Teacher & Edu Staff Appreciation Day/Week – Thank You #Engage109

This is teacher, nurse, educational support staff (and administrator) appreciation week! We can never say thank you enough to our educators!! THANK YOU!

I’m sharing a quote I have held closely for many years and I’m sharing two notes I recently sent the DPS109 community.

“How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes.”
Maya Angelou

Dear District 109 Families and Community Members,

At its last meeting, the Board of Education declared Tuesday, May 9, 2017 as Teacher Appreciation Day in District 109. Please join the Board of Education and the District administration team in applauding our teachers and all of the educators and support staff throughout District 109 who work so hard each day. We have high-achieving, nationally recognized, innovative, warm and welcoming schools because amazing teachers engage, inspire and empower our students – your children, grandchildren, and the children of your friends and neighbors!

I encourage you to find a way to show your support to your favorite teacher, or any school staff member who makes a difference in the lives of the children in our community. Whether you write a heartfelt, handwritten note, have your child create a work of art, or just go out of your way to say a personal “Thank you,” you are giving a great gift. They deserve all the thanks that we can shower upon them!


“If we neglect our gifts and talents, they, like an unused muscle, will atrophy and waste away.”  Stephen Covey

Dear District 109 Teachers and Staff,

The Board of Education recently approved our 2017 Strategic Plan. The planning process was both reflective and forward thinking, and very eye-opening to me. I realized how much we have accomplished in four short years.  I also acknowledge and thank you for being open to change. I know that’s not easy. Your leaps of faith and constant hard work have allowed our students to thrive, and schools to achieve local, regional and national recognition. In the strategic planning process we should all be proud of the input and impact of that input. Your voices and your input helped shape the goals, objectives and plans. I look forward to working with you and for you to achieve our goals in the coming years.

On April 24, the Board of Education declared Tuesday, May 9, 2017 Teacher Appreciation Day in District 109. The community will celebrate you throughout the week. To show our thanks, the District administration and Board will provide a gift and special treat at some point during the week. They are small tokens of our boundless appreciation of you and your continual work to engage, inspire and empower our students, their parents, your colleagues, and our community.

So THANK YOU, from me personally, and from the Board of Education and District leaders, for allowing us to work with the best team of educators in the nation.


Assessment is far more than a grade – A caring teacher’s impact on me


“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
– Benjamin Franklin


With President’s Day approaching (February 20, 2017) I thought it would be a good time to share some thoughts about how a college professor from an undergraduate course on the American Presidency from many years ago impacted my life and my professional journey. A journey that currently has some powerful meaning/relevance with our district’s move to standards based grading and reporting at the middle school. With this blog post, I’ll draw the connections!

As a former 6th and 8th grade social studies teacher (U.S. history, civics, law, world history, reading, etc.) I have a deep interest in our nation’s culture, history, values, beliefs, celebrations, etc. In addition, I hold a degree in political science, so I have been a “policy wonk” for many years, and to this day I follow the news, politics, etc. With President’s Day approaching I am reminded of the powerful impact a professor’s act of kindness and care from many years ago and from an undergraduate course on the American Presidency.

While I was a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, UIC, I had some of the best teachers in my life. The late Dr. Twiley Barker Jr., Dr. Kevin Lyles, and Dr. Andrew McFarland, to name a few. During a course on the American Presidency, POLS 229, an event took place in my life that impacted my philosophies, beliefs, and actions as a teacher and educational leader over the past 25 years. In some ways it likely shaped my philosophies and impact as a teacher and as an educational leader so many years later. Right now there is a current challenging transition from percentage grades to standards based grades at the middle school level in my district. Looking back at my personal educational history, I’m reminded of why meaningful feedback, teacher /student relationships, and the mastery of content and the flexibility of instruction supersedes any percentage grade or mark in terms of meaningful feedback and communication about learning.

In our district right now we are engaged in a transformation/change process with learning, teaching, grading, reporting and assessing. The implementation of standards based grading, reporting and assessment is ongoing in our school district; there were pretty much no problems when we made the change at the elementary school level (K-5) four years ago.

This is the first year of the middle school implementation of the standards based system, the transition is challenging in part because there is confusion and inconsistency as well as the fact that it is change and that in and of itself causes challenges.

One of the cornerstones of transitioning to standards based learning, grading, etc. is the mindset shift and the concept shift. For example, with the concept shift of instructional change, the zero goes away. The concept of NO MORE ZERO grades and the concept of mastery (or do-over) becomes the focus. Grades/reporting/assessment results are NOT used for “responsibility” or “reward” or “preparation for the next level in education”, instead grades/reporting/assessment results are used to communicate what is learned, what needs to be learned and what is next to be learned. With this blog post, I’m reflecting on the congruity of an impactful event in my life during an undergraduate course, and the realization that this impactful event has impacted my beliefs whether I consciously knew about it or not. This is an “aha” moment for me – this is partially why I so strongly believe the growing pains and transition are worth the time, effort, energy, and extra work involved in the middle school standards based grading situation.

