem to be on top of things. After Action Review helps people own their behavior in situations and develop specific ways to improve both individual and group actions.

Perhaps one of the most useful roles of AAR is to influence the culture by creating the expectation that we learn and improve by reflection on practice. The notes from an AAR should be kept in a Google document that is accessible to those who participated in the analysis. This helps create a useful artifact that can be revisited when necessary. In this way, our collected wisdom about how we can be most powerful in our work isn’t lost after the conversation.

Midcourse Correction
Schools make plans…copious plans. What schools really are not very good at is deviating from the plans. This rigid, linear thinking (often fostered by state and federal demands) too often results in failure of an idea that could have been tremendously successful if only modified a bit. Arie de Gues, who headed up Royal Dutch Shell’s strategic planning department for many years, commented in a conference on strategic planning, “We plan not to implement our plan but to sharpen our mental models.”[5] De Gues, fully expected to make midcourse corrections. So did the crew members of the Apollo spacecraft who spent almost 60% of their time in space off course. Only midcourse corrections got them to the moon!

Midcourse correction, when embedded in a school culture as a way of doing, opens schools to taking on bigger thinking and greater risks. No one is expected to get it exactly right from the first conception of an idea. In this environment, revisiting and revising thinking as we monitor the project means we are open to possibilities, thoughtful in our assessment strategies, and able to make quick, elegant changes when we see the need. Project managers, are not derided for lack of forethought—they are applauded for careful examination of their data and changing course based on what they have learned.

The old saying, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,” applies here. Seldom do school people give themselves the freedom in the middle of the year to stop doing something that isn’t working. Instead they drag themselves and students through a bad experience because bureaucratic processes prohibit them from putting an end to it and reassembling a design team to create something better. Transformational schools don’t lumber; they dance.

Models of Excellence
We, as educators, recognize the value of powerful models to inform work at all levels of school, but seldom do we take full advantage of this strategy to reap the full leverage it can provide. When I enter a school, I can sense quickly if models of excellence are part of the way of learning here. At Maplewood Richmond Heights, for example, a wall in one long hallway of the high school was developed as an academic wall of fame. Each quarter teachers selected the best pieces of work from the courses they taught and posted them on the wall, along with rubrics to describe how the assignments were assessed. Pictures of the students who created the work were often added, as well. In hallways throughout the schools, bulletin boards were devoted to showing how excellent work evolved, with multiple drafts and student and teacher annotation.

At the beginning of the year, students didn’t walk into schools devoid of quality work; instead it was posted everywhere, showing students what the expectations for them were as they began their year.

High quality units that were developed that summer were displayed on bulletin boards in teachers’ lounges and annotated by the principal and teacher designer. This focus on creating models for success extended to the buildings and grounds crew, who regularly developed and shared among their department, models of what excellent work looked like. Two that I especially liked include a wonderful poster created by the janitors with pictures and captions that illustrated what a well-organized and effective janitor’s closet looked like. The second was a small booklet developed by the grounds crew to show how the best flowerbeds on the campus were designed and maintained.

Being a part of creating and sharing a model of excellence develops a strong group norm around this behavior. Eventually excellent work is the only kind that anyone wants to produce!

An ethic of excellence doesn’t appear overnight; nor is it simply mandated into existence. Instead consistent focus on specific ways of doing and being shapes the culture. As leaders, our jobs are to invest in these, notice them, celebrate them and keep them at the forefront. Imagine walking into a classroom and asking, “Who has an excellent piece of work they would like to share with me today,” and then sitting beside the student as he outlines his thinking on his project. Our behavior shapes culture every single day we are at work. Model excellence.




[1] Lencioni, Patrick. The Advantage. San Francisco:Jossey-Bass, 2012.[2] Deal, Terrence E. Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Promises. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.[3] Fullan, Michael, Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 04.[4] Berger, Ron. An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2003.

[5] de Gues, Arie,The Living Company,Boston: 1997 Pegasus Conference .

elevateDeveloping an Ethic of Excellence in Our Schools

Time for a bit of summer reflection…
Are you building an organization that innovates?

The June issue of Harvard Business Review includes a provocative article by the authors of a new book, Collective Genius: the Art and Practice of Leading Innovation. In a clear-eyed discussion of what makes some organizations capable of consistent innovation and others unable to move beyond status quo, the authors Hill, Brandeau, Truelove, and Lineback, outline important differences in leadership approaches between organizations that create and those that don’t. What they end up describing in many ways matches our own definition of transformational leadership.

