Developing a Process to Improve

a process to improve

Last week I shared some goals and projects I’m in the process of working on for 2017. The problem with goals is that often when I look at what I need to do (losing 25 pounds), it looks impossible. I feel defeated before I even begin. My friend Bill Ferriter asks, “Is Goal Setting Pointless?” My gut response is “probably.”

In his post, Bill references a post by James Clear entitled “Forget About Setting Goals.” Clear suggests that instead of focusing on goals, we should commit to a process or a system, which will allow us to live in the moment and help us develop at the same time. As I consider the times I’ve grown or improved in my life, I must admit, Clear is on to something.

Pomodoros as the Process

I’ve written before about using the Pomodoro technique to accomplish some writing goals. I’ve decided to embrace that plan again to help me write and share more this year. I’m struggling to carve out the time to write each day.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I’ve kept up with my Day One journal, where I collect a verse of the day, three things for which I am thankful, and my daily photo. However, I haven’t carved out the time to pause and write reflectively about my work or my personal life.

A New Plan

The Pomodoro technique should help. I want to commit 25 minutes each day to reflective writing. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I’ll reflect on my teaching. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, I’m going to write about my life. On Sundays, I’ll spend the time fleshing out some ideas a little further and working on the post I’ll share.

I’m still trying to figure out the best time and place for me to write. The school day is full of busyness and interruptions, so I’ll probably need to carve out time at home and just before I go to bed.

Needing a Nag

This past weekend I learned about Nagbot from a post on Lifehacker. Nagbot will send mean text messages to nag you about whatever you have committed to do. I’ve set up at Nagbot to harass me into writing a short reflection each day.

I also have added a writing task to my daily to-do list on Toodledo so that I will have an extra reminder.

What about you? What systems and processes do you use to help you develop and improve? What tools do you use to get things done?


2017 Goals & Projects Update

As of last night, I have accomplished the following toward my goals:

  • Weight – My weight is down a couple of pounds from the beginning of the year, and my BMI is now at 26.5.
  • Writing – My writing has been inconsistent. My Day One project is going great, but my reflective writing has struggled.
  • Daily Photo – I’m 16/16 on my 365 photo project at this point, but my kids are beginning to refer to me as “the paparazzi.”
  • Reading – Currently, I have read four books this year. My favorite read so far in 2017 is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.
  • Spanish – I am on a 15-day streak of practicing my Spanish on Duolingo, and I’m 37% fluent. (There’s no way I’m that fluent.)

Why I Run

Why I runA few years ago, my friend Todd told me that he and another friend had started training for their first half marathon. They had just finished a Couch to 5K program and were looking for a new challenge. As I listened to my friend, I realized I was jealous. My friend was getting in shape and I wasn’t. He was taking care of himself and I wasn’t. In fact, I was headed in the opposite direction, and I needed to do something about it. School was almost out for summer so I bought some Nike running shoes at the nearest outlet store, downloaded a #C25K app for my iPhone, and hit my neighborhood streets. By the time summer ended, I was ready for a 5K race and feeling better about my physical health.

I started running for health reasons. I needed to lower my cholesterol; I wanted to lose some weight. I hoped it might help me live long enough to escort my daughter down the aisle at her wedding. My motives were primarily selfish, but they got me out the front door to the street each morning. They helped me accomplish a few goals and brought others within reach.

So I was running right along somewhat proud of my accomplishments when I realized something: I’m a terrible runner. I’m not being humble. I’m really not. I wish I were just being hard on myself, but I’m not. I suck at running. I’m awful at it. I’m slow–painfully slow, and it doesn’t bring me lots of joy the way it does many of my runner friends. Instead, I see running as really hard work and on most days I’d rather crawl back under the covers when my alarm sounds at 4:30 AM.

Races are usually discouraging. More people pass me than I am able to pass, and my personal records are beyond my reach these days. I cannot remember the last time I beat my best time at any distance.

I’ve also become injury prone. I suffer from bad knees and take supplements to relieve the joint pain. Last year, when I complained to my doctor about some neck and upper back pain, he noticed my shoulders are somewhat asymmetrical. X-rays confirmed a mild case of scoliosis so now my recovery from long runs often includes taking a muscle relaxer, and I hate the way it makes me feel.

