Thursday, December 17, 2015

Teacher Spotlight: Students Learn by Teaching Others in Ms. Erica Heide's Classroom

In my December 4 blog, I mentioned my plan to spotlight teachers who are using the four C's with their students:  collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.  

Last week I visited Ms. Erica Heide's Government class at Smithfield High School.  The students were learning about Supreme Court cases--not necessarily a topic that lends itself to exciting or engaging lessons.  Typically the approach is to have students copy notes and verify that they know the facts about each case through a multiple choice test.  Yawn...

In Ms. Heide's class, students were taking a different approach to learning about the cases.  Working in groups, students were writing a story about their specific court case. But this was not just any story.  Their story had to be appropriate for a 5 year old.  My first thought was "How do you take cases involving freedom of speech and search and seizure and turn them into a children's story?"

While I was in the room, I saw the four C's in action.  Students were collaborating and communicating with each other to develop an age appropriate story.  They were thinking critically to determine the best way to convert a complicated topic to language that a child would understand.  They unleashed their creativity in their presentations.  Some groups opted to create their story on paper while others developed theirs electronically.  One group wrote their story with a nod to Dr. Seuss complete with rhyming sentences.  I was impressed with how they rhymed "desk" with "grotesque"!  Other stories referenced Mickey Mouse, Little Red Riding Hood and juice boxes. Their imaginations were definitely in high gear.  I thought it would helpful for you to see how this project allowed the seniors to take learning to another level.  If you click on the link below, you can watch a video to find out more about the project and to hear from some of the students themselves.

In Ms. Heide’s design she has asked students to either publish their stories or read them to some of our elementary classes. Having students create work for a larger audience is an important design principle of performance based learning.  When students understand the purpose of their work and their work is to be displayed or presented to a wider audience they typically put more effort into their work.  
Stay tuned for more exceptional examples of classroom instruction that focus on what’s best for every child, every day.

Friday, December 11, 2015

What Does Change Look Like?

I have been blogging a lot about change and the need to teach our children differently in order to prepare them for the global economy.  I thought I would share some examples from Tony Wagner’s book, Most Likely to Succeed, to assist you with understanding the changes necessary. Some of you who had outstanding teachers prior to the days of a test-driven curriculum will actually remember similar examples from your school days.
Here are a couple of history experiences to contrast and illustrate the differences between ineffective and inspiring history classes.

“Case Study #1.
In one middle-school class, students spend a week memorizing the capitals of the fifty U.S. states. Students cram for the test questions like “What is the capital of North Dakota?” Some get it right, others get it wrong, few remember it, and those that do derive no benefit as an adult from this retained trivia.
A second class goes back in time and reads newspapers, journals, and diaries from the year 1850, when the seat for the first Legislature of California was, believe it or not, Monterey. Students—at first alone, then in groups – are asked to take a position on where they would locate the capital of California, explain why, present their conclusions to classmates, and debate with peers. Then they analyze whether the choice California made I 1854 was a good one.
Case Study #2.
In this conventional high school class, the teacher lectures for two class periods on the history of the Vietnam War. Students take notes, cram on material (e.g., the year the first U.S. troops went to Vietnam), and are tested on factual (or near factual) recall.  Kids develop some familiarity with the historical timeline around the Vietnam War, its outcome, and its consequences. 
In a second high school class, students read a manageable number of primary documents (newspaper articles, essays, op-eds, excerpts from history texts) from 1964.  They are presented with the fact that when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution came to a vote in the U. S. Senate, only two senators opposed it. They work in teams on the following question: “Why do you think the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gained overwhelming support?” Each team presents its views to classmates and responds to questions.  Students can use any available resource to support their work (we observe kids doing these types of challenges who resourcefully find people or classes all over the world and interview subjects via Skype as part of their research).  They then explore whether the Gulf of Tonkin vote should have imparted lessons to our legislators in 2002 when the overwhelming majority of U.S. senators voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq.
In these case studies, the first class spends a week largely memorizing facts – any of which can be readily looked up.  The second class spends a comparable amount of time on engaging issues that help them develop critical skills.  The first class is characterized by boredom, irrelevance, and a lack of retention.  With the second model (and Stanford’s Reading Like a Historian program has challenges like these), classrooms are bursting with energy, and the student learning is consequential.  Teachers and peers give excellent feedback.  Students assess their own work in a way that’s reflective.  Achievements can be captured on digital portfolios. 
But you can’t assign a student a precise score, or rank students on a national basis, on a nuanced argument about support for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.  And that’s why our history classes are, in Joe Friday’s words, “Just the facts, ma’am.”
I hope these examples help explain the direction of education that we should be moving toward.  My next blog, Teacher Spotlight, will give you another example of one of our own teacher’s creative lesson.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Teacher Spotlight: Mr. Johnson’s High Energy Classroom

