Monday, July 25, 2016

Empowering Innovation

I just got back from day one of our annual district leadership summer retreat. Perhaps my favorite part of the retreat is when we learn together through reading and sharing, and this year we read The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros.

We typically "jigsaw" the book, each of us reading and sharing a chapter or two. By far the best is the conversation that is sparked, as we connect new learnings to our practice and stretch each other to think different.  Though hard to summarize, a couple things resonated with me that will apply to my work this year:

-The world around has changed dramatically over time due to new technology and advances in science, yet schools typically have not made the same changes. We still tend to operate on the same system created decades ago when most students were working on the family farm in the summer.

-Innovation is a mindset, not a tool or a technology. Innovation is the ability to question, create, struggle, collaborate, invent, fail, and reflect.

-Innovation is about empowering our learners, staff and students included. Motivation to do anything, for kids or adults, comes when we have choice over what we do.

-The internet and social media has brought connectivity and idea sharing to new heights, as we can now be connected locally and globally. Rather than technology replacing face to face interactions, it can enhance human interactions.

Most important is the role we leaders play in modeling and fostering an innovator's mindset in our schools. As I sat listening to my colleagues I realized that we make each other better. Not because we agree on everything, but because we collaborate through questioning each other, creating plans for change, learning about and struggling with new ideas, failing (often!), and reflecting so we can readjust our path for the district. I feel so fortunate to be able to work with a group of innovators who truly keep students and staff in the forefront, so thank you for pushing me to be better each day.

I hope you take minute to view our work here to see what the leadership has been learning and contemplating for our work in Orange and Petersham, and I'd love to hear your thoughts/feedback. Feel free to comment or email me anytime!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Summer and the 3 Rs: Reflect, Refine, and Recharge

I must admit, that as a teacher, the summer months were particularly tough time for me. Not because I didn't appreciate the time off but because I struggled with the transition. For those who don't work in a school setting, the final months of the school year are so jam-packed, many of us don't know whether we are coming or going. State testing, end of year programs and trips, celebrations, and evening programs are all scheduled into 8 short weeks. Add to that, many students are struggling to make the transition to summer themselves, which produces heightened stress and anxiety and ultimately, more problem behaviors that require support. Then all of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, it all STOPS. At the drop of a hat, you now find yourself not having to work 10 hour days, eating your lunch in 15 minutes, or performing 5 tasks simultaneously while walking through the halls. For me, that was hard, and even as a principal it is strange to all of sudden have the building empty without the buzz of students and staff filling the halls. As someone who likes to have a purpose and clear action plans (as I think most educators do) to feel effective, here is are the 3 things that I hope to achieve in the summer months, both as an educator and as a principal. I believe that our students and families could also find some of these helpful practices at home as well.

Reflect: The key to success in education is reflection. You show me a highly effective educator and I would be willing to bet my house they are reflective in their practice. Reflective practitioners make reflection part of their daily practice; they are continually thinking about what went well and what could be done better the next time. They are models for what life-long learning and the growth mindset is all about: learning never ends and there is always room for growth. The summer can be a great time to reflect on the not just a lesson or a moment but the year as whole. This simply can't and shouldn't happen until the summer months, you are too entrenched in the day-to-day and are probably emotionally and physically drained from a long school year. When you have decompressed and given yourself time to look at things objectively, ask yourself: What went well this year? What am I most proud of? Did I achieve my professional goals? What would I like to refine for next year to continue growing and to make my classroom instruction better for kids?

Refine: From reflection comes the opportunity to refine your practice. The struggle I have here, as I think most educators do, is to choosing 1-3 things that will have the greatest impact on students. Currently I could probably name about 50 things that I would like to improve as a leader next year and for our school community. The challenge is that when we are trying to do many things all at once, we tend to do all of them but sacrifice quality in the process. As I am choosing goals for myself, I am considering:
1. What can I do better for the staff and students in which I serve?
2. How does this align with our school's vision and mission?
3. What will have the greatest impact on our students?
4. What action steps are involved in making this happen? How will I check in on my progress and make adjustments along the way?
I must admit that when I think about it, I get very overwhelmed but I also know that things like this tend to show themselves over time. The simple act of reflecting and refining provides purpose, makes you better for kids, and ultimately makes your school better.

