Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Productive Struggle: Jennifer Greif, Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Leadership


As a division, we have deliberately embraced the ideas of grit, growth mindset, and “soft skills.”  I have found my own thinking on these topics evolving as well, sharply focusing on the concept of productive struggle - an idea that is honestly no more complex than students working hard at their appropriate level and finding incremental success. The complexity lies in how a teacher creates a classroom and designs lessons to promote and support productive struggle.  I so clearly remember the exhilaration of writing and rewriting sentences as I tried different strategies and new vocabulary, checking in with my fifth-grade teacher as I failed and succeeded interchangeably.  I recall the student early in my teaching career who exclaimed with glee, “You are making my brain sweat!” as he grappled with a difficult rhetorical device.  I watched my daughter willingly get up an hour early three days in a row to try to collect data for a science lab that failed over and over, even after the grade was recorded in the book.  And I witnessed a teacher spending more time giving high-fives and cheering on the work of his teams of students than standing at the board modeling problem after problem.  Through all of these lenses, I clearly see the value of productive struggle in action.

Productive struggle is not readily measureable, and it will never appear on a state report card.  But its importance is easily understood within the context of our division’s focus of equity, relevance, and innovation.  We promote the idea of matching resources with student and community needs as our working definition of equity.  When introduced to new learning and unfamiliar learning environments, students react differently because their perceptions of how they will succeed may be very different, their skills are at various stages of development, and their supports outside of our schools may be uneven.  We cannot apply the same strategies and types of support and expect the same measured outcomes for each of our students.  Not every beginning swimmer needs the arm floaties for security, and not every five-year old uses training wheels for the same amount of time.  In order to keep our learners engaged in the learning with us, we must make sure that the struggle remains productive and encouraging.  While a student may be struggling with simplifying fractions or analyzing primary sources or developing a better embouchure, the more relevant lesson is how to accept failure as a part of success.  This is the lesson that will propel our students to achieve in an innovative society.

Sometimes productive struggle is the result of serendipity, an alignment of the stars.  The challenge for educators is to create that magical “sweet spot” of instruction deliberately.  We obviously need to rely on a deep toolbox of instructional strategies, which can only be enhanced when we choose to work together in grade level teams or departments or PLCs.  We need to know when to use a hammer and when a good wrench is necessary.  And we, teachers and our students, need to develop a strong feedback loop.  In order to move students from a challenge that results in crippling frustration to productive struggle, we need to look for opportunities to gauge a student’s mastery at the granular level and communicate (and celebrate) the incremental success back to the student.  And we need to reflect upon the impact of our grading practices on a student’s willingness to struggle.

More than anything, though, relationships are at the heart of productive struggle.  For every example I gave above - my time as a student, a teacher, a parent, and an administrator - relationships created the environment in which a student engaged in productive struggle with her teacher.  Students thrive in rigorous classrooms when they know that their teachers are poised to empower them to push through the challenging tasks with high-fives and scaffolded supports.  We are those teachers.

Friday, September 1, 2017

The Next New Thing

     “If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”  Mark Twain has been credited with first using this phrase, although others have claimed it as well and applied it to numerous areas of the country, including Virginia.  Perhaps its popularity is because people everywhere can relate to both strange weather and constant change.  A similar phrase has also been used in conjunction with education initiatives: “If you don’t like what we’re doing this year, just wait, there will be something different next year.”  To be fair, there is some truth in this statement in our profession.  We are often guilty of trying the next trendy thing—a magic bullet for student achievement—that often proves elusive. 

            Some of the “latest and greatest” techniques prove to be quite useful, while others are simply timeless strategies in new wrapping paper.  And then there are strategies that are nothing more than gimmicks with no proven results.  While there is clearly a benefit to trying new ideas or approaches, we know that the most successful organizations sustain a well-articulated focus on their mission over a long period of time while simultaneously seeking to remain innovative.  As we began last school year, we concentrated on ensuring the “relevance” of our educational opportunities and “equity” in our delivery.  As the year progressed, a third theme, “innovation,” naturally emerged as a priority.