As I visit classrooms throughout the year, I want to share some of the outstanding teaching I have observed and use my blog as a platform to highlight those teachers.  I have expressed the importance of focusing on engaging students, integrating technology into instruction, and creating relevant learning experiences.  As a division, we are also stressing the importance of collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.   Recently I witnessed an excellent example of the four C’s when I stopped by Mr. Matt Johnson’s classroom at Westside Elementary School.

As I entered his room, students were standing in their seats and cheering loudly for each other-- definitely not something you see every day. I discovered that they were celebrating the success of the entire class on a recent assessment.  In addition, I had the opportunity to watch the attached video clip as he and his students participated in a “unique” review of the rivers of the United States.  Please watch the video clip of Mr. Johnson’s active classroom so you can experience the high-energy level he brings to his teaching.  It was obvious that the students were having fun while they were learning the material in this very active and positive environment.

I have been discussing the fact that we must change the way we teach students who are heavily involved with technology and have the world at their fingertips.  Mr. Johnson effectively uses collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking in his daily classroom activities and his students are thriving from the experience.

There are other teachers throughout the division who are routinely using the four C’s with their students as well.  I look forward to sharing these exceptional examples of classroom instruction with you that focus on what’s best for every child, every day.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Celebrating Academic Excellence!

I wanted to share some pictures from our Academic Jacket Ceremony and share the history behind this newly established award for our seniors.  The pride and love that was felt that night in the auditorium is inspiring. Parents and family sharing in great academic accomplishments is what makes all the sacrifice worthwhile. 

The history of wearing a varsity jacket originated over 100 years ago. This time honored tradition is an outward symbol of hard work, determination and perseverance. Often the letter, pins and stars recognize athleticism and great accomplishments in a sport. At the Superintendent’s Academic Jacket Ceremony, we honor our students who have demonstrated great achievement in the classroom and maintained a grade point average of 3.75 or higher for their first three years of high school. I began this tradition of acknowledging students for academic excellence over 18 yrs ago and I am very excited and proud to be able to establish this tradition with Isle of Wight County Schools. With the assistance of a great sponsor, GCA, I am pleased that IWCS was able to present an academic jacket to over 80 extraordinary seniors.

Honoring accomplishments in academics lets students know that we appreciate the many hours of studying, note taking, reading, writing papers, listening to lectures, working in groups, and staying up after everyone is asleep to finish a project. This prestigious award celebrates the academic achievement of our top students, knowing that one of them may find the cure to cancer or life beyond our universe. To our accomplished students--we honor you; we honor your parents and the loved ones that have supported you throughout your academic journey. We congratulate the educators that helped each one of you meet your goals. We honor our future academic jacket recipients as they strive to one day earn their own academic jacket. Congratulations to all our honorees.

Our Students Can’t Wait, It’s Time for Change!

Finally in Virginia, there is movement to eliminate the multiple choice tests heavily focused on content. Tony Wagner points out in his book, Most Likely to Succeed, that just because you drill a student on the definition and spelling of tenacious doesn’t mean that the student will be tenacious.  He further states that drilling students on solving simultaneous equations does nothing to help them learn how to solve complex problems in life.  It is definitely time to move away from teachers covering a laundry list of facts and students completing mindless tasks in order to take state mandated tests. Performance-based assessments are slowly being implemented and replacing the out dated SOL tests. For students to be successful on these assessments, they will need the same skills the new global economy is demanding for them to be successful.  Collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking are the “Four C’s” that are integral to our students’ future.  Integrating these skills into the daily curriculum is long overdue.