Recharge: Those who don't work in schools really cannot understand the toll a school year has on an educator. There is a physical toll but greater than that is the emotional toll. Educators pour their heart and soul into their work each and every day. They often put their personal well-being on hold while they serve others. Balance is something I have been working on, and although I still have a long way to go, I try to model what I tell my staff: before you can take care of others, you have to take care of yourself. The summer is a time to recharge your batteries. To spend time with family, do things you enjoy, and recover relationships that may have been put on the back burner. I am personally am enjoying time with my family and friends, while also catching up on the multitude of books that I have collected over the last year but didn't read. Part of recharging for me is getting inspired; through networking with my PLN, chatting on Twitter and Voxer, reading books that push my thinking and make me a better principal.

Books that I have read or on deck are:

Kids Deserve It! by Todd Nesloney (@techninjatodd) and Adam Welcome (@awelcome)
These two guys inspire me everyday and their book is no different, as they write about spreading positivity and going all out for kids, everyday. I fully embrace their ideas about not accepting the status-quo in education and really thinking about what do we want our schools to be: inspiring, innovative, and full of joy. So often schools fall down to the bad press, lack of resources, and the multitude of other things we don't have, but these guys encourage educators to flip the script, be awesome, and tell everyone about it!

The Innovator's Mindset by George Couros (@gcouros)
We use the term innovation in school a lot (and some schools are adding to their name ;)), and George writes about what it truly means to be innovative in schools. It all starts with a culture of innovation, where the educators are encouraged to take risks, try new things, fail, and try again. Unleashing the talent in our schools and giving the freedom to pursue passions and doing what it right for kids can not only inspire staff but in turn will inspire students to do the same. This book has pushed me to think long and hard about my role in creating a culture of innovation and a school that prepares students for the world they will enter, not the one that currently live in. I have chosen this book to read with my fellow OES/RCM/PCS leaders and am looking forward to their insights and how it will apply to our work in the district.

A Framework for Understanding Poverty: A Cognitive Approach by Dr. Ruby Payne
This is my 2nd reading of this book, as I believe it is the bible for understanding class systems and what she terms the "hidden rules" of the classes. This book has deepened by understanding of my student population and the underlying factors that lead to behaviors that we see. If nothing else, this book will make you more empathetic to people and help realize that all behaviors are result of environment and needs, and often we assume our students have certain tools that have never been given or taught.

I am currently reading Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek (Thank you Chante Jillson for the recommendation!) and Hacking Leadership by Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis. I will be sure to blog my thoughts about them in the coming weeks.

My challenge to Dexter Park staff, students, and families is to share your summer "R's" with me. You can email me messages or photos, or better yet, post on social media and use the #DexterParkPride hashtag. I want hear all the ways our school community is learning this summer. We are all better when we share and learn together!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Until We Meet Again, Class of 2022

Good afternoon graduates, parents, families, community members, and guests to our 2016 graduation ceremony. My name is Chris Dodge and I proud to the be principal here at the Dexter Park School. Today we honor, recognize, and celebrate our 6th grade students and you, their families and support networks.

As I said, it gives me great pride to be standing here and addressing this special group of students.These students have heard me speak for all year about embracing challenge and seeing struggle as an opportunity for growth and learning, and I am not going to repeat that (for their benefit).  Today before they move on, I want provide one last bit of advice: do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to fail, for failure brings about an opportunity to learn. Learn from our mistakes, learn that we can pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, and learn that we have in an inner resilience that we didn’t know existed. If you asked anyone in this room to name a moment in their life when they were most proud of themselves, they wouldn’t tell you about something that came easy to them or they didn’t have to work at, tirelessly. They would tell you about a struggle or challenge and how what they learned propelled them to greatness.

I stress this students and staff  because 1. challenges are all around us and will never go away 2. it is a skill that can be taught, modeled, and fostered in our students 3. we know that highly successful people have a don’t quit attitude in the face of adversity and many of them cite the critical turning point in their success was not an award or invention, it was, in fact, a failure. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, was once fired from the company he started. Abraham Lincoln failed in his first run for president in 1856.  Walt Disney failed out of school, his first company, Laugh O Gram Studios, went bankrupt, and he was once fired from a Missouri newspaper for “not being creative enough”. All three of these individuals went on the change the American landscape forever and it was challenge and even failure that made them successful.