To begin with, they identify a direct link between leadership and innovation.  But not surprisingly, they move away from the leader who sets the vision and motivates others to buy it.  Instead their research suggests that effective leaders of innovation begin with a focus on community-building. Without that sense of community, they posit, innovation does not consistently occur.

For some school leaders, spending the time developing a sense of community within their team sounds like a waste.  It’s that “soft stuff” that doesn’t move the organization forward; and many of us are facing urgent and wickedly complex problems that demand our attention.  In truth, research is clear—building strong collegial connections is the essential first step in creating resilient teams that can weather the inevitable storms that so frequently toss schools to and fro.  And beyond weathering the storm, a sense of community supports a team’s ability to innovate to higher ground.  Note that the collegiality Hill et al. describe in the article is not the same thing as congeniality. It is not about having an active social committee and Friday get-togethers after work. A sense of community emerges from important conversation and rests on three elements: purpose, shared values, and rules of engagement.

We should be able to articulate our purpose in more precise terms than simply  “educating children.”  What sets your school apart?  What kind of school are you creating? The authors describe purpose not as what a group does, but why it exists.  Purpose is about collective identity. And so, the authors suggest, “Purpose makes people willing to take risks and do the hard work of innovation.”

Shared Values
To form a community, team members need to decide what they believe in. Values influence individual and collective action.  Hill and her colleagues investigated many organizations, and the values differed from one to another.  But they found four consistently innovative organizations, and all of them had four predominant values: bold ambition, responsibility to the community, collaboration, and learning.

Rules of Engagement
Rules of engagement exist in two categories: how people interact and how they think.  The authors identify rules that most support innovation.

Rules for Interaction

  • Mutual trust
  • Mutual respect
  • Mutual interaction

Rules for Thinking

  • Questioneverything
  • Be data driven
  • See the whole

Community emerges from interaction and dialogue about these three elements—so thinking about how a team uses its time together is critical to a leader’s success.  For example, are you using your meeting time to help your team members get clear about their purpose, what they value, and the norms for their interaction and problem-solving. Your meetings offer high leverage opportunities to build a powerful sense of community.

The article offers other intriguing information—certainly a worthy read, and Hill and her colleagues conclude with a series of questions to help you decide if you are an Innovation Leader.  Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Do members of my organization feel part of a community?
  • Does my organization have a shared purpose—one that binds us together and compels us all to do the hard work of innovation?
  • Does it live by rules of engagement supportive of a set of core values: bold ambition, responsibility to the community, collaboration and learning?
  • Do we have the ability to generate ideas through candid discourse and debate?
  • Do we have the ability to test ideas through quick pursuit, reflection, and adaptation?
  • Do we have the ability to make integrative decisions, rather than compromising or letting some groups dominate.

As you may remember, we have articulated 17 characteristics of a transformational leader. Several of these are highlighted in this article:

  • Taps into the human desire to create, to make meaning, to do important work, and to learn and live in community;
  • Articulates and supports a bold vision of what is possible;
  • Models passionate commitment to the vision and the organization;
  • Creates a collaborative culture;
  • Demonstrates proficiency with language including story, group process, and conversation skills;
  • Builds reflection into personal and organizational practice:
  • Builds leadership capacity throughout the organization;
  • Supports risk-taking and openness to change;

Summer can be an important time for reflection.  Are you tapping into the power of collective genius? Where are you in your transformative journey?

July 2014 has been marked on our calendar for over a year now—the date we set to launch the Center. And here we are: the website is up, the LLC formed, and we are now officially a consulting company! While we have been busy designing our organization, we have also been working intensely in schools around the country. With our consultants, we are now partnering with schools in seven states and two countries—Venezuela and Guatemala. We are committed to transformative change in schools—to creating environments where adults and children are empowered to create, to question, to think deeply, and to explore broadly. We help build programs that celebrate the arts, the environment, and the human desire to learn. We believe by focusing on authentic work, high expectations, and appropriate scaffolding for all learners, we can increase test scores without reducing learning to workbook pages and test preparation. We believe that because we have done it!

We acknowledge this kind on education isn’t accomplished in a single workshop. Instead we form longer-term relationships with schools and leaders determined to rise above the frenzy of mandates and standardized testing. We help leaders envision new possibilities, invent new processes, focus on their learners and transform their schools.

We hope you will follow our progress here on this website. And even if we don’t have the opportunity to work together, we hope you will find our Internet home useful to you. We will feature transformative work we are doing around the country, offer our best thinking on new ideas arising in the educational arena, and propose resources to support you on your own transformative journey.

Welcome aboard!