Boys, Girls, and Collaboration

Posted by Skip Johnson on October 29, 2014

I came to school one Monday morning to discover that the contractor who had installed our new playground over the weekend left behind a two cubic yard pile of Fibar—a kind of wood chip used at the base of climbing structures. Being a resourceful principal, I asked for student volunteers to help move this material from our lower school to the garden in the upper part of the campus. About ten fifth and sixth grade boys assembled around the material during lunch. I provided a wheelbarrow and some shovels, and, pointing to the garden on the slope above us, I gave one simple direction: “We need to move this stuff from here to there.”

I figured they would load the material, wheel it down the hallway past three classrooms, go up the pathway on the outside of the campus, through the gate, and dump the stuff in the garden without much intervention on my part. At the beginning of this process two would-be leaders emerged. I’ll call one the drill sergeant and the other the labor negotiator. The drill sergeant took command immediately. He decided who got a shovel, who would commandeer the wheelbarrow, and who would just standby. The labor negotiator, on the other hand, offered compromise and sharing. He proposed a plan that would involve everyone getting an equal shot at every activity. Problem was, the troops wanted nothing to do with either leader; they just wanted to shovel Fibar, push the wheelbarrow, and finish the job. They could manage this without a leader, bossy or sensitive, even if it meant arguing with each other every step through the process.

Incipient anarchy

What ensued bordered on anarchy. The first conflict was over shovels. There were six shovels for ten eager beavers. The second conflict was again over shovels. The boys did not know how to use them properly. Half the shovels had round blades and half were flat. They soon discovered that the flat blades would not easily penetrate the Fibar when attacked in the middle of the pile. However stubbornness prevailed as they tried no other approach. The third problem was the wheelbarrow. Everyone wanted to the be the driver. Ultimately, I stepped into the fracas, assigned roles, and the Fibar was moved.

That scene occurred about ten years ago. In the last two years, we have become a STEM Magnet School with emphasis upon critical thinking, creativity, communication, and most profoundly, collaboration. Many of our learning activities are project-based and incorporate these “4C’s,” with collaboration the essential element. We are also converting our library and former computer lab into a STEM resource center. A few days ago, as part of this conversion, we took delivery of a large amount of LEGOS. These needed to be separated by color and placed into bins in the resource center. Some fourth grade girls had just asked me if they could do service for the school, so I recruited them to do the sorting. They arrived in the library during lunch with a couple of fifth grade girls in tow. I showed them the six boxes of LEGOS and described the task: “Each box contains six packages of LEGOS. Each package contains 100 pieces in six assorted colors. The task is to separate the individual pieces by color and place them back into the boxes so every box holds pieces of a single color.”

The girls took all the packages out of the boxes, began opening them, and sorting by color. I stood back and watched. While the scene did not specifically conjure images of shovels and Fibar, I did have a definite feeling of deja vu.

“I have an idea.”

Within three minutes one of the girls said, “Let’s stop, I have an idea. Why don’t we each do a part of this without each doing the same thing.” In another couple minutes, they had created a division of labor: package openers and spreaders, sorters by color, and pickers who would take the sorted pieces to their respective box. In about twenty minutes they were finished. What impressed me the most was that they listened to the first girl’s idea, offered suggestions on how to implement it, volunteered to take on specific roles, and completed the task. If that is not true collaboration then I do not know what is.

Why the difference?

Students working in the Longfellow School Garden
What explains the difference in the way each group of students performed? I am hoping that it is our emphasis on teaching collaboration in the classroom. The girls have had to deal with open-ended tasks and project-based learning for at least two years. Ten years ago, when I tasked the boys with moving the Fibar, their classroom experience was pretty much of the direct instruction, follow specific directions, and repeated drill variety. On the other hand, some might argue the difference could be due to gender—boys compete, girls cooperate. Or it might simply be differences in the personality mix of each group of individuals. Regardless, what I’d like to know is, would the shovel brigade have responded differently if they had gone through a couple of years of well executed Common Core in a project-based learning environment? Perhaps I should order several cubic feet of Fibar and find out!


All STEM’d Up!

Posted by Skip Johnson on November 17, 2013

All STEM'd Up with man on motorcycle at left(to the tune of Elvis’ All Shook Up)

A well we done our plan
What’s right with us?
We’re working really hard and creatin’ no fuss
Our peers say we’re actin’ wild and smug
We’re a determined clan
We’re all STEM’d Up!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

Our plans aren’t shaky and our minds aren’t weak
We are standin’, standin’ on our own two feet
We can thank ourselves to have such luck
We’re a determined clan
We’re all STEM’d Up!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

Please don’t figure to read our minds
We might look shook up but we are feelin’ fine
When we present those lessons we love best
Our students so engage, it scares us to death

When we touch their minds, it’s a chill we got
Now let’s study a volcano that’s hot-hot-hot
We are proud to say this is our loving cup
We’re a determined clan
We’re all STEM’d Up!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!