Change is hard (I’ve written a lot about the change process) – Unlearning is hard (I have also written about this concept).

My college professor Dr. Andrew McFarland gave me a chance in the “real world” -when I was in college. Because he knew me, he knew what kind of student I was – he knew my passion for political science he treated me like I was more than a percentage or a score. Dr. McFarland also taught so that students would learn. He had high standards for each and every student and he held himself to high standards too.

So what is this all about? What is this big event that caused me an “aha” moment? Dr. McFarland called me one night while I was eating dinner with my parents; it was 5:30pm – I don’t know how I remember this fact, but I do. This event took place in 1988 or 1999 and I still vividly remember our call!

He called me that night because earlier that day when I took the final exam, I inadvertently forgot to answer one or two additional questions. If Dr. McFarland graded or assessed based on the “old” system I would have received an F. Dr. McFarland, though, was using standards based learning and instruction (whether he or I knew it or not). He called me on the phone and asked me to respond to the final exam question prompts – for 30 maybe 60 minutes. Because he cared about learning – not about percentages or “harsh” lessons, I was able to demonstrate mastery and competency of the American Presidency course (in which I did earn an A, not only because of what I learned, but more importantly, because my professor cared about discovering what his students knew).

He assessed my knowledge acquisition in an alternative learning setting because my teacher was more concerned about assessing my learning and mastery than he was about issuing a grade or a percentage. Had this caring professor used traditional methods I would have failed the exam. In my opinion and in my experiences, standards based grading, reporting, learning, and assessment actually prepares people for real life by holding them accountable to learn. Thank you Dr. McFarland!

You see, opponents to mastery grading, or standards based grading & reporting systems think the “old” 100, 90, 80, 70, 60, 50 percentage system somehow makes sense (it does not) and somehow prepares people for “the real world” (it does not) or prepares them for high school/college.

Well it doesn’t do any of that; but it’s hard for people to unlearn what they know and what they think they know.

It’s hard for people to accept new research studies and effects when those new studies and effects are different than what they experienced.

Our district will transition and in partnership with parents, teachers, administrators, and students, we will do what is best for students. I’m grateful to a wonderful college professor who made a lasting impact on me. A teacher’s impact is lasting and forever; let’s use grades, reporting, and assessment to build strong learned people. Let’s use modern instructional strategies to maximize the impact and effect. Let’s help people unlearn practices that make no sense other than to have been used in their past school experiences. Preparing students for the future world requires teaching them content that is meaningful in learning environments that are powerfully purposeful and full of clear, regular, meaningful feedback and opportunities to learn and demonstrate learning.

Perspective and Context – #Engage109

“Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your actions.”
– Dalai Lama 

As we approach this holiday season and the end of 2016 many people are busy getting the “new year’s resolutions” … eat better, exercise more, spend more time in nature, etc… The end of year is a fine 2017time for reflection and contemplation.

Did we accomplish what we set out to accomplish in 2016? Did we do the best we could for ourselves, our families, our co-workers, our communities? Did we listen enough to opposing viewpoints? Did we stand up for what is right? Questions like those and so many more fill our minds and hearts as the work world slows down, if only for the week between Christmas and New Years Day.20140803-165030.jpg

Whatever we did in 2016 … it’s coming to a close.

2017 allows us new opportunities, new learning, new challenges, and new realities! As this year comes to a close, and as I write the final blog post of 2016, I realized that my blog, in effect since July 2013, has about 300 posts.

So in roughly three and a half years I’ve written 300 posts, responded to about 100 comments; there have been 50,000 page views with an average reader spending a minute and a half reading the posts. Google Analytics reports that there have been 23,458 users engaging in one form or another with the blog. 40% of the blog readers are regulars and 60% of the readers are categorized as new visitors. This is pretty cool – in the context of one person’s blog. Is this significant in terms of all bloggers? Is this significant in the blog world of superintendents? Depends on the context of review.

Readers of this blog hail from the United States, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, India, Brazil, Japan, and some 1100 sessions unidentified.

The title of this blog post Perspective and Context came to me after viewing the following video that gives perspective to how earth relates to the rest of the “universe”. The context is “space” and size:

Our universe, this blog, your identity – all form ‘parts of wholes’. Wherever we are in time and space, from wherever we hail, we are significant and meaningful. Ideally we always add value to our family, our community, our world. We, though, are but a small parts of a larger reality.

