Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Creating Bravely

The people who know and work with me know that I have short list of #eduheroes, who I deeply admire and respect. Within moments of meeting me you will know who they are, as I reference them often and I may or may not go great lengths to meet them in person or get a response from them on Twitter. I fully admit that I am a groupie, though my staff would say nearing stalker status. With that in mind, I'm about to go all in and write a blog post about 2 of them because it is not too often you get to meet and learn from them in the same week. This blog is not meant to brag (much);  it is meant to share the  reflections I've had since being inspired by them and the others whom I connected with this week.

If you come to Dexter Park, you know who Peter and Paul Reynolds are. I have read nearly every book in their collection to our students, and the school loves to celebrate student creativity and risk-taking during "International Dot Day" each year. Peter and Paul own Fablevision Learning, company in Dedham that is "dedicated to help all learners discover their true potential". Peter and Paul hosted a small group of educators, whose districts are part of Learn Launch's MAPLE Consortium, at their book store and coffee shop The Blue Bunny Bookstore and Coffee Shop to begin a new project. How could I say no? It was the thrill of a lifetime for me; sitting with educators from around the state with my favorite authors, talking about student learning and brainstorming ideas for a future book about personalized learning. Peter talked about his inspiration for The Dot, and how it took very special educators in his life that recognized his creative potential and encouraged him to "draw outside the lines". The group sat, drank coffee, and talked about what schools should be and what we want for our students as they enter a world that we know nothing about. Educators talked about how they want their student to create, follow their passions, get excited about learning, and to teach them to treat others with kindness and respect; in others words, to be a good human-being. 

The next day I met with a group of elementary principals, who hosted long time educator and author Chip Wood. Chip is most widely known for founding Responsive Classroom, an approach to building classroom and school community. Chip's work with RC has deeply impacted me as a classroom teacher, as the techniques such as Morning Meeting and Closing Circle made my classroom a better place and are still present at Dexter Park. Chip talked to the group about his most recent work, Leading Together, which focuses on the adult community and the interactions therein. Chip led the group through some listening exercises, as well as some breathing exercises. We talked as a group of leaders about the importance of taking care of ourselves and modeling that for staff and students; finding more work/life balance, developing relationships in the workplace, and taking the time to listen; in other words, to be a good leader is to be a good human-being.

In reflection I have realized that in the two evenings, with a wide variety of leaders and voices at the table, we did NOT talk about:

-standardized learning or assessment (last I checked, students are not standard!) 
-Math and Reading (or any subject) being taught in isolation
-"time on learning" replacing social emotional learning, the creative arts, and/or recess
-raising Math and Science scores as the solution to compete with other countries in the global market
-doing things the same way we've always done them

In fact, the two groups talked more about qualities of human beings and nurturing the soul and spirit of ourselves and our students. The two groups I sat with were forward thinking people albeit small groups, which got me thinking: why aren't there more of us? If there are so many people who are not content with the status of our system and think we need fundamental change, where are they? And I think, along with a variety of others factors, it comes down to this: leadership is scary. Being a leader comes with certain conditions that are not things that "normal" humans find pleasure in, including:

1. There is no script or instruction manual 
2. You stand out, are often misunderstood and even criticized by others
3. There is a chance you could be wrong
4. You often feel alone 
5. You will fail...a lot!

The world is changing at a an alarming rate and one thing is for sure: our world demands more creativity, more passion, and more understanding and compassion for one another. It is going to take brave leaders, even if they are a small group, to spark significant change. It only takes two to start a revolution:

I believe we are nearing a movement. To all those professionals who I met this week and to all school leaders and teachers who do things a little different: keep pushing. Keep coding with kids, blogging, creating maker spaces and innovation labs, facilitating Genius Hour so kids can pursue their passions, creating time for kids to get lost in a good book, and getting to know each student individually and celebrating their unique qualities. As the Reynolds would say, keep "Creating Bravely".  The world needs you more than ever. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Practicing Gratitude

As you may know, every month I travel to classrooms and read students a book. For me, it is important to share the love of reading with our students and also getting into classrooms keeps me grounded in my "Why". This month I am reading "The Last Stop on Market Street" by Matt de la Pena.

What I love the most about my read aloud time is the conversation and connections I make with our students. Many of the books have sparked great dialogue but this book, I have to say, is becoming one of my favorites. Every time I read it I pick up on something I didn't previously and the conversations I have had with students from grades 3 to 6 have been insightful, mature, and connected to what matters to all of us, both as students/teachers but more importantly as human beings. If you haven't read the book, CJ is an inner-city boy who learns from his Nana to look for the positive in his situation and to appreciate what is.