When you leave here and and face life’s challenges, because you will, go into it fearless and if you fall, pick yourself up and move on. Most importantly than all of this, though, do not be afraid to be yourselves. Bring all the energy, life, and passion that you brought to our building and to our school; it’s contagious and cannot be ignored.  Don’t be afraid to help someone in need, to play, dance, and just be silly. Be who YOU want to be not what someone tells you to be: don’t be afraid to have a dance party at recess, to sing in front of the entire school, to support a friend when tragedy strikes, to dress up like Star Wars characters on May 4th, to show appreciation and kindness even to someone you don’t know, and don’t be afraid to plan a flashmob. Life is about moments, and moments happen when people like you take risks.

If you fail, those around you will not bask in your failure, they will marvel at your relentless pursuit of success. It was basketball legend Michael Jordan, who said: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”  Many things in life are what you make of it, so do not be afraid to take the final shot. I congratulate you and proud of each and every one of you.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

PD is Getting Personal

I am still on a emotional high after our first edcamp, hosting 60 Massachusetts educators, many of whom were first time edcampers and really didn't even know what they were getting into. My journey and interest into the edcamp model is a simple one: I began becoming a more connected educator and instantly was hooked. I was in love with the fact that I could connect with experts, authors, and area colleagues at any time and learn from them. Through platforms like Twitter, Voxer, and Facebook, my world opened up and I realized that professional development did not have to happen after paying $300 and traveling to a local hotel resort to hear someone speak on a topic. My professional development happens every day, when I want it and on the topics I choose. All I have to do is reach out and my PLN is there to support me, guide me, question me, and push me to be better. I have often said that I was the principal I thought I should be, and now I am the principal I WANT to be.

In my building, I began by planning edcamp style staff meetings (thanks to a MESPA colleague, Sandra Trach from Lexington), where teachers set up sessions and others signed up:
There is simply no way that I could cover the amount of topics that were covered that day. The format was highly differentiated and from the feedback I received, ALL staff members left with something useful to help them in their practice. At the same time, I wanted my staff to feel valued, trusted, and to know that I do not have all the answers, they do. They are the ones who work with kids every day and they know how to make our school better for kids and families. I am the only one in the building who sees the talented staff of Dexter Park work with students and create learning opportunities; this model creates the time and space to share those moments with each other.

EdcampNQ went off amazingly well, and again, not because of me but because of the people who came and the expertise and passions they shared. All I did was create the time and space for it to happen. It felt awkward when participants thanked me afterwards, as I felt that my role was small and it was me who wanted to thank them. Educators who gave up time with families on a Saturday to better their practice and make their classrooms and schools a better place for students. Every day I am honored to work with such caring and compassionate educators, and Saturday I truly felt humbled to bring them together and celebrate them. They are going back to their schools on Monday better than on Friday and I am sure they are not only going to make their classrooms better places for learning but they are going to in turn bring that energy back and make their schools better. Energy and enthusiasm like what I felt on Saturday cannot be ignored, it's contagious.

I have always felt that my primary job is to be the model of what I expect from staff. I would never ask my staff to do anything that I wouldn't do myself. Currently we are asking staff to not be the "sage on the stage" but rather the facilitator of learning. As leaders we should be asking ourselves if we are regularly modeling expectations in our staff meetings, PD, and committee work.  I would challenge all school leaders to at some point this year to step back and let go, just create the time and space for educators to work. I will admit, it initially is an awkward feeling, especially for leaders who are so accustomed to leading by creating agendas, speaking at length, then making decisions. You may just find that you can let go, the agenda items still get taken care of, and this way is a lot more fun!

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Love Letter to Dexter Park

Dear Dexter Park,

With all the staff reflecting on their jobs and why they #loveteaching, I think it is time I tell you how I feel about you. Less than a year ago, I took a big risk and left a school that I loved. I must admit that I was nervous and asked myself: "Am I ready?" "What if it doesn't work out?" and "What if I made a huge mistake?". People in public would act surprised to find out I was making a move. I had the perfect situation: great staff, wonderful students, new building, etc. There was always something in the back of my head telling me that this was right for me, and as it turns out, I am glad I listened.

Many people may judge what you do from the appearance of the building but if they knew what happened on the inside everyday for kids and got to see what I see everyday, they would never want to leave. Staff that at their core, care about their students as people and human beings first and students second. Staff that identified their core values as wanting to students to feel welcome, respected, and safe. And you don't just talk the talk, you walk the walk. You take the time to get to know each student, building relationships and trust because you know that your students need you and you may be the only caring, compassionate adult in their life. You make decisions based on the child's best interests as if they were your own and you give them something that many never get at home: a second chance. You model for them what a competent, caring person does. You work hard, treat others with respect, and you work with others in the best interests of our school community.