Regardless of our perspectives, our importance, our perspectivevalue, we must be mindful of context. We also must be mindful that each new year allows us to learn more, to grow more, to do a better job than perhaps we did last year.

The new year allows us to “reset” to redo, to start whatever it is we’re doing with fresh eyes. Perspective and Context guide and define our thoughts and actions.

Earlier this year in the Deerfield Public Schools District 109, we spent time looking at two films: Beyond Measure and Most Likely to Succeed. Both were shown to hundreds of people in our community. Both challenged long held assumptions about public education and the forms of instruction best suited for our future. Both challenged our perspectives and caused a review of our context. I wrote blog posts about these films and the viewing experiences.


As we approach 2017, I’m equally as energized with hope and vision about the realities we will create here in Deerfield, IL, and Riverwoods, IL (my small parts of the world) on behalf of students, staff, and community. We are on the forefront of causing change, perhaps forcing change in some contexts on behalf of the future we are creating – like it or not – we in education are future creators.

Are we supporting structures and systems that perpetuate the 1893 era thinking and needs and context? Or do we change our perspective and support structures designed for future context.

Happy New Year 2017

Best wishes to us all to consider our perspectives and to consider our contexts, and to realize the value and power of change for innovation, improvement, and the future.





5 Minutes in 5th Grade – Podcast of Student Voice – #Engage109

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”
– Benjamin Franklin

Many years ago when I taught 8th grade students U.S. history and reading at Blackhawk Middle School in Bensenville, Illinois, the team of teachers with whom I worked grappled with the home/school communication conundrum. We did not have ready access to email or blackhawkmiddleschoolwebsites back then, and we did not always have the most compelling “packets” and paper reminders going home.

So we set up a weekly communication for the parents called “Behind the Nothing”. This was a letter which was a letter written by each student each week for their parents to see and learn what the students learned that week.

You see for most of our students, back then, when their parents would ask, “What did you learn today at school?”, the student would almost always reply, “nothing”. So we decided to create a communication from the student voice and from the student perspectives as a new way to inform their parents what they were learning! Well . . . a lot has happened in education, communication, and technology since 1993 when I first started teaching! Of course students were learning then and they are learning now!

In today’s blog post I’m sharing 5 minutes in 5th grade, a five minute podcast withwhatdidyoulearn students telling the listener what they learned at a recent outdoor education experience. Today’s teacher is equipped with far more tools for communication than the teacher of 1993. Using the application AudioBoom, I recorded the student’s voices on my iPhone. Click the link below to spend 5 minutes in 5th grade!

Special thank you to Dr. Dave Sherman, Ms. Megan Chin, Ms. Keidan, Ms. Kramer, and Mr. Templer and their awesome South Park School 5th grade students!


Welcome Back Institute Day – 2016 – #Engage109

“Open your arms to change, but don’t let go of your values.”
– Dalai Lama


Today, August 18, 2016, was the first official day back for DPS109 staff. As we have done for the past four years we gathered as a whole school family at Alan B. Shepard Middle School for the opening institute day. This year our themes are Joy and Innovation.

Earlier in the week I sent out a note to the entire community, I’m sharing excerpts of that letter below:

Dear District 109 Parents, Staff and Community Members,

On Thursday, we welcome our teachers and staff back to work with a full day inservice that includes a keynote speech by Rich Sheridan, author of Joy, Inc., as well as collaborative learning time to prepare all of us to welcome our students back to school on Monday, August 22. …Nearly 50 staff members attended a three-day intensive workshop led by a faculty member of the Buck Institute to bring project-based learning to our classrooms.  In addition, teachers and staff set up classrooms, collaborated on curriculum, researched innovative methods, and mentored new teachers and staff, whom we welcomed to the District 109 family last week.

What’s New?

Click Here for a 360 degree view of a new library learning space

Click Here for a 360 degree view of a new art space

Click on image for a 360 degree view of labs in our district
…Every elementary school has reconstructed their library media space, adding PTO funded SmartLabs fulfilling a long held plan to incorporate more STEAM into the elementary schools. Click for live video of the construction progress – we’re getting close!

Both middle schools also have innovative and redesigned learning spaces; the art and music spaces have been completely transformed into areas that will inspire creativity, innovation, and future focused arts instruction.

Last year, the Department of Teaching & Learning awarded our second phase of innovation grants. Ten teachers across every building in the District won grants to have a classroom set of iPads, and two other teachers earned special grants for their exceptionally innovative projects. In addition, 100 teachers received individual iPads to begin exploring the potential of tablet technology to our already robust 1:1 transformative learning environments…


As part of my welcome remarks, I shared the following slide deck (I’ll also be sharing notes for clarity). The notes reflect my thinking and preparation and they are very close to the commentary I delivered in person at the assembly. As always, your comments are encouraged and welcomed!

