Teach Like a Barista…Personalization Matters

Co-authored by Robert Harris and Thomas Martellone

While the following blog entry is not an endorsement of Starbucks over any of its competitors, or is it a criticism of the current state of educational practice, Starbuck’s business model contains some simple suggestions for school improvement.

Every morning, multitudes of educators across America flock to their local Starbucks and frequently wait in  long lines to pick up their favorite specialty coffee drink before the start of their school day. As a note, our individual coffee preferences just happen to be a grande Americano or a grande non-fat cappuccino respectively. 

Shared via http://more-sky.com/WDF-107869.html
Shared via http://more-sky.com/WDF-107869.html

While waiting, it’s impressive to see how adept the baristas are at customizing each person’s drink no matter how complicated the order may be. From a consumer’s perspective, customers look forward to drinking top quality coffee that is worth the wait.  They enjoy an environment that is welcoming with jazz or classical music playing in the background. They know that if they’re hungry or need coffee supplies, there are always additional items for purchase, and finally, they can sit comfortably at a table and take advantage of Starbuck’s free WiFi.

However, from our perspective as educational leaders, there are other valuable lessons we believe classroom educators can take away from the Starbuck’s experience.  In the same way that Starbucks trains its baristas to personalize each customer’s coffee drinking experience, educators should be trained to personalize the learning experience for each and every student in their classrooms. Educators should be learning about their students’ individual needs through daily interactions with them; and based on these needs, should be tailoring and delivering personalized instruction for them.  Collectively, educators spend countless hours interacting with students.  Think about the power of knowing what each student’s needs are, and as a result, personalizing instruction to help them succeed – academically, socially, and emotionally.

In the same way Starbucks hopes to gain customer loyalty by offering a high quality, personalized experience; educators should create high quality, engaging, and personalized instruction so that students look forward to coming to school every day. An engaging classroom  should have a ‘buzz’ in the air very similar to the atmosphere in a Starbucks. Students, like Starbucks customers, should be discussing the books they are reading, sharing their ideas and  theories, and refining their understandings about the world they live in by posing and answering critical questions.  

Shared via https://elearningindustry.com
Shared via https://elearningindustry.com

In the same way that Starbucks offers an array of additional items for sale, educators should provide students with curriculum extensions to support and personalize their learning experience.  Finally, where Starbucks provides its customers with free access to the Internet, schools should be providing students with easily accessible, digitally rich classroom environments. While the most important factor in advancing student growth is still effective teaching; in the 21st century classroom, effective teaching also requires using the right digital tools to personalize instruction.

The next time you’re waiting in a long line at Starbucks, think about teaching like a barista.  Is your student a “grande Americano” or a “non-fat grande cappuccino” drinker, and how will you personalize their learning experience?

Robert Harris is the current Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources in the Lexington Public Schools.  Thomas Martellone is the current principal of Fiske Elementary School in Lexington.



Principals-How Mindful Are You?

My school counselor asked me in the late spring if she could work with our school staff and present at some staff meetings on mindfulness.  I was happy to oblige and provide some small windows of time for her to present, not really giving a lot of thought as to what mindfulness meant to me.  Additionally, in my classroom visits, I’ve seen teachers using mindfulness activities with students that they’ve learned from the school counselor, and again, I’ve been appreciative of that work and the benefits it has for students but I did not think of my own mindfulness.

If you’re a school principal, you probably have days that looks like this:

1. (Morning) Arrive at school and put out small fires: substitutes/absent staff, bus issues, E-mail
2. (Midday) Classroom observations, phone calls, meetings, office drop-ins
3. (Evening) School committee meetings, school functions, E-mail, paperwork, projects

Shared via: www.uhs.umich.edu
Shared via: http://www.uhs.umich.edu

I’m not complaining about the above schedule, primarily because I love my job and I feel that I have found the level of balance I need within my work and personal life.  I’ve written about the demands of the principalship and also about what work life balance means to each of us, or should mean to each of us and how we should find the balance that works best in our daily lives. I also know that the schedule (list) above is abbreviated, not including about another 50-100 things that happen in a day.  I’m in my 18th year as a principal, so you see, I’m accustomed to what happens in most days, and honestly, I’m pretty used to it.