You should know that not a day has come where I wasn't ecstatic about coming to work. You are the definition of the what public education should and is supposed to be: offering equal opportunities to those who may not be afforded them otherwise. The level of satisfaction I get everyday from working with and for students here is like nothing I have ever experienced in my life. The job you do is hard, complex, emotionally draining, and sometimes deflating. But you do it. You do it because it is the right thing to do and because the students of Orange deserve the best that you can give them. It may the best they ever get in their life. You have to know that I admire and honor you, and although we may not always agree or you don't fully understand my decisions, I hope you know that each day I am working in what I believe are the best interests of students and of you.

Thank you for welcoming me "home". I truly feel like I have been here forever and that this was meant to be for myself and my family. I am excited for the future of our school, the growth all of us will make together, and the differences we will continue to make in the lives of children.

Yours truly,


Thursday, February 18, 2016

1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Challenge

In my opinion, professional development is the single most important thing we do as educators in the field, and this year I uncovered PD that is responsible for redefining who I am as a principal: social media. Being a more connected educator through media such as Twitter and Voxer has not only given me a massive network of colleagues to reach out to, but it has pushed my thinking in ways I would have never thought possible. Because of this, a year ago I was the principal I thought I should be but now I am the principal I want to be. I consider this blog a "thank you" to all my colleagues and friends who have supported and challenged me each day to be better for kids.

I am writing this post as a response to a challenge from one of my principals in action friends, Kas, and in hopes that I can push more educators to become more connected. 

1. What has been your ONE biggest struggle during this school year?
BALANCE! Many of you know that my family recently added twin boys to our growing household. Maintaining balance in such a demanding job so that I can be a father and husband when I get home is something I am always trying to do better. There is nothing better than being a husband, father, and principal; both require me to be at my best at all times. What I am slowly learning is how to take time out of my day for myself, even if it is 15 minutes. I cannot take care of my family or the Dexter Park family if I am not taking care of myself. Isn't it funny the advice you give to others but don't follow yourself?  
2.  Share TWO accomplishments that you are proud of from this school year.
I am so proud to have re-prioritized my time this year. I have been saying since I began in the principalship that I need to get into classrooms more and working with kids and staff. Having made it a goal for 3 years without much change I think I had told myself that it was impossible with all the other duties that come with the job. Thanks to my PIA friends, who are a group of the most innovative principals I have ever known, they challenged me to do things differently. Now, I spend 3 complete days in classrooms. Since everything I do is electronic, I bring my computer with me and I am available if needed. This simple thing keeps me focused on why I do what I do: kids and teachers.

My other big accomplishment is getting more connected. As I said above, it has been an absolute game changer for me and I didn't know what I was missing until I tried it. It has also shaped how I view PD and the value of ongoing, networking between professionals. Hence why I am so passionate about the edcamp model as a mode of PD.   
3.  What are THREE things you wish to accomplish before the end of the school year?
So many things to choose but here it goes:
-I want to say that we had an awesome time at EdcampNQ and that educators can't wait until next year!
-Complete planning and application process to become the Dexter Park Innovation School for 2016-2017!!!!
-Find a way to give my educators a staff room. Every school staff needs a place to get away from their classrooms to decompress, connect with colleagues, and feel valued for their work.
4. Give FOUR reasons why you remain in education in today’s rough culture.
-Kids and families
-I love a challenge and every day in a school is just that. "If it were easy, everyone would do it."
-We change lives- how many people can say that?
5. Which FIVE people do you hope will the take the challenge of answering these questions.
-My Massachusetts principal friends: Mike Leander and Julie Vincentsen. They got me hooked on Voxer and are doing awesome things for kids in their schools.
-Roxanne Dorrie, who has a blog and has made some huge strides to become more connected through Twitter and Voxer.
-Chrislyn Doran, a 4th grade teacher who is one of many at Dexter Park who does amazing things for kids in her classroom. Frankly, I am surprised she doesn't blog but I think she should and share her work with the world. Consider yourself challenged!
-Elaine Mead, who is a MESPA colleague who has been challenged to start a blog. Could this inspire your first post, Elaine? I hope so ;)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Raising the Bar

As I write this I am sitting in grade 4 classroom during writing time, watching our students write opinion pieces on a topic of their choice. Some are writing why science is important in a person's life while others are writing about why we should eat broccoli. Being truly inspired by our student writers, I am going to do some writing of my own and show our students that adult writers can, like them, find inspiration and share their writing with the world.