As economies around the globe experience a steady decline of large bureaucratic companies, we can already see job creation coming from small, nimble companies with creative and innovative workers.  Therefore, the key question for our county is, “How well are we preparing our youth to succeed?” Tony Wagner states that if we continue to drill the innovation and creativity out of our students, we face the chilling prospect of having tens of millions of young adults without the skills necessary to participate and flourish in this new world.

The difficult task for many school divisions will be convincing teachers to change their way of teaching from this decades-old method.  If we continue to focus on what’s best for our students, then there shouldn’t be any debate about the urgency of making these changes in the classroom. I am encouraged to see inspiring examples of teachers who have already embraced this new challenge by turning their classrooms into engaging environments that enable students to create and discover without fear of failure.  Our teachers and educational leaders are having the important conversations now about how to embrace the changes that are necessary and identifying the training that will need to be provided as we move forward in meeting the needs of our post-millennials or Generation Z.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Seven Survival Skills

The primary goal of education should be to expose students to a wide array of opportunities in order for them to find a passion.  We want our children to have the skills to compete in a globally competitive world and also be happy and successful. Visit a pre-school anywhere and you will see children full of curiosity and excitement about learning. But unfortunately, it’s a rare high schooler who demonstrates any passion and excitement for something related to their education. Tony Wagner states, “A young adult just going through the motions at school is a young adult who isn’t learning or developing skills.”

In his book, Most Likely to Succeed, Tony Wagner describes Scarsdale High School as one of the most prestigious public schools in the country.  Sixty percent of the graduates are admitted to the most elite colleges.  One of their students, Rachel Wolfe, made a movie entitled Losing Ourselves.  This was about her and her classmates experience in school and the loss of purpose, passion, and curiosity from elementary school to high school.  I believe you will find this documentary very interesting.  You can view it at 

As parents and teachers we can assist our children in sustaining their passions and discovering new ones along their path in education.  Engaged students who have a passion for what they are doing will not only learn and retain factual information along the way; they will develop critical thinking skills, communication skills, and collaboration skills.  These are the lifetime competency skills or the survival skills that Tony Wagner believes are essential for success in our global society.

The “Seven Survival Skills” are:
  • ·         Critical thinking and problem-solving
  • ·         Collaboration across networks and leading by example
  • ·         Agility and adaptability
  • ·         Initiative and entrepreneurship
  • ·         Effective oral, written, and multimedia communication
  • ·         Accessing and analyzing information
  • ·         Curiosity and imagination

Imagine the possibilities for your children if schools had a clear set of achievement measures for each survival skill instead of just covering a large amount of content. What if we measured progress with how students use constructive feedback to show continuous improvement instead of a score on a multiple choice test that relies heavily on basic recall?  I believe if we build the competencies and passions of our students, they will be able to set their path and overcome obstacles along their journey in life.

We are all responsible for placing so much emphasis on the SOL tests.  These tests are never seen by an employer, college or university but somehow these tests have driven how we teach our children. I know if we focus our efforts on critical thinking, effective communication, collaboration, and the other skills mentioned, our children will not only pass their SOL tests, but they will be prepared and excited about their future in this new global society. Therefore, I believe it is up to each school community to make meaningful decisions and prioritize the skills we want our children to possess to be successful in their future.  Then we have to support our teachers and administrators when they focus on building these skills through authentic learning experiences.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Purpose Continued: Moving in the Right Direction

Last year the General Assembly took a huge step in the right direction by reducing the number of SOL tests required for elementary and middle school students.  More importantly, these tests, which consist of mostly multiple-choice, recall-style questions, will be replaced by performance-based assessments which will be developed at the local level.  These assessments are alternative ways students can display their knowledge of the course material.  Performance -based assessments ask students to solve an authentic problem using data and research. Students have to think critically, communicate effectively and defend their answer.  This process is far more rigorous than a multiple choice test that measures the content students have memorized.

