Professional Learning in a Ball Pit

Inspired by the video created by Soul Pancake, I wanted to translate the effects of the experience in the ball pit to the staff in my building. In the video, two strangers sit and discuss question prompts written on various balls. Through the experience they come to common group, develop relationships, and communicate on a deeper level. Plus, sitting in a ball pit is fun, unique and out of the norm for most adults!


So, with a baby pool and plastic balls already in our storage room from our school carnival, I set to replicate the experience as an ice breaker to our staff meeting. The ball pit wasn’t as big as the one from my inspiration and the staff weren’t strangers to each other, but we did learn a lot about each other!

15284016_1339918552706662_706842125235464285_n 15284069_1339918596039991_6162684776448783187_n 15326470_1339918546039996_8691936351617556857_nAs teachers or staff members sat in the ball pit, they pulled questions and prompted answers from their partners. Questions included light-hearted questions to get-to-know each other and education related topics focused on sharing strategies and best practices. Some questions included:

  • What’s your proudest moment as a teacher?
  • Why did you become a teacher?
  • How do you de-stress after a challenging day?
  • What are you most passionate about?
  • What content area, skill, or concept do you enjoy teaching the most?
  • What is your favorite technology tool to use in the classroom?
  • How do you connect your students to others outside the walls of your classroom?
  • If money were no object, what would you want to add to your classroom to improve student learning and engagement?
  • What’s your favorite read aloud?
  • What website do you visit most frequently?
  • Use only one word to describe your classroom.
  • What is one thing you would wan the public to know about teaching?

Some questions were also just plain silly to bring some laughter and levity to our experience:

  • Would you rather be hairy or bald?
  • What would you name your yacht if you had one?
  • What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
  • What would the title of the book based on your life be?
  • If your personality was an animal, what would it be?


The ball pit ice breaker was a perfect introduction to our staff meeting. With a little humor and fun, we learned about the teaching practices and lives of our staff.

Promoting Positive School Communication with Video Updates

I recently read the book and blog “Your School Rocks: Passionately Pitch and Promote the Positives Happening on Your Campus.” The authors shared a simple way to publish video newsletters and I was instantly inspired. You will now see a green screen and tripod in my office that are accessible to staff and your students should they also want to do something similar or have their own idea. You can read about the process I gleaned the inspiration from on their blog at:

I plan on using the video screen and video updates in multiple ways:
1. To update staff in my Friday Focus staff memo with “Great Things I’ve Seen this Week” My inaugural attempt at this is shown in the video below. These will be cataloged in my YouTube Channel and shared with staff as part of their weekly updates. I am deliberate and strategic in ensuring that I continue to model innovative and creative ways to use technology and apply them in effective and meaningful ways. The video is then embedded into the remaining notes and information shared on a SMORE page (as seen after the video)

2. To engage students in “Royal News Updates” on a weekly basis. I started this today and the students did a wonderful job and were excited to share their learning. I created a format for them to follow as they shared the highlights of the week with staff, families and friends.

3. To promote reading with guest read alouds that will be shared on our social media (twitter, youtube, facebook). I have done this several time and just uploaded videos straight from my camera
You can view a project I did with two members of service and leadership club in the video below. This project took less than 10 minutes of editing time from the moment they finished recording until I uploaded it and shared it on YouTube.


I used the App Green Screen by Do Ink to format the background and iMovie to edit the videos.

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This process really is easy and affordable. I purchased a green screen and tripod on Amazon for less than $125.00. My tripod included a bluetooth remote that allows me to simply start and stop the video record component on my iPhone or iPad. The cost of the Green Screen App is $2.99. iMovie, YouTube, Facebook, SMORE, and Twitter are all free and efficient and effective ways to communicate with families and the community about the positive and amazing things that are going on in our building everyday!

The Ripple Effect: Re-framing Professional Learning

If you do an analysis of my work day, you would see something different everyday. My job may include meeting with staff to discuss an observation or evaluation, meeting with parents to discuss a concern or create a plan, working with students or addressing any of the other myriad of items that come across my desk: answering emails, balancing building budgets, ordering instructional supplies, developing professional development activities, hiring staff, completing state reports, monitoring lunch time, visiting classrooms, greeting students at the door, dropping handwritten notes, recognizing positive behavior, and so much more.

