Friday, May 12, 2017

Visiting the Capital #KidsDeserveIt


*This post was originally posted to the Kids Deserve It blog on March 9, 2017.

My name is Lucy Nolte.  I am in 4th grade at Van Allen Elementary.  My school for the day on February 15th, 2017 was the Iowa State Capitol.   


When you first walk into the building a feeling of amazement surrounds you! It’s like you’re in a palace or a castle. I’ve been to the Captiol a few times before to visit my great-aunt Mary Mascher, a State Representative.  Today the Captiol was busier.  I was in the company of nursing students and people involved in education who were there to express their concerns about changes to the collective bargaining law.

I was surprised by the number of people that came to the Capitol to talk to legislators.  My Nana, Chris Rohret, was one of them.  Together, we attended two education meetings, and spoke to the legislator who represents her district.  


And I am Eric Ewald. I am the Principal at Van Allen Elementary. Coincidentally, I joined Lucy at the Capitol on February 15th.


This was my first time visiting the Capitol as a lobbyist. And Lucy is right, it is an amazing place. Then when you think about the far-reaching implications of what transpires, the sense of astonishment is heightened.


Here we are with State Representatives Vicki Lensing and Mary Mascher
This is so important. In reality very few people vote, and even fewer people reach-out to their elected officials to advocate for what they want. We can’t be silent. We have to make sure that our voices are heard.


“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” David Lyons


I, Lucy, learned that making laws takes time, effort, and patience.


This is a process. Change doesn’t always occur instantaneously. Don’t get frustrated. That won’t help. Don’t give-up. That won’t solve anything. Don’t think that your voice and/or vote doesn’t matter. It does!


“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the blow that did it - but all that had gone before.” Jacob August Riis


That’s politics. And that’s life.


“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead


One of the concerns I, Lucy, had about education was that teachers might not have as much input about their jobs (like salary and health care through collective bargaining). Well, not anymore, the only thing that they can possibly talk about, in terms of bargaining, is their salary.  These laws affect education, teachers, and students. We want teachers to be the best they can be.  


The topics on this day’s agenda are far-reaching, and they have a direct impact on me as an educator, as a boss, and as a father. They have a direct impact on Lucy as a student, as a learner, and who knows maybe as a future educator, too. These are some scary things that are being discussed regarding public education. A lack of school funding, striping public workers of their collective bargaining rights, and the possibility of issuing school vouchers are a sampling of the issues that have us, educators, feeling a little uneasy.


I, Lucy, want to be a teacher (grades 2nd-5th)  because I like helping people and I love kids.  I’m most excited to teach kids about writing, reading and acting with empathy towards one another no matter what color your skin is.  


Nobody goes into education for the money or the benefits. We go into education because we love kids. We go into education because we want to make a difference. And we do make a difference. We make a difference in the lives of kids each and every day. But that’s no longer enough. We’re at a crossroads, where it has become critical for us to step outside of our comfort zones. We have to advocate for ourselves. We have to advocate for our profession. We have to advocate for our kids.


Spending a day with legislators at the state Capitol was a fun way to learn about making laws.  
Some of the laws that are made have to do with teachers and education. Some laws do different things to harm or help education. We want our teachers to be the best they can be.

The day reinforced the fact that we, as educators, need to advocate on our behalf. Pick-up the phone. Share a post or a Tweet. Write a blog or a letter. We all have a voice. And we have an innumerable amount of tools at our disposal to ensure that our voices are heard. There are no excuses for remaining silent. Too much is at stake. #KidsDeserveIt

Friday, April 14, 2017

Parent Camp Reflection

Recently our school hosted a brand new event. It was our version of a Parent Camp, which is an event modeled after EdCamp professional developments for educators. I introduced the idea to our staff as an opportunity to do something new, something different, something better than what we’ve always done.


Schools need to continuously evolve in regards to how we communicate and engage with our parent communities. This is something that I am passionate about. I know the value of people’s time. From a parent’s perspective, especially, I understand. As a result, when the parents of our students are giving us their time, it should be our obligation to find ways to make that time as meaningful as possible.