A rather simple story, the themes that lie within are rich and deep. This week I have talked with students about choosing a positive mindset, showing gratitude for others, choosing kindness, and being present in the moment. We talked about how performing small acts of kindness not only make you feel good but as one 3rd grader told me: "It's like a virus, but a good one.". His point is well taken: kindness and gratitude starts with a small act but can spread like wildfire through an organization. If we all are intentional about shifting our mindset to what is good we become better problem solvers when challenges come our way. We listen better, we work better with others, and we are available to give ourselves to others when they need our help.  And as I have shared with both students and staff, there is strong research to show that those who think more positively and show gratitude sleep better, have more positive relationships, are happier, more productive, live longer and healthier lives. The best part of all: it doesn't cost a thing, the changes are small but have a big impact, and it applies to all age groups.

As one student told me today as I asked them to think about intentional acts of gratitude this coming week, "Mr. Dodge, this month is a good reminder to be grateful but we should try to do it every day, not just this week.". She is right- our conditions and situations cannot be controlled but our perception and attitude can. We "drive our own bus" and every day we make choices: how we choose to look at situations, who we surround ourselves with, and whether we choose to keep growing/learning. I want to thank the many people in my life who choose to "ride my bus" with me: my family, colleagues, my staff, our students, families and community members who support the work that we do every day at Dexter Park. Also, my one of a kind PLN (#principalsinaction #kidsdeserveit #LeadLAP #LeadLAPMass #MSAAChat) who each day make me a better leader for my family and school community.  I am grateful for all of you.

Enjoy the coming days- make time for yourself and those that surround you with positivity and hope, and be sure to thank them for their impact on you.

If you are looking for articles/resources on gratitude, check some of these out:

Sam Berns and his philosophy for a happy life (Thank you, Angela Corey!)

Soul Pancake: An Experiment in Gratitude

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Every Child. Every Day.


I blogged recently about our testing data and my initial reaction, disappointed that the data wasn't representative of the work we did last year. Having had some time to become less emotional about it, I decided to not play the victim to the data and to go out and find the data that would reflect our work. As we tell our school story, this is the data I hope you decide to use when you tell others about our school and the work we are doing:

Median SGPStudents W/ DisabilitiesW/O Disabilities
Grade 4
Grade 5
Grade 6

When people ask you what we are up to at Dexter Park, you can tell them that we are working in school where ALL of our students are making progress. You can point to this data that proves we mean it when we say "Every Child. Every Day.". This data shows the immediate impact you all have made in only year's time for a population of students who, across the country, deserve better. You are doing the real work, the important work. I am proud of this data and I am proud of all of you. Keep moving the bus forward!


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Rising Above

Dear Team,

This year I have been personally exploring my "Whys", both personally and professionally, making sure that my goals and actions are purposeful and draw me towards those visions. What I have discovered in myself since I have been in Orange and seeing the vast work that you do for students, is that I have a burning passion for doing what is right for kids every day and meeting ALL of their needs. This is come through watching the work you do, seeing the challenges you and our students face every day, and how this work is so vastly underappreciated or recognized. This is why reading "The Energy Bus" was so influential to me, and I hope that you discover similar things about yourself as we read, learn and grow together.

I will admit to all of you that Monday was a struggle, as we received our most recent MCAS data. Having poured all of our blood, sweat and tears into the last two years creating the Innovation School, I honestly was a little excited to see how this would translate into our student achievement results. We as a school have done more in two years that most schools do in ten (and we did it quite successfully I might add). As I looked the data over, I felt defeated. I felt like I had let you down, our students down, and in one word, I felt incompetent. And after speaking with many of you this week, I know you feel the same way. You give yourselves to your work and your students and when it doesn't translate the way you hope, you quite simply feel deflated.

So what do we do now? I have the answer: exactly what we have been doing because we know it is the right thing to do. What I am coming to understand is that we have a greater purpose and a greater vision. It is why we are discovering our passions this year and choosing positivity when it can be so easy to complain about what we don't have or the resources that other schools or towns have. We are strengthening the adult community because we know that how we work together and support one another in times of difficulty has an impact on students. We are called to this profession and to this school because "if it were easy, everyone would do it".

WE are going to keep our bus on track. WE are going to continue building a school community that supports each and every child, each and every day. WE are going to ignore the "noise", stay focused on the vision of our school, and not anything or anyone tell us different. It is my hope that we continue to uncover and remember the deeper meaning behind the work we do so that we continue to impact lives. As you watch Emily Esfahani Smith's TedTalk, think about the 4 pillars how it relates to your life (personal and professional) as well as the goals you have for your students. If you are this DP bus, you share our purpose and it has never and never will be scores because our work is transcendent.

And finally, WE tell our story. We choose to focus on what we have and not what we don't. We don't play the play the victim to a skewed system that fails to get it right. We tell others how despite this, we are doing things that others around the state are watching and wanting to emulate. We are proud to say that we work in a building where we do more with less. We continue to move forward and forge ahead because the vision of our school pulls us to something greater and our purpose is bigger than how we are judged by a data point. We stick together because we get it and no one else does.