Interesting thing though, and that is my prior lack of attention to my own mindfulness, or level of mindfulness.  I pride myself on how much I get done, and those things I am able to accomplish for the benefit of students and staff, yet, as I sat in the session my school counselor did on mindfulness, I began to think about my own level of mindfulness. It also made me wonder if you thought about yours as well!  After all, if you are getting lots done, and your school is doing well, you must have a great level of mindfulness right?  Hmm…maybe not.

Shared via: www.placeofserenity.co.uk
Shared via: http://www.placeofserenity.co.uk

As defined on http://mindfulnet.org, “Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to, and seeing clearly whatever is happening in our lives.” I’m sure many of us principals would say that we are mindful because we manage so many things for so many people, including ourselves.  After all, how could you do all that if you are not paying attention? Yet, the definition of mindfulness is really focused on being aware of the moment you are in.  It is not thinking about the past, and it is not thinking about the future, but really, focusing on the “here and now” and the moment you are in.

My guess is that you’re starting to think the same thing I started thinking…”How mindful am I really being?  Am I really in tune with my own mindfulness, or, am I managing multiple things in my head all the time?”  Mindfulnet.org points out the following:

It [mindfulness] will not eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us respond to them in a calmer manner that benefits our heart, head, and body. It helps us recognize and step away from habitual, often unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday events. It provides us with a scientifically researched approach to cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding. Practicing mindfulness allows us to be fully present in our life and work, and improve our quality of life.

Shared via medium.com
Shared via medium.com

This exercise in starting to think about my own mindfulness, and hopefully helping you think about yours, has been eye-opening.  It has made me think about the many times during my day when perhaps, although I thought I was being helpful or solving problems, or looking at a particular situation, I was probably not as mindful as I could or should have been.  It also made me think about times outside of school, and despite enjoying my “off work” time, was I truly present and mindful?  Was I in the moment with family and friends?  Have you been mindful and truly in the moment as well?

I’m not thinking that I am going to become a principal turned mindfulness guru overnight, but what I do know is that for us principals, we need to be “in the moment” to best help ourselves and our school communities.  A small amount of time each day may result in improved problem solving, better relationships, and an overall quality of life.  So, I’m going to work on my level of mindfulness a little each day, and now that you may be thinking and evaluating your own level of mindfulness, here are a few things you can do…good luck!

Shared via www.health.harvard.edu
Shared via http://www.health.harvard.edu

Student Engagement: A Path to Learning

This summer I was fortunate to be selected as a presenter at NAESP 2016 in National Harbor, Maryland on student engagement as a means to increase student learning. Having been in education now for 23 years, and having seen numerous initiatives and fads come and go, I feel as though student engagement is a mindset and a focus that is perennial to good teaching.

Shared from: ww2.kqed.org
Shared from: ww2.kqed.org

Over the past seven years, my current position of principal at Fiske Elementary School in Lexington, Massachusetts has allowed me to continue working with staff and students in ways that promote engagement across the school setting. This, in part, has helped us continue to promote high levels of learning in an already high performing school.

I’m well aware of pedagogy and teaching practices that support learning, having been a classroom teacher and an administrator that focused on and still focuses on well developed lessons, appropriate content and objectives, developmentally appropriate teaching, etc. However, even if all of the above things are in place, if students are disengaged, you will not enter into any significant learning.

So what can schools do to promote student engagement during an era of accountability and heavy data use?  There is really no “silver bullet” to student engagement, however, there are simple and thoughtful things schools can do that will promote engagement and support learning.

Most importantly, relationships should be at the forefront.  James Comer noted that “No significant learning happens without a significant relationship.” It is imperative that the belief about forming relationships permeates your school.  That means teacher to student, administrator to student, teacher to teacher and administrator to teacher.

This does not happen overnight…relationships are cultivated over time and built on trust, respect, and honesty.  I’ve always known the importance of these relationships, however, I feel that over the past several years, I’ve worked to place an even heavier emphasis on them for the benefit of students.