Our intention was to have different conversations with our parent community once we had them within our school walls. We didn't want to talk at them; we wanted to talk with them. We didn’t want a monologue; we wanted a dialogue. We didn't want everyone to hear the exact same thing because not everyone needs and/or wants to hear the exact same thing. We wanted to differentiate for our parents like we know we need to differentiate for our teachers and differentiate for our students.


We’re a school of over 500 students. Assuming that the majority of our students have two parents, that is approximately 1,000 parents within our school community. Prior to our event, I’d thought about what number I’d be pleased with in regards to attendance. 150 parents. That was my goal.  A head count during the evening totaled 28 parents. I was dejected. At the conclusion of the evening, I was visibly dejected.


I know better. Rarely do I wear my emotions on my sleeves. But I’m human. I slipped-up. It took me a good night’s sleep and a multi-mile run in the morning, but within ten-hours I had re-embraced the positive attitude that I preach. Choose your attitude. My bad.


I'm a leader, and if I want staff and students to exhibit a positive attitude and a growth mindset then I need to model what I expect. Always. To F.A.I.L. is simply the First Attempt in Learning. Failure is a requirement when we’re talking about the process of learning. It’s NOT a reason to be ashamed.


During the Parent Camp, the conversations that I had with parents were amazing! Upon further reflection, I realize that if our Parent Camp was beneficial for one parent (and/or teacher) then it was a success. We solicited feedback from those that attended (and those that did not attend) our Parent Camp. Our feedback was positive. We received some really good ideas about the advertising, content, and timing of any future Parent Camp that we’ll host.


We’re going to try again. The positive impact that this event has the potential to produce is too great. It wouldn’t be fair to throw in the towel after just our first attempt.

“Try something new. It's OKAY to fail.” Oskar Cymerman via Educators Lead Podcast

Sunday, April 2, 2017

I Don't Like Making People Unhappy

It's hiring season.

Recently, I was in-on an interview where the candidate was asked a typical question about what do you do when a colleague, parent, etc. is unhappy with a decision you've made/something that you’ve done?

The candidate started to answer: (Pause…Smile…) “I don't like making people unhappy.” (...Awkward laughter)

Some people might not like this response. This candidate lacks the backbone needed for this job. They've got to be tough. They've got to be able to confront difficult situations. Those are some of the things that they might be thinking.

Maybe, but...maybe not. Who wants to make people unhappy? Do we want to hire someone that enjoys making people unhappy? NO!

There are certain things that must be addressed. Some of these things require fierce conversations, and sometimes they result in making other people unhappy. But that doesn't mean that we have to enjoy that process. In fact, I would be extremely uncomfortable working with someone who took satisfaction from making other people unhappy. That’s not what we should be about as educators, and that’s not what we should be about as people.

“Don't mistake my kindness for weakness.” Morgan Wright

So this hiring season (and every hiring season), let’s make sure that we are filling our vacant positions with kind people. Let’s make sure that our schools are filled with kind people. #kidsdeserveit

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Van Allen Pride

This is the third of four blog posts that I am sharing to elaborate on our work for re-creating our school’s mission/vision (First blog, linked - Inspire Learning; second blog, linked - Act with Empathy).

As a staff, we identified Happiness and Commitment as core values within our school. As a smaller team, we took those words and created the phrase Feel Pride. Based off of feedback that we received, Feel Pride became Van Allen Pride.

What follows is the thought process (as well as my own elaboration) for how and why we went from Happiness and Commitment to Van Allen Pride.

Pride isn’t arrogance, and it isn’t boastful. Instead Pride comes from feelings of self-respect, satisfaction, and accomplishment. Pride is a good thing. Pride is NOT something that we should ever be ashamed of feeling. Pride is something that we should always have in regards to all that we are doing. Feeling Pride correlates with strong levels of commitment and intense feelings of happiness.