Running is hard. I suck at it. It hurts, and I find it completely discouraging. So, why do I run? Why put myself through it? I run because I suck at it. I suck, but I keep trying to get better.

I’m competent at most of what I choose to do in life. I’m pretty confident in all my roles. For example, I’m a pretty good teacher. I know how to develop my students’ thinking. I know how to design learning experiences and how to manage a learning environment. I also know my subject well. I love reading and writing, and I know what it takes to be a good reader and writer. I’m able to develop strong relationships with my students and my colleagues. And I’m able to leverage these things to continually improve my practice. Being in a classroom is “in my wheelhouse.”

However, I know the same isn’t true for all my students. For many of them, being in a classroom is hard work. School is discouraging. When their alarms go off each morning, they want to crawl back under the covers and not get up for school. They may find my class to be painful or uncomfortable. They may think they “suck” at reading and writing. They may have learning difficulties to overcome each day, and they may get tired of learning always being so hard.

So I run. I run to empathize. I run to better understand. I run because quitting isn’t always an option. Running is hard, but I’m a better teacher having ran.

An Idea: ELA Quads

Rectangle ABCD
by Illustrative Mathematics licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

One of the changes we’ve made in 6th grade this year is to combine our English and reading instruction into one English Language Arts (ELA) class. We still have two teachers and two classrooms. Marjorie focuses on writing instruction through Writers’ Workshop while I focus on reading through Readers’ Workshop, but instead of having separate classes and separate schedules. Two homerooms are scheduled to have us during a two-hour English Language Arts block. This is a step towards developing the humanities class we are planning to shift to in the future. I’m excited about the shift to (ELA) because it allows Marjorie and I to collaborate more closely integrating our teaching and it allows us greater flexibility and more control over individual student schedules.

With thirty-eight boys scheduled for a two-hour block of ELA at one time, we’ve been imagining ways to play with how our classes will flow and how boys will shift between the two workshops. We considered a block schedule grouping the boys and having them spend both hours with one teacher on alternating days, but we decided for now we prefer the boys both to read and write daily. We also prefer to divide up having our boys travel by homerooms.

In wrestling with these constraints, Marjorie and I designed a plan. Each boys will be assigned to an ELA quad. Within the quad each boy will have a reading partner and a writing partner, but their partners will differ depending on the workshop. The quads will travel together to the different classrooms and work together for small group lessons for the entire first trimester. The quad consists of boys A, B, C, and D. A and B are reading partners, and C and D are reading partners. A and D are writing partners, and B and C are writing partners.  The whole quad also doubles as a small group. At the end of the trimester we will “turnover the fruit basket” and place the boys in new quads with new partners. Because we are still getting to know the students and their personal learning needs, our first quads will be of mixed ability levels. However, we may adjust how we group the students as the year goes along.

I’m excited about the idea and the flexibility it affords us while providing some structure for the students. Our plan is to name each quad after an NFL team during the fall trimester, after an NBA team during the winter term, and after an MLB team during the spring third. (We want to avoid having groups of bluebirds and red birds.)

What do you think of the idea? What else do we need to consider? I’d love to receive your feedback about the ELA quad idea and ways we can make it better.


This is a pomodori post. My pomodori posts stem from my use of the Pomodoro Technique. I spend the first 25-minute interval writing a post and a second interval polishing, editing, formatting, tagging, and scheduling it. At the end of the second interval, the post is done.

A New Plan: Pomodori Posts

Pomodoro technique While in Atlanta for ISTE a couple of weeks ago, I spend lots of time with my friends Bill Ferriter and John Spencer. Bill and John are two of my favorite teacher bloggers. I never miss a post that either of them writes, and their writings have really helped me grow and develop as a teacher. Both of them have encouraged me greatly in my own blogging efforts. Bill helped me get this website up and working, and John has been one of the most frequent commenters and sharers of my work.