Shared via unece.org
Shared via unece.org

It is crucial that teachers quickly build relationships with students and get to know them as learners and as individuals.  It is also important for administrators to know the students in their school.  I work to try and know every single student in my school.  It is a challenge with almost 500 students, but I feel that it is important to have connections with them and to know about them as much as possible.  I also work hard to know my staff as well.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m best friends with them, however, it means that I know about them as people, celebrating their successes, their challenges, and helping them meet the needs of students.

As we build relationships, we do some of the following activities to promote engagement for all stakeholders in our school:

  • Highlight and promote every student in the school over the course of the year through our “Student of the Week” program.

  • Promote positivity and gratitude with staff through our Golden Owl Award, Give a WHOOT Grams and Thankful Thursdays.

  • Use a student Twitter center as one means to give students voice, share positive information about school and model appropriate social media use.

  • Deliver positive messages to staff and students related to #celebratemonday, valuing students as individuals, and valuing contributions made by both staff and students.

  • Clearly identify expected behaviors and work to support those expectations through our school wide system of PBIS which includes student-administrator lunches, preferred assembly seating and positive phone calls home.

These are just a handful of things we do to promote student engagement.  Our hope is that by working to find ways to engage ALL students, we will capitalize on their level of connectedness to promote and support greater levels of learning.

Shared via slashgear.com
Shared via slashgear.com

Did something here catch your eye?  Want to know more about a specific way we promote student engagement?  You can view my presentation from NAESP2016 at this link: https://goo.gl/iDBAaE , E-mail me at tmartellone@lexingtonma.org  or connect with me on Twitter @tommartellone.  


Principal Support: Staying Connected to Teachers

This past week, I was very busy working across many projects to get our school ready for opening day on August 30th.  It wasn’t unlike any other week I have had prior to a school opening.  Hallways had multiple pieces of furniture in them, supplies were being unpacked, students were being registered, and the usual pre-opening of school business was taking place.  As a matter of fact, after being a principal for 18 years, I’d say that the week was mostly quite familiar.

As I walked through the halls, I stuck my head into one teacher’s classroom to check in and see how things were going.  This particular teacher was new to my school and district the year prior, and despite my wanting to keep teachers where they were, she was reassigned to teach first grade, which meant that she inherited a new room and many materials. As I walked into the room and took a quick survey of everything, the teacher said to me, “You don’t like where my word wall is do you?” We both laughed, as she quickly had gotten to know me and knew that I would give some gentle feedback about the word wall and its placement.  Of course, I shared that I thought the word wall was covering up some valuable “real estate” in the classroom (a 4×4 whiteboard near a small group instructional area) and the teacher agreed, also sharing that she was somewhat stuck with all of the “stuff” in the room and how to arrange it.

Shared from teacherpop.org
Shared from teacherpop.org

I offered to help, saying that I had some thoughts about how she might maximize space in the room and have some varied areas that would support different types of learners and curriculum. I was happy to stay in the classroom for a while and I told the teacher that I thought it would take about 20 minutes.  She was receptive to my help and suggestions and noted that she didn’t want to take me away from my work, which I said wasn’t too much.  I somewhat secretly stretched the truth here….I was buried in work, however, I do love helping teachers and being connected to their classrooms.  And not to be a martyr, but I’d always stop to help a teacher and do my other work later, after all, my job is to support and provide great conditions for teaching and learning.

We went about the room, me making suggestions and visualizing how the room could be arranged, and then both of us moving furniture and placing it around the room to create instructional and learning areas for students.  Each time we’d move some furniture, I’d check in with the teacher to see what she thought of the placement and if she thought it would be conducive to students learning and her teaching.  There were some suggestions that were duds, but most were good and fortunately, she really liked the ideas I had (she seemed to be honest) and I really loved helping set up the classroom.

My goal has always been to stay connected to teachers and kids as an administrator.  It is easy to get pulled away and become detached from what happens or from what the job really entails.  I was actually flattered that the teacher was willing to have me help and I also really enjoyed thinking about how to maximize the spaces around the classroom for learning.  Don’t get me wrong, this teacher was and is very capable and would have gotten the room sorted out and done a fine job.  