In his book Beyond Basketball Coach K’s Keywords for Success, Mike Krzyzewski describes it (Pride) as, “A feeling you get from being a part of something bigger than you.” We want staff, students, parents, and other community members to have that feeling of Pride from being a part of Van Allen Elementary School. Krzyzewski goes-on to say, Pride is putting, “Your signature on everything that you do - your best.”

At the end of one of my all-time favorite picture books, The Dot, Vashti's character hands the paper to the boy and says to him, “Please...sign it.” That’s Pride. Put your name on everything that you do. Let other people know that it is your work. Always give your best work, knowing that your work is attached to your name. And then feel good about your work. Feel good about your effort. Feel Pride. Feel Pride in Van Allen. Feel Pride in everything that you do that is associated with Van Allen. Feel Pride that you are a part of all that we are accomplishing at Van Allen.

#VAPride
Via The Dot written and illustrated by Peter Reynolds

Friday, March 10, 2017

Act with Empathy

This is the second of four blog posts that I am sharing to elaborate on our work for re-creating our school’s mission/vision (First blog, linked - Inspire Learning).


As a staff, we also identified Kindness as a core value within our school. As a smaller team, we took that word and created the phrase Act with Empathy.


What follows is the thought process (as well as my own elaboration) for how and why we went from Kindness to Act with Empathy.


We thought that Empathy encompassed kindness. If one was Empathetic, they would also be Kind. We didn’t necessarily think that the opposite held true. You could potentially be Kind towards others (at least on the surface), but that wouldn’t guarantee that you were Empathetic. It just seemed to us that you could fake Kindness; you couldn’t fake Empathy.


Empathy is about recognizing, respecting, and valuing other people’s needs and perspectives. It begins with listening, it extends to understanding, and then culminates with making connections. Those are critical skills for today’s learner. Those are critical skills in today’s society.


Now let’s make sure not to confuse Empathy with sympathy. These are not the same things. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is much more than that. According to Mike Krzyzewski, in his book Beyond Basketball: Coach K's Keywords for Success, "Empathy means having the ability to, most literally, feel what te other person is feeling. Then they will never feel alone." What if we could make that guarantee to ALL of our parents? Your child will never feel alone when he/she is in our school. Yes, please!


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, from her Edutopia article Empathy in Action: How Teachers Prepare Future Citizens’ says, "When young people develop Empathy, they not only thrive in school and life, but they also impact their communities in positive, often extraordinary ways.” Who is going to argue that opportunity for their children/students? No one. That is why it is essential that we, as educators and school staff, are continuously modeling Empathy through all of our actions.

“Empathy is the most important back-to-school supply for teachers.”   
- Homar Tavangar (2014) via Thomas R. Hoerr's book, The Formative Five (2017)

From the book Start Right Now by Jimmy Casas, Todd Whitaker, and Jeff Zoul 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Inspire Learning

At the first PTO meeting that I attended as the Principal of Van Allen Elementary, I was asked about the mission and/or vision that I have for my new school. I refrained from answering because while I certainly had a mission and a vision, I didn't think that it was worth sharing at that time.Instead, I wanted to spend time getting to know and working with staff, students, and the school community before creating a collective mission/vision.

We've been doing that. And this is the first of four blog posts that I am sharing to elaborate on our work.

As a staff, we identified the core values that were most important to us. We wanted to identify our core values, first, and then use them to draft the content of our mission statement. Knowledge was the first core value that we identified. Then, as a smaller team, we took Knowledge and turned it into the phrase Inspire Learning.

What follows is the thought process for how we created Inspire Learning from Knowledge.

When we thought of Knowledge, we thought of facts and the accumulation of facts. That isn't what we hope for students when they leave school. Knowledge is so 20th century. With tools like Google, we can obtain infinite amounts of Knowledge with a few proper key strokes and clicks. Knowledge is summative. And as David Culberhouse (@DCulberhouse) shared, recently, to Twitter, "Knowledge is no longer a commodity as much as it is a collaborative tool."