Hanging out with them (we shared a condo) was one of the high points of my ISTE experience. I learned so much through our conversations, and they constantly challenge my thinking. One of the coolest things about hanging out with them was the opportunity to watch them write. It’s cool to see Bill crafting posts through conversations, tweets, and questions making notes as he goes. It was also interesting to watch the way Bill manages his time, prioritizing writing and sharing. John, too, is a blogging master. I watched as he wrote an entire post in less than twenty minutes (with my interrupting him occasionally), and the post was brilliant. He has truly honed his craft. In fact, he’s developed himself into such a good writer that he rarely spends any time editing his posts.

I’ve been thinking about what I learned observing Bill and John at ISTE and about my own attempts at blogging. I’ve also been experimenting with and reading about personal productivity. I want to share more openly and blog more often about my teaching and learning. I’ve already started taking more notes on my learning using a Moleskine and creating drafts of things to blog about in Evernote. This is similar to the way Bill works. That should help when it comes to capturing my ideas. But I also need to write faster and let go of my writing more willingly like John does. Having considered this, I’m going to start posting more often using what I’m calling my pomodori post technique.

I’ve used Tomatoes for the past few months to help me be more productive during my planning, before school, and after school work time. I’m going to start using the Pomodoro Technique to write two posts a week. I’m going to limit the time I can spend on a past to two pomodori. I will spend the first pomodoro (25 minutes) writing each post. I’ll use the second pomodoro to edit mistakes, format the blog, polish my thoughts, add categories and tags, and add a photo to the post. At the end of the second pomodoro, I’ll schedule the post and walk away from it. I’ll tag each as a pomodori post. They will be somewhat similar to Bo Adams’ process posts, but I’m not going to name them as such in the title. I’m only going to tag them this way. I’m sure I’ll have to tweak the process as I go, but it’s a start.

So what do you think? What is the process you go through when you write a blog post? I’d love to read your thoughts on my plan.

How are you going to be brave?

This song has rolled around in my head for weeks ever since Pernille Ripp shared it on her blog. (You can also view the video here.) It’s my hope that my students will be brave in all they do and say so today we are using this video as a reflective writing prompt. How are you going to be brave in what you do and say? How would you respond?

Ideas for My #ISTE13 6-word Story

6-word storyWhile sitting by the pool watching my kids swim this afternoon, I came across a Sandy Kendell post entitled “Contribute to the #ISTE13 Six Word Story Project!” This was the first I’d heard of the project so I followed a link to Bryan Doyle’s original post and the collected stories. What a fun idea! I enjoyed reading the other stories and saw that a few of my friends have already shared their 6-word story creations. So as the sun beat down on me, I wrote the following 6-word story ideas as my potential contribution:

  • “Remember,” he whispered outside the Alamo.
  • They’d never met in person before. (Do contractions count as two words?)
  • They walked and talked all evening.
  • He raced to escape the Expo.
  • The conversation flourished beyond 140 characters.
  • He waited in the wrong room.
  • The conversation completely changed his classroom.
  • A single tweet stood between them.
  • The queue wrapped around the building.
  • He just wanted to introduce himself.
  • He talked. They watched their phones.
  • Was it possible? Could it be?
  • He tried to text. Dead iPhone.
  • They invited me to join them.

I’ve already written my ISTE 2013 reflection, but I like the creative aspect of Bryan’s idea so I need your help. Which of my stories should I share? I’m pretty sure the deadline looms tomorrow so if you have a favorite, please let me know in the comments below. I want to pick the best one. Also if you have an image that would go perfectly with one of these, please share it with me. I’ll be happy to credit your for your contribution.

Creating Headlines and Capturing the Essence of Our Family Vacation

Family Vacation HeadlinesGood newspaper headlines capture the essence of an event or story. Great headlines draw a reader in and make him want to read more. While headlines don’t share everything in a story, good ones express the most important aspects of a plot. Often, the best headlines not only inform readers, but also entertain them.

One of my favorite thinking routines for helping students’ capture the heart of what they are reading is Headlines. This routine asks students to write newspaper-type headlines to summarize and express the crux of the matter at hand. We use this routine often in my 6th grade reading class, and I have found it a useful tool to help me formatively assess my students’ understanding.