Shared from www.chosenchildtx.org/
Shared from http://www.chosenchildtx.org/

I was lucky that she was open to my ideas and that she wanted to include me in the work.  After a short time (more like 45 minutes or so) we got her room situated to the point where things were in place and she was able to picture what teaching and learning would happen where.  I left to go back to the office to work for a while and when I checked in later, she was “unstuck” and busy putting things in place and preparing for students.

My take aways from my classroom help that day were as follows:

  • Always stay connected to your teachers and students. They are your network and your teachers carry out the heavy lifting of your school. You can not risk not working side by side with them.

  • Be willing to offer help, even when your plate is full.  A small gesture goes a long way and you’ll find a place later to get your work finished.

  • Not every suggestion is a great one.  I made some suggestions that were not the best for the teacher and we navigated changes.  Be open to feedback and be flexible.

  • Be purposeful in everything you do.  I was careful as to what I recommended because I wanted to help the teacher maximize space for the sake of student learning.

  • Love what you do!  I still love setting up a classroom and being a teacher, even though I am a principal and lead a school.  I’ll never forget the joy of creating a great classroom experience for students.

I am so thankful that my teacher welcomed me into her room, trusted me enough to know what I’d give constructive feedback on, and then let me be part of setting up her classroom.  I know that she was appreciative of the help, but honestly, I was the one who was most appreciative for her helping me stay connected! It’s always this type of work that makes me love my job and realize the importance of what I do each and every day. For that, I am extremely grateful.

Why Educate “Whole Children”?

I was recently a finalist for a superintendency in a nearby district, and while responding to questions that were posed to me by the middle school staff during my site visit, I shared a story with them about some students at my current school.

During the meeting with these educators, I told them that I was not an “MCAS driven” principal.  MCAS is the state test for Massachusetts, and like many other states that have mandated,  standardized tests, it’s primarily used for accountability purposes.  My staff and I also use it to try and inform ourselves on where we can celebrate successes with students and where we can make improvements.  Over the course of six years that I have been a principal in Lexington, very little has come from my office related to MCAS, other than the minimal reminders for parents and students to get a good night’s rest and eat a good breakfast, along with our annual report card that I am required to share with the public.  

Shared via azcommunitypress.org
Shared via azcommunitypress.org

Aside from MCAS, I’ve been especially proud of the work my staff has done around RtI, providing intervention for many children in our school in the areas of reading, math and writing.  They have worked diligently and collaborated with one another across grade levels and with departments to create and deliver Tier II interventions for students, and that has resulted in students being more successful and our school having fewer special education referrals. On some level, that has also helped our MCAS scores, although, I’ve not placed an emphasis on intervention helping with a state test, but rather, helping students be more successful with school.

Additionally, I have continued to be impressed with the work staff have been doing to address the social-emotional needs of children.  As a school, we’ve committed to Responsive Classroom as the “umbrella” for our work in building classroom communities, along with PBIS, which we’ve used to help students be clear about our expectations.  But those two things alone can not be the mainstay of our work.  Teachers are using mindfulness activities with children, yoga, breathing techniques, and using opportunities where mistakes lead to greater learning.  We’ve also done work with students around civic mindedness, having students help others in and around the school community.  

Classroom instruction with our school counselor has also been a part of our work related to social-emotional learning, providing students with lessons, discussion, and opportunities to learn how to navigate friendships, solve problems, react to situations, and how to be upstanding school and community citizens.  

Shared via www.tes.com
Shared via http://www.tes.com

So, by now you are asking, what does this all have to do with educating “whole children”?

As part of my interview process and after sharing that I was not an MCAS driven principal, I went on to share a story about two students who came to have lunch one day in my office.  One of the students had her name drawn as part of our bi-weekly drawing where students get to have lunch with me and my assistant principal.  On this one particular day, the fifth grade student brought a classmate who happened to be a student attending our school as a student in our ILP (Intensive Learning Program), a district wide program that serves children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. It also just so happened that this student had more limited communication than some other students in the program, and definitely more limited communication than the young girl’s non-disabled peers.  