So I get asked at times how I have the time to blog and tweet. The answer is simple. We all have the same amount of time in the day. I choose to make time for these meaningful practices. My blog is an outlet for me to reflect on best practices and share my experiences, ideas, resources, and thoughts with other like minded professionals. It is part of being a connected educator. In addition, my blog models reflective learning with my staff and shows that I value reflection and sharing of educational practices. During a recent Danielson flavored evaluation training, our presenter focused on the key elements that make a great teacher. Whereas 3C (engaging students in learning) was the most important in his presentation, he stressed that excellent teachers also grow professionally and share their learning and expertise with others. Why would I expect that from my staff, if I am not willing to walk the walk and talk the talk? So, I make the time to  blog. I share my blog posts with my staff and in many cases with our students’ families and with the greater community. It creates a ripple effect.

A principal I have connected with on Twitter challenged principals to share their practices that create ripple effects of learning. Beth Houf encouraged school leaders to create a twitter challenge, tweet or post the wonderful things occurring in their buildings, and overall enthusiastically share the awesomeness occurring in our buildings. You can read her initial post here. I’ve taken the inspiration I’ve seen from connecting to other principals to create staff twitter challenges. In the month of December, staff have a calendar to challenge themselves to tweet and share resources, ideas, and celebrations from their classroom. The inaugural twitter challenge was focused on student engagement and encouraged staff to tweet, retweet, and post articles, pictures, and items related to student engagement.

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In addition to self-paced and individualized twitter challenges created for staff, our most recent staff meeting was a collaborative team twitter treasure hunt. Staff was asked to go throughout the building searching for examples and models of key artifacts that support school goals and professional learning. Staff worked with partners to find examples of a culture of readers, student engagement, celebrating student success, fostering physical fitness, and more. As teachers found this evidence and took pictures, they shared them on twitter at #dgstweets. Following the twitter treasure challenge, staff assembled to debrief, view the tweets, and discuss their takeaways.

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PIRATE Treasure Map

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As incentive to grow professionally by completing these challenges, staff are given surprise incentives that are either inexpensive or free. They range from a casual day, to coverage for their classrooms, to candy or a certificate of participation. I’ve included these below along with access to editable word documents that can be customized.


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You can view this moment of serenity certificate at: dgstweets


CUNA14oW4AQwwVx.jpg largeYou can view this certificate that was given to teachers upon completion of their first challenge at: dgstweets certificate


twitter challenge treasure

Staff were given a pirate treasure box of candy once their first challenge was initiated. You can get an editable word document of this at: dgstweets Twitter Challenge Treasure

So what has come out of all of this?

  • It has created a culture of positive personal professional learning in which teachers access twitter and/or blogs to seek to connect and learn with other educators and professionals. Teachers share their ideas with each other as well as staff in other buildings in our district and districts across the nation.
  • Teachers connect with parents, promote a positive culture, and reflect on their instructional practices. It has taken away the concept that we work in isolation and fostered open and collaborative learning amongst the staff.
  • It has provided me an outlet to provide feedback and be present in the classroom during times I can’t physically be there. As an instructional leader and coach, I have gained a stronger understanding and insight into classroom instruction.
  • In some cases, it has created a ripple effect in which parents have created twitter accounts to follow classroom learning.


Great Learning Comes from Happy Teachers. Happy Teachers Come from DGS!


In the early 2000s, an ad campaign was launched that suggested, “Great cheese comes from Happy Cows. Happy Cows come from California.” In a happenstance conversation with a former staff member, we began talking about this slogan. Although we live in Illinois, she is from Wisconsin and dairy, cheese, and cows are items that came up in our conversation when we discussed her Thanksgiving Break. What was interesting was an immediate connection we made to school culture, teacher performance, and student engagement. We can spin the slogan to say, “Great Learning Comes from Happy Teachers. Happy Teachers Come from DGS!”