In my class students create original headlines after each chapter they read in a text. We sometimes share these aloud in class. Often, we ask the writer the follow-up question: What makes you say that?” Occasionally, I ask students to write a headline for the days’ learning as their “ticket out the door.” We’ve also used the routine as a way for small groups to report to the class on the core their group’s discussion. It’s a useful tool, and I recommend you give it a try to make your students’ thinking visible. Students need practice summarizing and identifying main ideas, and headlines are a good way to practice

My school has eagerly embraced the Project Zero thinking routines, and my sons’ teachers use this routine in their classrooms, also. Creating headlines has spilled over from school into our home as well, and I love to hear my children ask each other for a headline after a family outing or event.

We are on spring break this week and have traveled to Copper Mountain to ski. At the end of the day Monday, as we were riding back from the slopes, my second grader Andrew chimed in with his “headline” for the day. We liked his so much that Eric, Sam, and I added ours as well. I shared them on Facebook as a way of keeping friends and family updated on our trip. The headlines really do capture the heart of our family vacation. So, we added our girls’ headlines and continued writing them at the end of each day. Here they are so far:

Monday, March 11

  • Philip: Where’s the Ibuprofen?
  • Eric:  Up Down Turns
  • Sam: First Day – A Success I Say
  • Andrew: Cold Cold Colorado

Tuesday, March 12

  • Philip: No Longer 25
  • Debbie: Not As Bad As Yesterday
  • Eric: The Journey to the Top Continues
  • Sam: Family Fun Skiing ‘Till the Day Is Done
  • Andrew: The Fast and the Furious
  • Evelyn: Getting to Ski with Dada

Wednesday, March 13

  • Philip: How Did They Grow Up So Fast?
  • Debbie: She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain
  • Eric: The World of Turns
  • Sam: Bittersweet
  • Andrew: Tree Trouble
  • Evelyn: Skiing Is Fun

Do you think you have a good idea of what our trip has been like? How might you use this with your family or your children? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences about writing headlines as a method for capturing the heart of an event, idea, or concept.

Reflecting on Reflection – Compass Points #EduCon 2013

EduConConvoI’ve been home from EduCon 2.5 for over a week and a half. The weekend was an amazing learning experience, and several ideas from my jaunt to Philly continue to reverberate in my head. I’m still ruminating on all I heard and discussed, but I think it’s time to push some of my thoughts beyond my cranial matter.

Jennifer Orr‘s session on “Reflecting on Reflection” was a highlight of the weekend for me for several reasons. First, reflection has been key to any and all the professional growth I’ve experienced over the past few years. I’m a better teacher because I’ve started viewing my practice with a much more critical, reflective eye. I’m surrounded by people who ask good questions about what I do and why I do it, and the introspection has encouraged me to make seismic shifts in my philosophies and my practice. Second, I yearn for more time to write and reflect. I may seem like an introvert, but according to my Myers-Briggs scores I’m more “androverted” than introverted or extroverted. (I’m ever-so-slightly to the right of center on the extraversion/introversion scale.) As a teacher and father of 4, I spend a significant amount of time with people. Therefore, I long for more quiet time to be alone with my thoughts and balance all my daily extroverted activities. Finally, Jen Orr writes a fantastic blog, and I wanted to meet her and hear what she would share. She didn’t disappoint.

We had a great conversation about the importance of teachers reflecting on our practice, and we talked extensively about whether we are reflective, how we know if we are reflective, why we think reflection matters, and how we go about reflecting. You can view the shared Google doc notes if you are interested. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and didn’t finish our discussion, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since I returned.