Notes for slide 3: Our mission, our motto, our statements as to WHY we exist  –  Engage, Inspire, Empower our students, each other, and our community. You continue to do an amazing job of engaging, inspiring, empowering each and every day. I remain quite proud to serve you as the superintendent of schools!

Notes for slide 4: How do we engage, inspire and empower? One major way is through innovation. We innovate to increase student learning … We facilitate learning for our students as well as one another. Innovate means trying new and better ways of doing things. We started with Innovation grants three years ago and we keep on demonstrating new and better ways to inspire learning and to support a culture of excellence.

Notes for slide 5: One very public way we show innovation is through modern learning spaces. We have been designing and creating new and better learning spaces across the district for the past several years. With new lighting, better flooring, award winning classrooms and labs we demonstrate our commitment to excellent public education. We are proud to host visits from leaders all over the state and nation to our award winning middle school science labs. This year we cannot wait to open and unveil new middle school art and music spaces, PTO funded K-5 SMART labs, redesigned library spaces, student friendly furniture, and more. All of these physical changes are designed to support innovative learning and teaching practices. The spaces themselves do not reflect innovation though, it’s what you do with and in these spaces that truly creates new and better learning for ALL students. We provide the conditions for optimal learning and growing, the spaces provide opportunities for new and better experiences.

Notes for slide 6: We also innovate with new and better instructional tools and resources designed to support your work. With collaborative Google Apps for Education we have created opportunities for communication across boundaries of time and space. Other tools like the extensive suite of technology we offer support innovative learning and teaching practices. The tools themselves are not innovative; it’s what you do with these tools that creates new and better learning for our students. This year we’re proud to celebrate Innovation Grant Phase II with new and better ideas about how to leverage the power of technology. A focus area includes the 4Cs of communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking. These new tools allow for innovative practices supporting the 4Cs.

Notes for slide 7: We also innovate in DPS109 with professional learning opportunities. I am so proud of the hashtag #engage109 on Twitter where any day or time I can look and see what is happening in the classrooms around the district. #Engage109 is known far and wide as a space where DPS109 staff share and learn and communicate. Often our hashtag is trending due to the activity. Twitter is a space where anyone can learn and access virtually anything at any time. In addition, this year’s early release Wednesday structure is designed to create new and better ways for teacher learning. Through sustained job embedded learning opportunities we will create conditions for innovation. We are also proud of the Deerfield University an often replicated example of innovative professional learning and teacher support. The DU offers a voluntary personalized, learning platform where we can learn and grow any time any place at any speed or any pace, our motto is You can DU it! Finally, the upcoming EdCamp North Shore 16 to be held at Kipling on October 29 reflects yet another way we innovate in the professional learning space. I hope the folks from Kipling will tweet out the link to sign up via the #engage109 hashtag today!

Notes for slide 8: I consider myself to be an innovative superintendent. I learn from you and I learn with you. I truly enjoy learning alongside you and joining in classroom practices like Shark Tank shown in the photo above. I look forward to every visit to the classrooms. I learn new and better ways of doing education from you. Thank you for continuing to invite me and welcome me into your classrooms. In addition, I innovate through partnerships and professional memberships in forward thinking organizations like BrightBytes, Discovery Education, and the American Association for School Administrators, the AASA. This summer a group of 50 superintendents from around the USA came to learn our story – they came to visit our new and better learning spaces. Because of your great work I get to show off and share our stories of innovation. In addition, I learn from them and their expertise and I share that here in Deerfield. You give me great pride and so much to share! Finally I innovate by experimenting with gizmos and gadgets that support new and better learning, I am eager to see the innovative results of the 2nd phase of the Innovation Grant process.

Notes for slide 9: I seek out innovation in my personal life too. For the past 11 years my family has gone to the same resort in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. We love the vacation and the kids look forward to it each year. This summer we innovated – we experienced tubing for the first time. While it may seem simple or even silly for me to share this personal example, I wanted to share how we took an awesome family experience, our annual trip to Wisconsin – perfectly fine for 11 years; and with an innovation, the tubing, our first time as a family doing so, we innovated our vacation! We tried something new and better and created a new learning experience.

Notes for slide 10: I highly value being a connected educator and leader, I learn from others, I share our stories of innovation, and I become a better leader through collaboration. Please continue to reach out to me and welcome me into your learning spaces. You can contact me, and I encourage you to do so, through any number of addresses and social networks. Welcome back to another fantastic school year! Please give a warm welcome to Dr. Jeff Zoul who will continue our program this morning. Thank you.