Conversely, Learning is a necessity. Knowing how to Learn in the 21st century remains a vital skill. Learning values the process. As educators, we value the process. We want Students to know how to Learn. We want Students to love Learning. We don't want our students (and/or adults) to ever stop Learning.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

4th Grade Reflections #shadowastudent

Recently, I completed the #shadowastudent challenge and spent an entire school-day shadowing a 4th grade student in his 4th grade class. I dressed like a student, complete with Under Armor sweats and NFL pom beanie. I rode the bus to school (for the first time ever, in my entire life); this was really fun, you should of seen the looks on students faces when they realized that I was on the bus.

Why was I doing this? It was a great way to learn, first hand, about the content that our teachers teach and student learn. It was also a great insight into what it is like to be a student in our school. Ultimately, that was my primary reason. I wanted to develop a better sense of empathy for the students that I serve at Van Allen.

What follows is a collection of my reflections from throughout the day.

At Van Allen, we have a beautiful school, and beautiful classrooms. This was one of the first things that stood-out to me as I sat in the back of the classroom. The natural light that we have coming-in to our classrooms is such a nice feature to any learning environment.

Teachers, never underestimate the power of using visuals within your lessons. There are a lot of potential distractions within each classroom. Every single student is a potential distraction, regardless of if they are trying to be one or not. And then you have ALL of the stuff that every teacher has within their classroom. Visuals don't cure all, but they certainly help students focus.

PE was fun. That was always my favorite thing about school when I was a student. And it was probably my favorite part of this day, too.
I may, however, have tweaked an ankle at the beginning of class. I'm not used to running that includes all of those stops, starts, and cuts. It's all good, though; whatever it was worked itself out once I got loose and warm.

Anytime that a teacher has an opportunity to tell a story to his/her students, take it! The students love it. They love seeing a glimpse of who their teacher is. Plus, these are times when the teacher is clearly having fun and enjoying him/herself.

We got to eat a snack at 11am. This was five hours since I'd had a bowl of cereal for breakfast, which was 10 hours after I'd had dinner the night before. I know that my diet and my needs are different than compared to a 10 year old's, but I was hungry.

I ate my first school cafeteria lunch since I was in high school. That's right. I repeat, after being a professional educator for over 10 years, I ate my first school lunch. It was good. It seemed healthy. A little more food than I would normally eat in one setting at school, but I also take the luxury of being able to snack throughout the day.
*I'll add that when I was in school, the pink milk was skim. So going through the lunch line, I took a pink milk and didn't think twice about it. It wasn't skim. I drank strawberry milk for the first time. It was also, probably, the only time that I'll drink strawberry milk.

Every student should have lunch AFTER recess. Going from a full meal to full-out game of infection (tag) on the playground is less than ideal.

I should also add that after participating in PE and then coming-in from recess, I completely understand why my kindergarten son wants to wear shorts and a tee-shirt to school EVERY day. Kids are moving, and working; they get warm.

The standard chairs that we have at Van Allen are not comfortable. I already knew this going into my shadow day, but a full-day sitting in such a chair certainly confirmed this. We are working to provide students and classrooms with more flexible seating options, but such a transformation (throughout the school) will take some time.

Normally, I drink A LOT of water throughout the school day. Today, I did NOT drink nearly as much as I normally would have. Even as a classroom teacher, the adults in a school are afforded opportunities (specials, recess, lunch, etc.) to fill-up water bottles, go to the bathroom, and fulfill other personal needs. While these opportunities are certainly available to students, I don't know that they are as on-demand.

Sometimes we ask students to do something (or stop doing something), but they continue doing what they were doing until that task is finished. Often times, we (adults) see this as defiance. But I don't know that it necessarily the case. Think about yourself in your own personal life. Are there any chores that you must perform each morning before leaving the house (regardless of the rush that you are in)? I believe that we should be very careful with what we "demand" of students. I believe that we should offer a lot of reminders and/or suggestions to students, and then exercise caution with the battles that we are willing to fight.

This day confirmed a guiding principle that I believe - never make a child do something that you wouldn't make an adult do.