Establishing a school culture that promotes teacher engagement and satisfaction rests on some basic tenants of school leadership:

  • Administrators need to remember what it was like to sit on the other side of the desk. I was told this by a veteran educator that had served on his community’s Board of Education as well. This advice came the week I accepted my first principalship. His advice has always focused my interactions and approach with staff. As principals, we are teachers first and must consistently remember what it is like to be a teacher.
  • Staff norms that are collaboratively development, monitored, and celebrated are the core to staff interactions and efforts. Our staff norms are focused and intentional mutually agreed commitments. They are displayed in common work areas, celebrated in weekly communications to staff in our Friday Focus, and the start to our leadership and faculty meetings. An area in the teacher’s work room provides an opportunity for teachers to use post-its to share examples of their colleagues modeling these norms.nroms
  • Principals should model taking risks and support staff that do. I am not talking about jumping out of an airplane or bungee jumping off of a bridge; I would never be able to model that kind of risk taking. I am referring to professional educational risks that push learning in the classroom and foster creativity and innovation. This may include trying a new strategy or lesson, using a different app or technology device, or thinking outside the box regarding an approach to classroom management. Some of the best memories our students will have in school are those times when teachers stepped outside their comfort zone and tried something new or did something unconventional. In order for this to happen, teachers need to feel secure in knowing their attempts in learning will be encouraged, supported, and celebrated. After all, we are modeling lifelong learning for our students and the notion that the word FAIL can represent “a first attempt in learning.”
  • Recognition and Support go a long way in validating teachers in their work and interactions with students and families. As adults, we are motivated on positive affirmations and validation of our work. Just as our students benefit from positive praise, teachers do to.  Recognition can be both formal and informal. Some examples include:
  • Hiring and Mentoring practices that support ongoing learning. The core to any positive staff culture is the hiring of the right individuals that will contribute to their culture and teaching environment. Hiring practices that include the teachers or staff members that will work directly with the new hire can improve collaboration and offer voice to current staff members and give a glimpse into culture for the potential new hire. I make it clear in interviews the expectation of collaboration, communication, and positive interactions. This sets the tone that it is something that is part of being a DGS Royal.
  • A school that is student focused and accepts responsibility for all learners. As I write this, I really should place this at the top of the list. To foster a positive school culture, this tenant is paramount. The adults in the building need to accept ownership for all learners, not just the one in their classes or supervision. Learning is a process and doesn’t stop when a child leaves a classroom or grade level. Staff that accept this promote a student first approach and work collaboratively to support all student learning.

This reflection does not discredit the fact that there are challenges, moments of frustration, or bouts of tension. To move forward and grow there are stumbling points and growing pains. The bumps are what we climb on. What does matter is that teachers feel supported by their leadership and each other to weather the storms and look for the rainbows. After all, Happy Teachers make Happy Kids.





Challenge Accepted: O is for Offer Support


The O is for Offer Support Challenge was a favorite of mine. As I read, learn, and access resources, I enjoy sharing them! This challenge allowed me to grow as a learner as well as provide staff meaningful resources.

I have three teachers that are in different places with work on professional reflection blogs. Two teachers have established blogs and another is working on developing hers. All three of them would benefit from some inspiration for topics to write about. As I was working on my own blog posts, I ran across an article that was a 30 day blog challenge. I emailed the link to the staff with a list of the 5 blog post inspiration ideas that I felt would best align to their personalities and strengths as a teacher. By reading this blog post, I also was inspired to do several

A 30 Day Blog Challenge at

 Several of my teachers received OSMO devices as a companion tool to their iPads. These have been in our building for just a month. I followed up with a team of teachers that have the devices with ideas for implementation from Pinterest. In addition, I placed an order for the math number tiles to support their implementation of it in the math setting.

Ideas for the Implementation of OSMO Device with the iPad 


I have a new special education teacher that is experienced in literacy instruction, but is new to a specific intervention we use in our district. During a walk-through I was able to talk to her about her level of comfort with the program and learned that she felt stifled by the rigidity of the program. Knowing that she would benefit from the online learning community and inter-activities that are available, I sent her a link to the SMARTboard files and followed up with customer service to get her access to the training modules, videos, and discussion community. This saved her the time and effort of locating the customer service number, making the call, and creating an account. By taking that on for her, I opened up time for her to focus on instruction and preparation.