As SOL reform continues at the state level, with an emphasis on performance-based assessments, we must change our approach to teaching These changes are sparking the debate with educators over the importance of students learning content and concepts, versus developing the critical skills needed in today’s global society to be informed and involved citizens.  While knowing facts from subject areas has value, student success beyond school will be measured by how effective they are in pursuing goals and being motivated to do their best.

In Tony Wagner’s book, Most Likely to Succeed, he refers to the model developed in 1893 by the Committee of Ten that was convened to define the purpose of education.  The 1893 Model was designed to jump through hoops, cover content, and sort/weed out students.  Unfortunately, this model has not changed substantially since 1893 in many schools. Only recently has the conversation turned to the 21st-Century Model that focuses on discovering passions and purpose, developing critical thinking skills and inspiring inquiry in students. 
Why are many school divisions just now implementing the changes necessary to prepare students for this 21st century model? The answer is easy--our teachers and principals have been forced to focus on preparing students for content specific multiple choice assessments dictated by previous SOL tests.  Teachers will have to adapt to the challenges of implementing performance- based assessments and change their approach to teaching.   Instead of focusing on content recall, teachers must create experiences in which students can work collaboratively to solve relevant, real world problems.  As they adapt, we will focus leaning more on critical thinking skills which will better prepare our students for all life brings their way.  I believe after the initial frustration of change, teachers will release their own creativity and our students will flourish.  Albert Einstein said, “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution.”

In my next blog, I will share the seven survival skills that Tony Wagner has identified in his recent book, The Global Achievement Gap, as the core competencies any young adult needs in order to do well in our dynamic and innovative world.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Purpose of Education

Tony Wagner, in his book, Most Likely to Succeed, asks the question; “What is the purpose of education?” In reviewing mission statements much like our own, he observed the answer centers around these key priorities:
  •         teach students cognitive and social skills;
  •          prepare students to be responsible, contributing citizens;
  •          build character;
  •          help students in process of self-discovery;
  •          inspire students through the study of humanity’s great works;
  •          prepare students for productive careers.
Most educators like myself consider all of these goals to be important. In Wagner’s research, he has found few schools are operationally clear on their priorities. There has always been more emphasis on cognitive skills which means less on others. High stakes state testing and an over emphasis on accountability has swung the pendulum even further from goals such as building character and self-discovery.  One such example cited by Wagner is a kindergarten that canceled its school play to devote more time to preparing its six-year-old students for college and the workplace.  I have witnessed similar situations in which educators make statements that we cannot go on field trips or provide project based learning experiences until after the SOL tests.

Most school divisions have instructional initiatives similar to ours: extend the rigor of daily classroom instruction and assessments to ensure the incorporation of critical thinking and problem-solving skills and encourage creativity.  When you ask, “how are you accomplishing that and how do you know you are making progress?” Most schools struggle with an answer.  Since many school leaders and educators believe it is impossible to accomplish these other goals and teach the state tested curriculum, our students often do not get the opportunities for self-discovery, problem solving by collaborating with peers, and displaying their creativity within a project or authentic learning experience. 

We need to ask the question, “do we continue to teach to a test or do we teach students how to become life-long learners and teach them skills needed for career and global citizenship?”  As we continue to discuss what we value for our children, I believe this will be an easy answer.  The more difficult discussion will in how to effectively incorporate these skills into the curriculum. I look forward to working with you to provide a quality education for our children that includes all we value.


Thursday, October 22, 2015


What do you value about your child’s education? I believe today’s experience has conditioned us over the last 15 years to value a single test score for our children. The push to ensure all children are succeeding by measuring their success on an SOL test has led to some unintended outcomes. Narrowing the curriculum and teaching to a test are two consequences that have negatively affected our teachers but, more importantly, our children.  Unfortunately, the methods engaged to teach to a test have crushed the creativity and innovation that young people need to thrive in our new global economy.