We talk in schools about having higher expectations for students, but we rarely discuss what that actually means. To me, having high expectations of students is more about the beliefs we have for students and what they can do. Assumptions play an important role. Assumptions can limit our ability to take risks and push the boundaries of what we think is possible. It happens all the time and is completely normal, and often time we don't even realize we are doing it. But, if we are not mindful about our own preconceived notions or assumptions, we may be subconsciously limiting ourselves and others.

My last blog was about my "Word for 2016" and my plan to have the students and staff of Dexter Park choose a word. I must admit that I caught myself asking questions like "can our students choose one?" and "will they take it seriously?". Deciding to just go for it, our students far exceeded what I expected. Below is a word cloud with all our student responses. The bigger the word the more it was used by students:
Even better than the words were the conversations with students about why they chose their word. One student told me they chose "underestimate" be cause they don't want to underestimate themselves this year. Another chose "fearless"- how powerful is that?

I am not writing this because I feel that this is a deficit in our building but as I reflect on the "Word of 2016", it became clear to me that we all make assumptions each and every day. I then wonder, what would happen in all schools if:

-we were able to erase all assumptions we make about ourselves and our students?
-we give students the opportunity to have a voice and make responsible choices for themselves, such as the 4th graders choosing their own writing topic or letting them make decisions about where they sit in a classroom?
-we talked about and harnessed student strengths every day?
-we (staff, parents, etc.) took risks daily and allowed our students to take risks?
-we openly celebrate one another for taking risks and even failing?

To do this every minute of every day may be unreasonable but if we make a conscious effort in what we do, we would be amazed at the level of engaged students, the innovation that results and most importantly, the fine human beings we would be nurturing.

Thanks for reading :)

P.S. I changed my blog title...again! If you are wondering, "My View from the Balcony" didn't sit well with me, as it seems I am sitting above and watching. Spending 3 days a week in classrooms, working with students and staff on the ground, I thought my new title seems more fitting. You feedback is certainly welcome.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

One Word for 2016

The last time I blogged was right before the start of the school year as I began a new year in a new building with new students. I have been admittedly been remiss in my writing up until now, so with the start of the new year comes a perfect time to reflect and make goals for 2016. One of my goals for 2016 is to prioritize my time in my role as principal. My roles and responsibilities are quite diverse; I can get pulled in a variety of directions on a given day. In the new year I am going to make a point to spend more time where it matters: with students. Since there is nothing more important in a school than student learning, my plan is to spend a significant part of my week in classrooms and around the school campus, supporting our students and staff who make Dexter Park such a special place to learn.

The start of the new year also brings about a wonderful opportunity to reflect with students and set goals for the coming year. At the start of the school year, I asked all Dexter Park students and staff to set Hopes and Dreams for the coming year. They are currently posted in the hallway of the school outside the office:

Monday, we will reflect on our Hopes and Dreams to check-in on our progress and make any adjustments. I am also going to ask all students to choose their One Word for 2016. We will not make resolutions; resolutions seldom work because they are based on the type of person we’re tired of being. Plus, resolutions can be “broken,” leaving no room for the process of growth. What if our hopes for the year ahead centered instead on who we want to become, and the transformation process? It’s okay to want to be a better you, and the New Year is a natural time to start. The question is, how? My One Word replaces broken promises with a vision for real change. When you choose a single word, you have a clarity and focus. You are moving toward the future rather than swearing off the past.

My One Word for 2016 is:

Every day I have a view of Dexter Park that no one else has (hence the title of the blog). I walk through classrooms every day and watch talented educators make learning happen for students. What I have realized is that I need to find ways to share this view with our staff, students, and families. Expect me in the coming year to be more visible on campus, connecting and supporting our students and staff. You can also expect me to be sharing my view every day so you can get a small glimpse of the tremendous work that Dexter Park's students and staff do. Be sure to connect with Dexter Park and myself through any of the following platforms:
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I hope that you connect with Dexter Park this year and perhaps decide for yourself what your One Word for 2016 will be. Happy New Year!