That was one of the best lunches I’ve had with students.  She interacted with that student and treated him no differently than any of her other peers.  She could have easily chosen to bring another classmate that had more ability to communicate with her, however, she chose to bring someone that may not otherwise have had the opportunity to be picked.  She also genuinely chose someone that she would enjoy having lunch with.  

As I shared this story with the middle school teachers, I explained to them that no test out there would publicly measure the levels of empathy and compassion this young lady showed by inviting her friend to lunch with her that day. MCAS, while showing what some children know academically, does not provide a picture of “the whole child”, which is where our moral responsibilities rest as we work to educate ALL children.  

Do we want to create a society where people place a value on their relationships and interactions with others? Or do we want a society where our children grow into adults that are devoid of the ability to connect with others, show empathy, build relationships, and care for one another?

Our students deserve every opportunity to learn academics AND social skills that will prepare them for their future. So policy makers, yes, we will administer your tests, and non-educators, yes, we teach more than math, and writing and reading.  And yes, we will  partner with parents and families to create an atmosphere where students feel safe and feel that they can make mistakes and learn.

Shared via wholechild4awholeworld.wordpress.com
Shared via wholechild4awholeworld.wordpress.com

As we all should do, the next time you are reviewing data for your students and you are asking yourself how you will teach everything that needs to be taught, ask yourself the question, “What would our world be like if we did not educate whole children?”


Growth Mindset: It’s Not the Only Mindset!

The term growth mindset has become wildly popular in educational circles over the last couple of years.  So much so, I’d say it has reached “buzzword” status.  That being said, I’m a big fan of Carol Dweck’s work around growth mindset and firmly believe in the underlying theory around her work, which espouses that students who believe they can grow their basic abilities have greater motivation and higher achievement than do students who believe their abilities are fixed, and that teachers can influence students’ mindsets.

This year, my staff and I have participated in building based professional learning led by our math specialist and a group of teachers around math and mindset, working to share with everyone that, yes, they can do math and so can our students.  The PD has been meaningful and relevant to not only having educators think differently about math, but also how they view mindset and learning.  As a staff, on other occasions, we’ve also shared and talked about the power of praise and how praising effort appropriately supports a growth mindset, whereas using it differently, while well intentioned, may have the opposite effect.

One of my favorite math sessions during our time together focused on the Common Core math practice standard related to perseverance.  The session really resonated with me based on my own personal and professional experiences across a number of years.  As an educator, I have faced situations where I have lost my job due to budget cuts, I’ve worked to find ways to reach students that struggled, and I’ve had to face difficult situations in leadership roles.  Many of those situations, if not all, required a level of perseverance that enabled me to either push through the situation or to “stick with it” until it was solved or got better.  Personally, I’ve been an avid genealogist since my mid to late teens, and my research has spanned 30 years of digging, discoveries and roadblocks.  One particular document that came to me in 1992 provided a clue with a name that I continued to revisit during almost every school vacation for the past 20 years.  It wasn’t until about 2 years ago, after having searched far and wide, that I finally made a discovery related to that document which gave me much new information about my family.

First and foremost, I wondered what we needed to do for students that would not only promote a growth mindset, but would also help build their perseverance.  Can perseverance be taught?  Additionally, I also thought about what would have happened to me had I not persevered through my own professional and personal situations. Would I have solved that 20 year family history puzzle?  Could I have solved problems related to leadership that helped me support teaching and learning? I also wondered why some people have perseverance and some don’t, seeing that most schools do not “teach” perseverance.

In their blog post from November 17, 2014 “Perseverance and Grit Can Be Taught”, Sean Slade and Tom Hoerr ascertain that both perseverance and grit can be taught.  The authors also share that while they believe it can be taught, it is not easy to do.  I agree that “trial and error” can help develop perseverance, but what about students whose parents don’t encourage that or promote perseverance.  I think about my own circumstances and the fact that my parents did not promote perseverance.  Of course, they didn’t do this intentionally, but obviously times have changed and as a society, we’ve learned more about what helps children grow into successful adults. So how is it that I developed a set of skills around perseverance whereas, other people may not have those skills?