The best parts of my day within the classroom, were easily the parts of the day that incorporated the 4 Cs - creating, collaborating, communicating, and critical thinking. Students need these highly engaging opportunities throughout their school-day.

Along those same lines, another highlight of my day was when our group was given time to explore a National Park from the southeast region of the United States of America. Those were our parameters, find a National Park in the southeast region and explore it. Student need time time to explore. They need to be given parameters, but then they need to be turned-free and left to wonder.

Acquiring knowledge may be an overrated aspect of school. It is very dependent on the content as to how meaningful and/or engaging it is. That being said, as educators, we should place most of our emphasis on thinking and problem solving. These are skills that have long-lasting implications regardless of what a child grows-up to become.

Being-in a classroom, all-day, reinforced my long standing belief that schools should do away with subject areas. EVERYTHING should be reading, and EVERYTHING should be writing. All other subjects SHOULD be taught with those elements of literacy.

The following dialogue that took place within the classroom between a student and me is worth sharing:
Student: "What book are you reading?"
Me: "Towers Falling, ever heard of it?"
Student: "No, but I'm going to buy it. If the principal is reading it, I am!"

Before I conclude, I want to make sure to express some thanks. Thank you to Sarah Beaver, our 4th grade teacher who very quickly volunteered her classroom for me to fulfill my #shadowastudent challenge. Thank you to Jordan, and the rest of Mrs. Beaver's 4th grade class; not only were you very welcoming to me, but it was also clear that you were treating this as just a normal and ordinary day. Thank you to the rest of our Van Allen staff for allowing me to commit to an entire day for this work. Thank you to the creators of this challenge, and the social media community that has shared it. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to #shadowastudent.

Ultimately, I think that I have more questions than answers after my day in 4th grade. That being said, I would strongly encourage ANY school staff, given the opportunity, to shadow a student within their school. If for no other reason, it is a great opportunity to spend time with kids. And that, spending time with kids, is one of the most meaningful things that you can do for/with kids.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Play: Getting Ready for #GSPD2017

Last year, Hamish Brewer (@brewerhm - a Principal friend in Virginia) introduced me to the FiSH Philosophy and I fell in love with its principles:

  • Choose Your Attitude
  • Make Someone's Day
  • Be There
  • Play

Play. Nick Proud (@Nick_Proud - my neighboring Principal in Iowa) Tweeted something the other day about how we (educators) shouldn't take ourselves so seriously. Agreed. In fact, I would advocate that we should be finding ways to make Play a routine part of our day. Most of us know that #KidsDeserveIt. But  Adults Deserve It, too.

Global School Play Day is taking place on Wednesday, February 1st. At Van Allen, we are asking each classroom to commit to at least one hour of Play. Linked is the note that we are sharing in preparation for Global School Play Day.

In preparation for this event, we asked teachers to Play. At our weekly Monday Meeting (this afternoon), I set games, and puppets, and puzzles out on the tables and wrote the following message that is pictured to the right.

Those were the directions that I gave. The intended outcome was that this would allow teachers to get a small sampling of what Global School Play Day could/would look like in their classrooms. My hope was that this would be 1) fun, 2) relaxing, 3) an opportunity to enJOY the company of colleagues in a setting that isn't the norm for us as educators, and 4) a preview for what to expect in classrooms on Wednesday.

And as one staff said to me on her way out of the room, "That was fun." Mission accomplished.







Saturday, January 21, 2017

What's Your Sentence?

If George Couros writes it, I read it.

Recently, he wrote the post - A Vision for the "4 Non-Negotiables For All Schools"

In the post, George talks about revisiting his Educational Leadership Philosophy and attempting to capture it into a sentence. Embedded in that post is a POWERFUL video from Dan Pink:


Instant motivation.

For the past (almost) year, I have been able to identify four acts that I feel are essential to me in my role as a school leader:
  • Building relationships
  • Communicating
  • Learning
  • Choosing a positive attitude
Here's my initial/rough draft attempt at capturing these four actions into 'My Sentence':
Eric Ewald builds relationships through frequent communication and modeling a positive attitude to create a positive learning environment.
Here's the thing - above - that's my desired state. I know that I'm not perfect with in regards to any of those actions. I have room to grow and improve. And that's why Pink's second question that we should be asking ourselves is so important - 'Was I Better Today than Yesterday?'