Just Words Reading Intervention Resources


In addition to personalized resources shared to specific teachers, I have found ways to embed access to resources in a few additional ways:

  1. In addition to these personalized resources, I have been adding articles, quotes, and ideas to the walls and mirrors in the staff bathroom. After reading, “Personalized PD” I wanted to take advantage of literal ‘down’ times for teachers to engage in professional reading and reflection.
  2. In my weekly memo, I have a section devoted to “blogs, tweets, and pins.” This section allows me to link interesting and valuable resources specific to what I am seeing in classes or that are specific to school learning goals.
  3. I share my reading life with staff. By writing reflections and reviews of books, I model for staff lifelong learning and the importance of reading, but also then have resources to share in conversations as they come up. I can’t think of how many times I have said, “In my office I have a book that you’d love” or “I read in a book about just that topic that you’d love.”
  4. Obviously twitter serves as an immediate and powerful resource to share personalized learning with teachers. If I read an article or see a tweet that reminds me of a teacher, I can easily retweet it to them or message them about it.

Challenge Accepted: Honoring Voice and Choice in Teachers


This past summer, I spent a day running the St. Jude Dunlap to Peoria race in honor of two of our students at DGS. At the last leg of the run, we jogged to Rachel Patten’s song, “This is my Fight Song.” One of my favorite lines from the whole song is, “I only have one match, but I can make an explosion.” This prolific sentiment speaks to the power of one action, one word, or one conversation can have on lighting a metaphorical fire!  This #leadlap challenge of ‘honoring voice and choice’ in teachers resonates with that portion of the song. As leaders, we have the ability to light this spark of creativity, innovation, and passion in our teachers.

“Like a small boat, in the ocean, sending big waves into motion” was also a key phrase in her song that applied to this challenge. With small, brief, and intentional offers of support, our teachers can make a big impact on student learning as they develop professionally!  As a result of the challenge, I followed up with each of my teachers regarding their professional development plans. These plans are created each fall as a professional goal for each educator. I touch base with them in January regarding these goals, but it is fairly self-guided and initiated by the staff member. As I reached out to each teacher, I offered my support and time to help them reach their goals. What resulted was:

1. A classroom teacher asking to observe in a different grade level on their implementation of their RtI block groups and data collection tools. I will cover her class on Tuesday so that she can take this professional learning opportunity to observe a colleague implement best practices!

2. A specials teacher reflecting on benefits of video modeling and taking the time to consider alternative uses for this strategy in her computer lab.

3. A classroom teacher taking a risk to start a professional reflection blog to capture her thoughts and share her learning with other teachers.

4. A classroom teacher sharing with me her PLC team plans to flip reading instruction of their ‘big book’ and another teacher preparing to flip her math lessons. She even had a parent that is also a teacher ask how to flip her lessons… The fire is spreading!

I also had a lot of thanks for checking in, thanks for asking, and I appreciate the support. Honoring the voice and choice in teachers not only sparked some ideas for implementation, but also continued to build respect, rapport, and a positive culture of trust.  As I continue to hold these conversations and offer anchors of support and encouragement, I am confident that my little boat in the ocean at DGS can set big waves into motion! I look forward to continued efforts of innovation, creativity, collaboration, and awesomeness in teaching and learning.

My goals moving forward as a result of this challenge include:

1. Follow up on professional goals monthly with teachers.

2. Continue to provide class coverage for teachers to observe other colleagues

3. Continue to promote the use of the Pineapple Board

4. Strategically spark innovation by being an effective listener during collaborative conversations

C is for Collaborative Conversations: Challenge Accepted


As I progress through the Anchor Conversation Challenges, I am growing as a leader and honing effective best practices in observation, evaluation, coaching, and feedback. I love that the challenges give me a framework to be more strategic and focused when I provide feedback to the team. During this challenge, I maintained the integrity of the first two challenges by dropping anchors of appreciation and noticing the impact of instructional practices. These two pieces are vital to build rapport, respect, and positive culture surrounding the feedback and coaching.

I plan to continue this process, but as a result of my initial collaborative conversations I have gained a lot of insights in to the classrooms and teachers I have visited:

  • I asked:

    I noticed you using some conference forms. I’d love to chat with you about how these forms are going and the impact you see them having in your classroom. If you have a second, let’s chat about them at some point today.