Edutopia shared the work of Amy Lyon in its March 22, 2014 post and video titled Teaching Grit Cultivates Resilience and Perseverance (Research Made Relevant Series).

I was amazed as I watched this video and saw the young boy being “gritty” collecting sap and turning it into maple syrup.  Did he develop this grit and perseverance as a result of his teachers, as a result of upbringing, or is he just naturally “wired” to be someone who will persevere throughout his life?

After all this thinking, I’ve come to realize that you can have a growth mindset and think you can improve and grow your brain, but without grit, and most importantly, perseverance, you cannot truly realize the potential of that mindset.  I’ve also been thinking that we cannot leave it to chance that some kids will just “get it” and some will not.  Our job, through good teaching as shared in the Edutopia video, is to provide teaching experiences for our students that will help develop those abilities.  We do not need to find more time in the day or the schedule, and we do not need additional budget monies to help our students learn how to persevere.

Shared via choiceschools.com and created by Sylvia Duckworth
Shared via @choiceschools.com and created by Sylvia Duckworth

The students in our classrooms may grow up to be principals that will need to solve leadership problems, or they may be genealogists that want to solve family mysteries.  More importantly, they may grow into adults that will work to find cures for cancer, solve problems related to social justice, develop technologies that improve the quality of human lives, or help explore new worlds. Without the skill of perseverance, they may well not succeed. We can not be complacent around building their capacity to persevere, and we can not think so narrowly that growth mindset is the only mindset in which we need to develop.


For a Million Dollars, You Could at Least…

It wasn’t long ago that Nancy Atwell, a US eighth-grade teacher from Maine fought off competition from 5,000 educators from across the world to win a one million dollar global teaching award.  I was particularly inspired having begun my teaching career in Maine and having worked in Maine for 15 years.

Imagine, winning one million dollars and being recognized around the globe for your work!  That would not only be an amazing honor, but having a million dollars would also be life changing.  What a recognition for having worked and served children for more than four decades.

While I haven’t worked in public education for forty years, I have been an educator for twenty one years this year, having worked as an elementary teacher, an assistant principal, principal and a manager with a state education department working to support struggling school districts.  I’ve spent the mainstay of my years as a principal, working to support teachers, students and families in providing children with safe and engaging learning environments.  Not every day and not every job I’ve held have been easy, however, the factors that have remained the same over the twenty years have been my love and commitment to public education as well as my desire to help children.

This morning I opened my Zite page to look at what content might have been populated that would interest me and I have to say, I was both sad and angry with what I saw, followed up by what I heard.  While Nancy Atwell is being very generous by giving the million dollars to her school, she certainly wasn’t “generous” with her current portrayal of public education across the United States at the current time.

Teachers, administrators, and educational organizations will always be involved in political realms that affect the work of schools.  Not every educator will like Common Core State Standards and not every teacher will like administering standardized state tests.  However, every young educator should feel that they can join a profession, that, even with external demands, can make a difference for children as a result of their creativity, innovation, and passion for helping develop young minds.

For any young and potential educator that may read this post, I urge you, do not waiver from your desire to help children and make a difference in public education.  You can absolutely be creative in today’s educational climate, and you can innovate and make a difference for many young children that need a dedicated teacher willing to put in the time, and navigate the tumultuous educational times we are living in.  You can and will make a difference for children, and I guarantee you that you can make a difference in the education profession.  Those of us that have worked in education for any length of time are depending on you to join us, work hard, and reshape what happens in education for the betterment of our children and our world.

Nancy Atwell, if you should stumble upon this blog post, I hope you reflect on your advice to young people who are eager to serve children and want to make a difference in education.  Your good fortune and hard work should translate into words of encouragement for young educators, not words of cynicism that deflect them from what I consider one of the best professions anyone could ever venture into, even during these changing times in education. For a million dollars, you could at least encourage our promising educators to join the ranks of many hard working individuals that want to change the face of education for children.


Thomas Martellone,
Principal and Dedicated Public Educator