I believe in the work we are doing. I believe in us and I believe in each and every one of you, and I have never been more proud to be the Principal of the Dexter Park Innovation School. 



Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Committed in 2017-2018

Thanks to all of my #PrincipalsinAction #LLAP #DadsasPrincipals and #MomsasPrincipals colleagues for pushing me this summer to step back, reflect deeply, and commit myself to following for the coming school year. A huge shout out to my Dexter Park team, who push me to better leader and serve them with more energy, enthusiasm, and passion. For them and the students of Orange, here are the things I am taking from my summer learning and committing to this year:

I committed to showing my team the North Star, pointing all of us in a direction that asks us to think big and imagine what is possible.  When the road gets bumpy and we get off track (which it will), I will guide us back towards our North Star with positivity and encouragement.

Change is inevitable. We can't control it, but we can control our perception. I am committed to leading change like a shark and seeing the possibilities.
I am committed to small change that is realistic and ultimately serves the needs of the school community. I will protect our time and energy from the "noise" that isn't about teaching and learning. 
Our job is to produce well-rounded humans who contribute to society. I am committed to teaching the whole child and to supporting my staff in nurturing the social-emotional well-being of our students. 
I am learning that the word manage means "to work through others". I am deeply committed to working more efficiently so that I can be out of my office where the action is happening. More importantly, I am committing to leaving the work at work so I can do my most important job, which is being a present father and husband. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Dexter Park Staff Book Study: Week 1 Reflection

First of all, let me say how excited I am to be trying out this new format of books talks, and thank you to Anna for bringing it to us! I have done a little bit of blogging but not nearly as much as I'd like, so I am hoping this will give me the push I need to get back into it. I have already enjoyed the reflections posted already and am certain you will see blogging as another way to deeper reflect on your practice and learn from others.

I did not take the quiz. Actually, I started to take the quiz but found it very challenging. I went in thinking I would take it with the best knowledge I had during my last year of teaching, but then I realized my responses would not be accurate- even though it was 4 years ago, I would have trouble figuring out if it's what I wanted to be, or what I actually was as a classroom educator.

I will say, in reflection, what resonated with me is that teaching is such a complex act. As a leader, my goal is to be present in classrooms as much as possible and push educators' practice forward. In my first couple years, I leaned on the evaluation process to do this: visiting rooms, giving my perception of strengths and areas for growth, then coming back in a few weeks to check-in on progress. What I am learning is this does not move practice the way I had hoped because that process if heavily one-sided: it is my interpretation of just a sliver of an educator's year with students. Robyn points out something that I believe strongly, it's not as much about skill as it is mindset. In my years working with educators and leaders, there is no doubt that reflective practitioners are the most skilled and successful in their work. It is having a growth mindset, knowing there is always something for us to learn and grow in (which is why you are all in this book study!). It is also being honest and willing to admit when you have challenges or a lesson didn't go well, but then striving to make it better.

My goal for this book is to help grow educator capacity not through the evaluation system but through regular dialogue and reflection. I want to be able to support all of you as you are exploring these strategies in your practice but I also want to help others reflect on their practice. I am hoping each chapter will bring to light reflective questions that I can use to further promote the 7 principles not just in your classroom but throughout the building.

Again, so excited to take this journey with you!!

Friday, June 9, 2017

A Fond Farewell

Good afternoon graduates, parents, families, community members, School Committee members and Superintendent Thomas to our 2017 graduation ceremony. My name is Chris Dodge and I proud to the be principal here at the Dexter Park Innovation School. Today we honor, recognize, and celebrate our 6th grade students and you, their families and support networks.

This time of year for me, for the students, and staff is one of great excitement. But it also brings with it a flurry of other emotions: grief as another year comes to a close, pride in our students as we see them move on ready for the next grade, and even sadness as we say goodbye to the students and staff that we have worked so tirelessly with and invested so much to. Students, you are probably feeling the same mixed emotions. Maybe a little sad about leaving a place you know so well, a little scared about what is next to come, and hopefully proud of of you have done in your time here. I want you to know that the adults feel the same way, and it’s okay. It is completely normal, you are human.   

You may also be sitting here wondering, as the adults here do this time of year, did I do enough with my time? Was I enough for those around me?  Was I the best I could be all the time? Well, I am here today to tell you the answer to those questions: no, you weren’t, and it is okay. When you find yourself asking these questions, shift your mindset from one of regret to one of acceptance. Accepting you for who you are, the mistakes you make, and the effort you put forth to making you and the people around you better. And as you sit in front of me, ready to move on from DP, accept this moment as it is and all the feelings and emotions that live inside you. It is what make you, you.