One tool that I shared as a prompt for reflection is the visible thinking routine Compass Points. As a way of getting my thoughts out in a more formal way, here are my compass points on reflection:

  • E: What excites me about this idea? I am excited about the idea of being more reflective and more transparent about that reflection. It will benefit my students and my teaching if I am more intentional about finding time for reflection. I also like the idea of transparency because hopefully others can benefit from my reflections, but regardless, they will be captured in a way I can revsist them as needed. 
  • W: What do I find worrisome about this idea? I am worried about how I will carve out the time to write and share more often. What will I need to sacrifice in order to create the time for reflection. My schedule is full. I’m worried I won’t make the time I really need. I’m also worried about possible professional repercussions to my transparency. If I’m honest about my mistakes, failures, and short comings, will someone hold them against me as I try to learn, grow, and develop out loud. It feels risky.
  • N: What else do I need to know or find out about this idea or proposition? I’d like to know where other people carve out the time to write and reflect. Do they schedule time to write? In particular, I’d like to hear from busy parents in two career households about how they make the time to write and reflect. How does one manage it all? What tips would they give me?
  • S: What is my current stance or opinion on the idea? It’s worth the risks. If it will make me a better teacher, and I believe it will. then I must make it a priority. I’m going to carve out the time to write two posts each week in this space. I’m going to limit my writing time to something manageable and follow some of the tips I’ve heard recently from my friends Bill Ferriter and Mark Schaefer. I’m not promising my thinking will always be clear or that my writing will be clean, but it’s a learning process. I’m going to do my best to remember I don’t have to be perfect and I’m still learning.

Running Thoughts: Fitness Thinking, Teacher Sustainability, and Teaching Writing

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Note: I gave myself a 30-minute time limit for writing this.

This morning I set a “thinking agenda” for my run. Knowing I was going to run approximately 6 miles in 70 minutes with my warm up and cool down. I planned to spend the first 2 miles thinking about my fitness goals and routines, the second 2 miles reflecting on John Spencer’s chapter in Sustainable on “Success: Fireworks or Fire Works?,” and the last 2 miles brainstorming about teaching writing. One thing I learned about myself is that I’m not really a linear thinker. Even though I had an agenda, my mind still shot down rabbit holes popping back up in the other areas I wanted to think about. Perhaps, this is why I have such a hard time following sermons and lectures. My mind can be full of wormholes of cognitive hyperlinks sometimes. But I digress.

In thinking about my fitness goals and routines, I am proud to say I have completed my Bridge to 10K running plan. I’m certainly not the fastest runner, but I have now stuck to and completed two different running programs, and I’m proud I stuck with it. A few days ago, I saw a #temt post on Twitter that made me start evaluating my fitness routines. The post made note that the #temt stream was full of cardio-related posts, but seemed to lack posts about strength conditioning. I know I have neglected this part of my regimen, so I think I will speak with Dale Brady at 2PC about possibly training me or setting me up on a strength training plan. I’m also thinking that as school begins, I will try to run on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays and commit to strength training on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. I also need to commit to doing P90X’s Ab Ripper X three days a week, too, to work on my core.

In reflecting on John’s chapter on success, a couple of thoughts came to mind. John thinks it’s important for teachers to create a meaningful, realistic story about one’s teaching life. I agree. So I’m trying to think about my teaching through the various story elements and I’m thinking about who I want to be as the main character in this story and how I can be faithful to that. John also talks the most important theme in teaching being love not influence–that it’s more about love than making a difference. I’m not sure. I want to make a difference–not just to individuals, but I want to help them think well and do good. I agree that love is crucial, but I want my love to be demonstrated through the ethic of kindness. (Does that make sense?) A final thought is that I really like the metaphor of being a fire versus a firework. Where I think the metaphor might collapse, though, is variety. Fireworks vary. They have different colors and they explode in a unique ways. Likewise, I think there are a variety of approaches to teaching that can work well. I didn’t always think so, but as I experiment with different strategies and philosophies I’m learning there isn’t just one way.

My final thoughts center around teaching writing. I only have a bit of time left to write this post, but my thoughts centered around the need to focus on the process, to have students write frequently, to provide meaningful feedback from both teacher and peers, and the need to create authentic projects and audiences. Students would also benefit from clear modeling and having a choice about what they write. Side thought: I need to pull together some resources that might help give this wings.

Okay, the online egg timer and the laundry buzzer sounded so I need to get this posted. Remember this is a process post. Nevertheless, I would love to read any thoughts or comments ou have on today’s “Running Thoughts.”