Our tongues are steady when we need to speak
Our insides are excited as a circuit that is tweaked
There is no cure for this STEM gold mine
We’re gonna keep this system ’cause it’s so fine

We’re a determined clan
We’re all STEM’d Up!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!
Mm mm oh, oh, yeah, yeah!
We’re all STEM’d Up!

Yes, at El Crystal Elementary School we are ALL STEM’d UP! On Wednesday, November 7, 2012, the governing board made El Crystal the first STEM Magnet School in the San Bruno Park School District,.  The next morning, we were full “STEM” ahead.  The 9 teachers and I have accomplished a lot since then:

  • Wrote the STEM Curriculum for grades Kindergarten through fifth grade.
  • Participated in three weeks of self-determined professional development.
  • Conducted four informational meetings for families from other schools in our district.
  • Generated an informational brochure that we distributed throughout our area.
  • Achieved two $20,000.00 grants.
  • Worked closely with the STEM Center at the San Mateo County Office of Education to fine tune our curriculum.
  • Gave three presentations to the governing board to share our progress.
  • Invited to share our program at the Orange County Office of Education.
  • Arranged a partnership through a  Memorandum of Understanding with Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California to provide us with academic support in science and math focused on creating a student-centered learning environment.
  • Created a partnership with Walmart, whose eCommerce headquarters are in San Bruno.
  • Created a partnership with Facebook who replaced twenty-two of our computers that were stolen.
  • Established an advisory committee composed of parents, community members and representatives from Intel, Facebook, Walmart, and Gilead Sciences.
  • Remodeled our media center to accommodate STEM activities.

Earlier this month, we took time out to reflect upon our progress to date:

What is going well?

  • Student engagement in learning has visibly increased.
  • Students are demonstrating a positive attitude towards all aspects of the school including behavior and attendance to learning.
  • Teacher collaboration in grade alike and across grades has been a very positive outcome of STEM.
  • There is a tremendous increase in hands-on learning activities at all grade levels.
  • Teachers believe they are creating a more student-centered learning environment.
  • Overall, staff believes they are achieving deeper levels or understanding and learning with their students.
  • In most classes, parents are eagerly helping with needed supplies for all types of STEM activities
  • Parents report that they are pleased with our new program; that their children come home excited about the daily activities in their classrooms; and that they really like the teaching staff 

What needs to improve?

  • Generally, parents from families that have transferred into our program from outside our attendance area display higher levels of participation than those for whom this is their home school.
  • We have discovered that implementing STEM activities takes much more time than anticipated (not that this can be changed).

What to do differently if we had a fresh start?

  • Not write any curriculum for science until the Next Generation Standards were posted in their final form.
  • Spend the first six weeks of the year assessing the levels of the students and their abilities to handle increased STEM activities.
  • Concentrate on putting more procedures into place such as learning how to function in small, collaborative groups.
  • Get to know all the students better before implementing the STEM curriculum even if it meant delaying STEM activities until October.
  • Teach students how to have collaborative conversations and how to behave and function in collaborative groups.
  • Implementing STEM activities in the three lower grades has been more difficult than the two upper grades. Plan for that through practice.
  • Establish the partnership with Notre Dame de Namur earlier. It would have been helpful to have their sage advice when we had our first professional development activities during the last two weeks of June 2013.
  • Figure out a way to allow for more collaboration time for staff members for planning purposes.
  • Provide constructive feedback by observing each other teach STEM activities.
  • Right now most activities are on a trial and error basis. Staff is coming to grips with that level of anxiety.

Principal’s perspective

From my perspective as principal, our implementation of our STEM program, for the most part is going smoothly. My thoughts and observations:

  • I have never seen teachers so hard-working and dedicated to making a program successful.
  • Collaboration is at an all-time high.
  • As principal, I need to get into classrooms more and observe and validate STEM efforts.
  • This program is clearly worth the effort due to observable increases in student engagement and enthusiasm.
  • This is going to take about three years to perfect.
  • The collaboration with Notre Dame is well worth the investment in time and finance.
  • The relationships I built with parents and community members to gather support for our program has improved not only our school culture but my relationship with the school community.
  • The staff and I agree that given the opportunity, we would do this over again.