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Pause to Reflect

Over the summer, as I was transitioning jobs I shared a couple of emails that I had received from teachers with my Principals In Action (PIA) Voxer group. These emails contained some of the most complimentary words that I had ever received. I was blown away. People are busy; taking the time to write such thoughtful notes takes time. These types of notes aren't written and/or shared often.


I was on cloud nine. The feelings that were provoked from receiving these emails were amazing.

Brad Gustafson, a principal friend in Minnesota, asked me to reflect and share what led to this. What led to the new position and the new year both starting out on such high notes? I punted. I don't know that I had the words, at the time, to actually reflect on my efforts.

Fast forward a couple of months, and again, I'm just blown away with some of the kind words that I am still receiving. These words come from cards that I've received from staff and families, and they come from complimentary words spoken to me in the community. The feeling is unbelievable to have these compliments verbalized with your family present.

I have kept Brad's request in the back of my head for the past four months. That paired with Lindsy Stumpenhorst, a principal friend in Illinois, issuing a challenge to our PIA Voxer group to blog about 2016 has further motivated me to write this blog. And then the final tipping point was reading Dean Shareski's book, Embracing a Culture of Joy, over winter break. His book, his words helped bring clarity to much of what I've set-out to do.

Starting back in July, when I met with staff, one-on-one, they spoke about our school culture needing to be an area of focus. As a result, we have been investing in the culture of our school.
"Gratitude is an essential ingredient for a joyful culture."
Dean Shareski, Embracing a Culture of Joy
I understand that receiving the kind complimentary words that I've recently received doesn't just happen by chance. I have, in fact, been very intentional with a lot of my actions (I've listed, maybe, the Top 10 of them, below). Most of these actions are not my own original ideas, but that is the beauty of having a Professional Learning Network (PLN); that is the beauty of having social media tools such as Twitter and Voxer to share ideas. Because we are all smarter together.

My Top 10 List of - Things that I've done to promote a positive school climate/culture:
  1. PositivePostItDay - I blogged (linked) about the concept of this day, long ago; I brought this activity to Van Allen right before Thanksgiving break.
  2. Our First Penguin Award - I also blogged (linked) about this, and the importance of celebrating risk taking.
  3. Twelve days of giving leading into winter break - some fun and silly themed days in an attempt to enhance the climate within our building.
  4. Hand-written holiday cards for staff.
  5. Sharing the positive things that are happening within our school via social media on a daily basis (see #RocketsRock)
  6. #GoodNewsCallOfTheDay - I have NOT been consistent with these. However, the positive impact that such phone calls have is enormous. Becoming more consistent with this is a top goal of mine in 2017.
  7. Daily, hand-written thank you cards to staff and students. I've seen some of these posted in prominent areas, which leads me to believe that they are meaningful to those that receive them.
  8. Birthday Selfies - I think that credit to this idea goes to Brad Gustafson. Spend a couple of minutes with kids on their birthdays. Talk to them. Take a picture with them (and then send it to Mom and Dad). Make them feel special.
  9. I choose my attitude. I own it. Nobody else does. It's on me. Hamish Brewer, a principal friend in Virginia, first got turned-on to this tenant of the FISH! Philosophy and it has been a game changer for how I think.
  10. Smiling - I also blogged (linked) about this, originally for the Kids Deserve It blog.
"The impact of receiving heartfelt gratitude cannot be understated."
Dean Shareski, Embracing a Culture of Joy
This (quote, above) cannot be ignored. We all deserve to have heartfelt gratitude shared with us. Per the FISH! Philosophy - Make Someone's Day! And then pay it forward. It is the fuel that can drive us to keep doing better and keep doing more as the days get longer. Gratitude - both giving it and receiving it - can be our motivation. And kids deserve to be with motivated adults.

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