I, like most parents, want my child to have a high GPA, pursue the most advanced courses, and score well on the standards-based tests. But while many of our children graduate with these accomplishments, they often lack the skills needed to be employed in a rapidly changing job market.  Skills such as effective communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration are at the very heart of what students will need to learn to be prepared for success in today’s world.
I have had the opportunity to research, travel and see first-hand courageous innovators in education that understand there is more to a child’s education then an SOL test. As the instructional leader of our school division, I will share my thoughts and experiences with you.  I will share from the most recent book that I read, Most Likely to Succeed, Preparing our Kids for the Innovation Era by Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith, which offers parents and educators a guide to getting the best for their children.

I have visited many classrooms in my short time here and have witnessed many wonderful activities. I have also seen the unintended consequences of a test-driven curriculum and systems still in place that were designed over a century ago to produce a workforce that no longer exists. Collectively, we can decide what we value for our children’s education. My vision and hope for our teachers is that they will have the confidence and courage in us as a community to support them as they teach the whole child and incorporate skills we value and know our children need to succeed in their world.

Friday, October 16, 2015

People are Our Strength!

Many thanks to Lynn Briggs for setting up my Blog for me.  I am not sure where to start.  I have seen and met so many wonderful individuals throughout my travels in the schools since September.  I was fortunate to witness the incredible spirit presented by our staff at Convocation.  I can say that I have never experienced such enthusiasm and school spirit by school staff in my career. I have been to a football scrimmage and a volleyball game in Windsor, a football game and field hockey game in Smithfield, and the county fair to hear the band and chorus from both WHS and SHS. I have eaten school lunches in several of our cafeterias. I have visited all nine schools and have started my rounds to visit all classrooms in Isle of Wight County.
I was recently asked what separates Isle of Wight County Schools from other school divisions and why are they so successful? Even though I have only been here a short time, I believe I can answer that question.  The people that I have encountered inside and outside the school division have been so welcoming. The teaching staff is very experienced.  They are dedicated to the children of Isle of Wight and the consistency that they provide is the backbone of the school division.  People are the strength of any great organization and Isle of Wight County Schools is no different.

My main goal instructionally will be to encourage and inspire teachers to facilitate authentic learning experiences for students that will bring communication skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity to the forefront of our children’s education. I look forward to highlighting teachers that are providing great opportunities for our children and discussing issues in education that may affect us as a division in upcoming blogs. I’ve attached some pictures of where I’ve been.  Enjoy!



Thursday, October 15, 2015

Welcome Message to IWCS

Dear Isle of Wight County Schools Teachers, Staff, and Families,

I am excited to join a school division that has already successfully demonstrated progression in public education. As superintendent, I look forward to reaching new levels of academic achievement by building on excellence, for every child, every day. To reach new heights, I recognize that innovation and creativity must be the hallmarks of our school division. I envision a future where Isle of Wight County Schools will be revered as the PREMIER school division in Virginia and beyond.

As we continue working to achieve educational success for all of our students, I want to expand upon the existing culture of excellence to cultivate the mindset that we are all part of one team that holds the best interest of our children as the number one priority. We are rounding out our division leadership team with individuals who are committed to providing a 21st century education centered on rigor and transformative learning. IWCS is also fortunate to have talented, dedicated teachers and staff across our school division that embody the spirit of this mission.

The success of our school division is not only dependent upon our employees, but is also greatly impacted by active involvement from parents and support from the community. Over the next several months, I will be getting to know each of you while identifying areas of opportunity for advancement. My goal is to engage all of our stakeholders in a meaningful way to ensure consistency and efficiency in how we support the instructional needs of our students.  Our partnership with each one of you is critical to the future of this school division. If our students thrive, the community will flourish and together we can make that happen.

I will be visible and accessible through out the school division, so please do not hesitate to reach out with questions, comments or concerns. If there’s something on your mind…Let’sTalk!  It is my honor to serve as superintendent and I look forward to the new school year ahead!