“The Delegation”

Posted by Skip Johnson on November 30, 2012

Students of El Crystal Elementary SchoolFacing incipient school closure

Last April I found out late on a Friday evening that my school had been unexpectedly listed in a San Bruno Park School District governing board agenda for closure at the end of the 11/12 school year. Up to that point only one other school had been recommended for closure by a consultant firm hired by the district. To say the least, there was a strong reaction from our school community. At the next board meeting dozens of parents and students lambasted the board and district administration. The final vote was 5-0 to not close any school in the upcoming year. However, knowing that with the the state and federal budget crisis, the potential failure of Proposition 30, and the uncertain success of a district sponsored parcel tax (it did not pass on November 5), as a school community we knew that we had to do something to fend off closure for the 13/14 year.

For the last couple of years, the former PTA president had wanted to establish our school, El Crystal, as a charter school. We looked at the district policy but quickly decided that none of us had the time to invest in that endeavor. However, with closure on the near horizon, Vince (the former PTA President) and I sought school and community members to create a mini-task force to discuss and consider other alternatives. By June of 2012 we had a group of between ten and twelve regular participants that met every other Thursday over the summer to strategize a plan. Eventually, we settled on becoming a Magnet School for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Our site has been designated by the district as a Demonstration School for the Integration of Curriculum and Technology for the last four years, so this move seemed logical. The staff had considered this notion during the school year, so it met with their overwhelming support.

Creating a proposal

We created our Magnet School Proposal throughout the summer. Just before school began, four members of what the district soon labelled “the delegation” met with the superintendent and one board member to present our proposal. The delegation was asked to come back with answers to a number of questions posed during the meeting. The district asked that I as principal, should serve as the liaison to the parent group. We met one more time to offer our responses. Our proposal was put on the board agenda in October as a presentation item. The board voted to place our proposal as an action item for the upcoming November 14 board meeting.

Whether or not our proposal gains the needed wind to take flight is in the hands of the governing board. But what I want to share is the extraordinary relationships that were established within the parent group known as the delegation.  Ten regular participants composed the group:

  • Parent and former PTA President who is a property manager
  •  A nurse
  •  A real estate broker
  •  An architect from the community
  •  Manager of a major department store
  •  Director at a bio-medical company
  •  Self-employed illustrator and author
  •  A former parent and community activist
  •  Director of fundraising at a public television station in San Francisco
  •  Webmaster for a non-profit organization

A model of collaboration

I have been an administrator in public schools for almost 25 years. I have facilitated, met with, and participated in numerous parent groups including PTA, ELAC, School Site Councils, and special committees designated by the governing board. Those meetings are usually agendized, focused on support for a specific school or school system, and driven by interest or protocol. Folks can participate or just ‘sit on their hands’ and let others do the talking and decision-making.

The delegation turned out to be a much more intense, personal, and gratifying experience. The participants were open-minded, candid, task-driven, solution-oriented, focused, and respectful to the perspectives brought by each member. The STEM idea was offered by Vince and myself. The group took this notion as a great idea, did research away from the meeting, brought their individual experiences and perspectives into the discussions, read everything given to them, and asked driving and well-thought out questions.  In other words, they were the ideal collaborative group. They were a model for what any teacher would want to see students achieve at any level in any classroom learning any subject.

Invest time with parents in open-ended problem-solving

I said at a recent conference that every principal should figure out a way to invest time regularly with a group of parents and an open-ended problem to solve. From this experience I gained insight to how parents perceive my behavior as an individual and administrator, how they perceive the goals of our school, how they perceive classroom activities, and how they perceive the intended culture of the school. If you asked folks to give you this insight straight up, you would receive nothing. In many ways, these participants were the faces behind the survey questions you send out about your school. I learned that some people perceive me as sometimes too frank and honest, that I could be more tactful, and that there was tremendous respect for how we care for the students in our charge especially with the technology we offer throughout the curriculum. In the final analysis, I learned that collaboration is an essential condition at all levels if any system if it is going to function at its maximum.


Time Flies, sort of

Posted by Skip Johnson on June 26, 2012

Time fliesPutting time into perspective when talking about hundreds of thousands of years can be difficult, especially for younger learners. While preparing a short talk for the recent sixth grade promotion ceremonies at my school, I wanted to discuss how little time in the overall age of the earth have we as humans been influenced by the current technologically-rich environment, I discovered a great web resource—the Geological Timeline—from the British Geological Survey.  The timeline puts the advent of technologies of all types into an astonishingly short time frame!