    From our Collaborative Conversation, I learned how reading conferences in that classroom dig deep to determine a variety of behaviors, preferences, and information on students related to their reading habits. A teacher took her learning from the Illinois Reading Conference and has been embedding these in her daily reading block to building relationships and rapport with her classroom of readers.

  • I asked:

    I noticed your Whole Brain Teaching Book was out on your desk. What strategies have you been trying out or are seeking to have a better understanding of? I’d love to learn more. When you get a chance, come down to the office at some point this week so I can learn more!

    From our Collaborative Conversation I learned this classroom teacher is pursuing whole brain teaching certification by independently and voluntarily re-reading and responding on a blog with other connected educators. Our conversation about this led to her agreeing to share this practice at an upcoming professional development breakfast club meeting. Excellent teachers share their learning with others.

  • I asked:

    I’d love to know a little more about how the 3rd grade team prioritizes focus areas for students based on the data sheet if a child has multiple areas of need. Please pop into the office at some point so we can discuss how this works so I can have a clearer understanding.  

    From our Collaborative Conversation I learned through our collaborative conversation that classroom data is being reflected on by a group of students to determine their own intervention groups and focus areas. Students look at this performance data and decide which intervention groups they go to based on classroom based assessment. The classroom teacher is involved in assisting students in prioritizing academic and behavioral goals.

More importantly, I gained a deeper insight into what I observed by inviting teachers into my office to further provide information to their practices. I was able to wear the hats of coach and learner as my own knowledge base was deepened by the information that was shared with me and I was able to provide verbal feedback to the teachers during the conversation.

Following the last three challenges, I sought feedback from my teachers about how they felt the feedback was being delivered.

One teacher wrote:

I like how you gave me things to consider and reflect on! Also, I liked how you asked me more about something I am doing. I know you stop into our rooms as much as you can, but it is nice to know that if you aren’t sure how we do something, you aren’t afraid to ask! J Thanks for all you do!

To provide an ongoing opportunity to solicit an understanding of teaching practices and to foster collaboration amongst teacher staff and myself, I developed twitter challenges. These voluntary opportunities have the power to foster professional learning and engage teachers in collaborative dialogue and conversations. Reading through posts thus far is exhilarating as staff shares blogs, articles, quotes, resources, and ideas with each other. Twitter provides teachers the opportunity to continue the conversations we may hold and provides them engagement in their teaching and learning that we want for our students.

december twitter challenge


N is for Noticing: Challenge Accepted

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Last week I participated in the “A is for Appreciation” #LeadLAP Challenge to drop notes of appreciate to staff members at DGS. This week’s #leadlap challenge was presented by Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf as “N is for Noticing.” Principals and instructional leaders were charged with getting into classes and “Noticing” the impact by providing feedback of instructional practices. Guidance for feedback that is meaningful and can impact instruction was given at

In addition, I’d like to reference some additional resources for providing teachers feedback:

1. How Principals Can Give Effective Feedback to Teachers

2. 7 Steps to Effective Feedback

3. Seven Keys to Effective Feedback

4. Rich Voltz Thoughts on Teacher Evaluation


N is for Noticing

With my port-a-principal cart armed with my “N is for Noticing” notes, I set sail into classrooms to start my day. When providing teachers feedback, I was intentional about providing judgement/bias free feedback to and speak to the best practices strategies that were used within their instruction. I cited specific evidence and observations. I engaged students in conversations that focused on learning goals and targets. I then wrote these down and shared them with teachers.

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In a book I previously read over the summer, “The Three Minute Classroom Walk-Through,” the authors stated “The major purpose of our walk-throughs is to provide opportunities for the teacher’s professional growth. Professional growth is considered a process and not some abstract point of finality on a continuum of development.” Providing the systematic feedback on an ongoing basis to teachers by noticing their instruction practices, student engagement, and curriculum decisions, teachers can continue to grow and develop. In addition to my teachers growing through feedback,  As a result of this week’s challenge, I have set some professional goals. My goals include:
1. Making regular and specific feedback a priority.

2. Making the feedback I give goal-oriented, specific, and free from bias.

3. Continue to provide feedback that is balanced between hand-written, digital, and face-to-face