It is always funny for for me to be giving this kind of advice because I don’t always practice what I preach: about slowing down, letting go, and letting things be. So I was recently looking for some inspiration and found a poem that I’d like to share.

Friends, when you move onto new adventures, my message if simple: remember how small things grow. We cannot do it all, change it all, solve every problem, but as Mark Nepo writes “we can feed each other”. We can offer small, nearly invisible kindnesses that can take flight into some unknown future, effortless, alive. Bring everything you have to others around you; all your passion, humor, intelligence, weakness, and challenges. Be content with you are at this very moment, accept yourself and others for who they are, and seek to make others’ lives better in your presence.  These small moments make a big impact, and the world need more of that. Take big risks, give it all you have, don’t forget to laugh, and always choose kindness.


Monday, January 2, 2017

One Word for 2017

My word for 2017 is very simple-

In 2017 I hope to slow down, breathe, and let things "be"; to step back and observe things as they are, without judgement or trying to fix it, which is particularly challenging in this line of work. It is funny how as leaders we preach often but sometimes do not practice what we preach. I am guilty of this, as I often stress to my staff and students to be more mindful, to take in the moments, and to take care of themselves. In a typical day, though, you will find me moving from one thing to the next, hoping to check things off the list that never ends. There are times of quiet when I actually catch myself running out of breath and my heart racing, thinking about what is the next fire is that I need to put out. Getting ready for work in the morning sometimes feel like a race to beat the clock, though I don't even know why I am hurrying. My days typically end exhausted and wondering how long I can keep up this lifestyle, tending to my school community as well as my family of 5.

So as I enter the new year, I hope to "be" the husband, father, leader, and colleague that doesn't just talk the talk but walks the walk. To be more present in the moment, to take time for those who need me most, and to let be what is right and also what is not. Most of all, I am going to be kinder to myself, be the leader that I want to be, and not apologize for it. What else can I "be" but me?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Look Back

For me, the start of the new year is a time for reflection. Reflection on the past year's celebrations, challenges, successes and failures. In January of 2016 I chose my #oneword, which was "Connect", and I have been thinking deeply about my choice, where that came from, and the status of my goal to date.

In 2015 I made a professional leap and took the role of Principal at The Dexter Park School, a school that serves students in my hometown of Orange. What became clear to me from the start was that there were tremendous things happening in the school and talented staff members who wanted to do things better for the students and families of Orange. Dexter Park, like many rural schools, has been through the educational policy ringer over the past decade, and I could see a school community who was reeling from that, knew what needed to be done, and wanted a voice to do so. Changes in leadership, the closing of a school, being labeled "underperforming" by the state all resulted in staff who felt powerless, beaten up, and sometimes in competition with each other. What was clear to me was that we needed to get the focus back to where it belongs: supporting our students and educators. My choice of "Connect" was to bring together our adult community around some common goals/beliefs, connect and build relationships with students and staff, and show off all the amazing things that happen each day to parents and the community through social media. 

In these moments of reflection, I am still in awe of the things we did over the last year. Together, we completely revamped our special education delivery model to co-teaching and became the Dexter Park Innovation School, with a focus on inclusion. We have established core and a School Improvement Plan that reflects those beliefs and unites our school around some common goals. To be perfectly honest, along the way I had moments of excitement, uneasiness, and questioning whether this work was too much too quick. Personally, I doubted myself, wondering if I could lead a school through such dramatic change in a short period of time. What I am learning is that change takes time, the work is never done, and what hinges on the success or failure are the people on the ground doing the work. These things seem fairly obvious but this last year has reinforced for me the belief that a leader is not a manager/director but a listener/supporter. I am very honest with my staff when I tell them that I don't have all the answers but together we can find solutions. Giving staff a voice for change and path to that change has made all the difference for us. I knew at the very beginning that we had the people in place; my job was to provide the vehicles to support them and the work that they knew needed to be done. It has been the highlight of my career to see our vision in action and the impact it is having on our school community, and to be the one cheering our students and staff on as they go has been an honor. I will continue to build better relationships, make more connections, and continue to celebrate our school community in the coming years.

I would not be anywhere close to the leader I am today without the support and encouragement of my PLN. The educators around the country who I have connected with on Twitter and Voxer have pushed me to think and act differently. I have always said that I am principal I want to be, not the principal I thought I should be, because of them. My #Mespachat and #principalsinaction colleagues reaffirm for me that schools across the nation are in good hands. Even though I have not met many of them in person, I consider them colleagues and friends. I cannot wait to see what 2017 has in store for all of us working together and creating schools that are places of joy, fun, and where there is excitement in learning. 

I am still contemplating my #oneword for 2017 so stayed tuned, but in the meantime enjoy "Dexter Park's Year in Review"