The above document was created as a classroom lesson plan by the British Geological Survey. The plan is built upon the following precepts:

  1. Children are expected to digest the concept of thousands of years when studying the Egyptians, the Romans, or the Vikings.
  2. If children are challenged to comprehend thousands of years, how can they possibly conceive millions of years?
  3. To do this, geological time, needs to be scaled.
  4. The BGS believes models that scale the passing of 4600 million years by using a book 460 pages long or a 24 hour day were misleading in that they give the false appearance that once humans appeared we represented the ultimate life form.
  5. The BGS model considers that our solar system is in its mid-life. Instead of being a planet that is 4600 million years old, it can be thought of as a middle-aged person 46 years old.
  6. Their belief is that this scale related to human terms may be more understandable.

With the above notions in mind, the folks at BGS created a timeline of 46 birthday events of 46 equal time units depicting key geological events in the history of the earth. Many of the following events do not, of course, fall exactly on any specific anniversary. For convenience they are placed to the closest increment.

I chose only ten events from a significantly longer and more detailed timeline. The last entry is the most astonishing of all and makes my point regarding the relative youthfulness of technology.



Approximate Age of Earth in

Millions of Years

Approximate Time Before Present in Millions of Years


Key Events Along the Timeline




Earth formed from a dust cloud with the sun in the center. At 80% of present size, it crashed with another planetoid to form the moon.




Oxygen is a waste product produced by bacteria and would have been poisonous to early life forms.




First birds evolve…

8 Months Ago



Mass extinction of 65 to 70% of all species including all the…flying reptiles and dinosaurs…birds continue to thrive

4 Months Ago



Primates related to lemurs evolve…

2 Months Ago



Grasses such as wheat, barley, maize, and rice evolve…

5 Days Ago

Almost 4600


The Ice Age begins…temperatures varied to such high levels that animals such as  mammoths and elk evolve…

12 Hours Ago



Modern humans evolve in Africa.

1 Hour to Go


11,000 years ago

Humans learn to farm.

1 Minute to Go


250 Years Ago

The Industrial Revolution occurs.

Goodness!  With one minute to go before the earth turns 46 we have 3 iterations of the iPad, 4 of the iPhone, millions killed in wars, and global warming threatening our very existence.

Take time to study the entire timeline. This is a profound perspective on the current speed at which change occurs in our lives. I walk away from this phenomenal timeline with wonderment about what other things in our natural world are evolving that we pay little attention towards. As for our future, will we use technology to make our lives better or are we perhaps evolving ourselves right off the timeline?


A Creative Partnership for Success

Posted by Skip Johnson on January 17, 2011

Last November, as we were revising our Tech Plan, we noticed that the amount of hardware and software available in our district had increased fourfold during the previous four years, yet there was not much change or innovation in the types of software being used in the classrooms.  We decided to make the creation of a timely and quality professional development program the number one goal of our new plan.

For help we turned to a unique program in a nearby community college district.  The Krause Center for Innovation (KCI), located at Foothill College campus in Los Altos Hills, California, has for more than a decade provided a first-class, technology-focused professional development program supporting the usage of all types of technology in K-12 schools.  I approached KCI Executive Director Gay Krause with the notion of replicating the KCI vision in our district.  The result is a partnership between our school district and KCI that may serve as a model for other districts.

El Crystal School, where I am principal, was chosen as the site of our new center for three reasons: it’s already a demonstration school for implementing technology, it had an empty classroom, and yours truly offered to serve as the new center’s director.  We’ve dubbed it the Danford Center for Innovation in recognition of the Danford Foundation, which has donated thousands of dollars to support technology at our school.

How it works

The partnership between KCI and the San Bruno Park School District is defined in a memorandum of understanding that specifies responsibilities for both institutions while offering a great deal of flexibility as well.  District responsibilities include providing the facility, IT support, all technology equipment, and the director.  KCI provides faculty, determines the fee structure, advertises course offerings, and gives enrollment preference to district employees.  Working in unison, we are responsible for creating a Certificate of Technology Competency, based upon ISTE standards for teachers, that participants can earn through participation in the new center’s classes.

Once the Certificate of Technology Competence is designed and implemented,  KCI instructors will teach the specific courses in the Danford Center.  Teachers who enroll will pay tuition, which allows them to receive immediate credit on the district salary schedule.  A great advantage of this arrangement is that, since KCI is part of the community college system, tuition is very affordable.

The Danford Center will not serve only our school.  Our district will use the Danford Center to offer workshops as needed—such as a recent one on ways to use Thinkfinity—to meet  educational goals.  In addition, courses at the center will be open to all teachers in our county.

This venture is bold.  However, we believe it is our  task to give our students the essential skills, knowledge, and learning experiences they need to thrive and succeed in the 21st Century.  Learn more about: