When Winning Isn’t Enough.

Posted by Geoff Belleau on December 31, 2014

It's not enough.As 2014 draws to an end, schools are reaching halftime in the Big Game of 2014-2015. Last Sunday, I watched the San Francisco 49ers win their last game of the year, and then bid farewell to a coach who has posted a winning record over the past four years. Twitter blew up with comments like “What are they thinking? Winning isn’t enough?!?” (And those are the nicer comments.) It made me stop to think, which led me to re-write this blog post.

What if winning isn’t enough? What if, over a span of four years, it’s not OK “just” to win and never fail? From what I read, the problem between 49ers management and the coach all boiled down to relationships; they just couldn’t get along.

Relationships matter

Relationships matter. Getting along is important. It is something we try to instill in students early on. “Learn to get along and play nice.” What does that look like today?

It seems to me that there are at least four things we can do as educators so we don’t end up in the same kind of situation the 49ers are experiencing: look for new ways to curate, create, communicate and collaborate.


First curate. There is so much out there today and so much content. As a school leader or leader anywhere, no one has time to read everything. Also, you don’t want a censored feed delivered. Two of my favorite curated content providers are Zite (now Flipboard) on my mobile/tablet and paper.li on the computer (emailed or tweeted). Only recently have I started tapping all that is available with my Amazon Prime with Amazon music and Amazon movies.


Look for new ways to create and share content with those around you. With a camera (both still and video), recorder, and so many new apps/tools released every day, the possibilities are endless. Teachers are some of the most creative people I know. Who else would take a app designed to make comic books and use it to identify parts of a carburetor in an auto class or document a process using the storyboard feature?  Don’t forget augmented reality apps like Aurasma to create 4D. Or how about starting to asking questions that must be answered with video and students can work together and to record then post the video to your YouTube channel. Be sure to have them answer these three basic questions before diving into a new technology: 1. What training have you had? 2. How will this impact how students learn on a daily basis in your class? 3. How will you keep inventory control? This will help focus the creativity.


It seems like we almost can communicate too much now, but it’s a glass half full or half empty view and how each of us views the way and amount of communication that goes on today . Start where we are and let’s see what else we can do! Use Cel.ly, Remind or Twitter to connect with others. Don’t forget classic channels. My family sent out a few printed Christmas cards and letters to those we care about but not in the digital world. There were some tablets, and other mobile devices that were under the tree. Find a way to communicate with those around you using them so that they are a asset and not a hindrance. If you wonder how many devices are in your school or in your district, go sit on a bench during passing period or at lunch on a campus near you and just be a “fly on the wall” watching what comes out of backpacks/pockets as students/teachers move around the campus. How can these assets be tapped instead of banned?


Finally Collaborate. How can this be fostered? What is the difference between collaborating and cheating? Let’s be honest; that is a question that many struggle with. It needs to be answered, though, and a way to do just that is to start. Start small with something like Google Slides and have everyone create a collaborative slideshow. What is your favorite tool/app for collaborating?

There are many things up in the air right now with school funding, changes in staff with retirements, and any number of other forces, but nonetheless halftime for the class of 2015 is right ahead of us. Before we know it, these kids will graduate and a whole new class of seniors will start in the fall—as well as a whole new class of kindergartners with backpacks larger than they are. The time to get busy is now.  It’s not good enough just to win, we also have to get along!

P.S. Share your favorite tools in the comments!


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!


“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.