            As I visited schools around the division last school year, I quickly noted that these are neither nebulous, lofty ideas, nor the latest trends.  Rather, they represent the best of who we are and what we do.  They were being lived out tangibly in all facets of the school division.  They could be seen in everything from the formation of coding clubs at elementary schools, to equity teams examining practices at both the school and division level, to all administrators committing to read The Innovator’s Mindset.

            This year, the next new thing will be…wait for it…relevance, equity, and innovation.  Ironically, having the same focus areas as last year may not appear to be very innovative.  However, these areas of focus are not intended to be boxes to check off on an education-jargon laden to-do list.  Rather, they represent the commitment that we make to our students every day. 

Building from our momentum last year, we have already seen progress before this school year has even begun.  In the area of equity, our division was recognized this summer by the Governor for our leadership in implementing the Virginia Tiered Systems of Support to promote positive behaviors among students.  We have hired a new Coordinator for Safety and Security to ensure that the unique needs of each building are addressed, and each schools’ leadership team is examining best practices to ensure all learners’ needs are met.  In the area of innovation, work is being completed on our first two “Classrooms of the Future,” which will be ready by the first day of school.  Professional development offerings promoting relevance and innovation are being offered in every content area, and the planning of technology infused lessons will transform instruction this year in ways never previously possible. 

We are on a wonderful path and making significant progress.  Thank you for helping us to achieve success last year and recognizing that continuous improvement is essential to sustaining that success.  We will continue to focus on offering the most relevant, equitable, and innovative education possible for the students and community we serve. This year, in order to highlight the great work in our division and to assist us all in learning from our own experts, I will be inviting guest bloggers to share some of our educators’ amazing accomplishments.  I am truly excited about what this year holds for us, and I look forward to continuing this important work with you.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Class of 2017 Commencement Address

Good afternoon.  It is my privilege to welcome family members, friends, distinguished guests, and, most importantly, the Class of 2017.  Undoubtedly, this is a day that you have dreamt about for quite a long time.  I imagine the same may be true for the many parents in attendance.  Today simultaneously represents the culmination of thirteen years of hard work and the beginning of the next phase of your life’s journey.  I, along with the Hanover County School Board, am grateful for the opportunity to be with you today to celebrate your accomplishments.

Graduates, my message to you today can be summed up in three words—Relevance, Equity, and Innovation. These words have been a focal point this year among our educators and staff, and they will guide all work in the school division for many years to come to ensure we continue to provide our students with an exceptional education.

By now, I’m sure some of you are asking yourselves, “What does this have to do with me?  Why does this matter now?  I’ve completed my work.  I’m graduating.”  Perhaps you’ve asked similar questions along the way about your coursework.  “When will I ever have to use the Pythagorean Theorem?  Why do I need to learn the periodic table?  How do events from 200 years ago affect me now?”  Well, I believe these are all great questions, which leads to the first of the three words--relevance.

As you enter into the workforce, military service, or higher education, your need for relevance will change from something you crave in your academic experience to a life perspective you may come to embrace.  Soon, you will no longer be preparing for the world as much as you will be living and working in it.  Perhaps relevance in this context can be framed as a need for significance and importance.  So, I challenge you to begin asking yourselves these questions instead, “Am I adding significance?  Am I adding importance?”

True, significance, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder.  In my view though, significance is not about what we are able to obtain or achieve, rather it is about what we are able to give.  Perhaps Winston Churchill said it best, “We make a living by what we get.  We make a life by what we give.”  Relevance in life is not so much about the application of theory learned in a classroom as much as it is about applying knowledge in order to serve the greater good.

The second of these ideas is equity.  Like relevance, this may mean different things in different settings.  In education, equity is the recognition that a cookie-cutter approach does not best serve our students.  Each one of you has different interests, different strengths, different needs, and different dreams.  Your incredible teachers, including those present here today, as well as your elementary and middle school teachers, recognized your uniqueness, fostered it, and prepared you well for your respective paths.  Equity beyond the walls of the school though is the acknowledgment that fair does not mean equal.

Being an avid baseball fan, I was naturally drawn to a new book co-written by David Ross entitled, Teammate: My Life in Baseball.  For those unfamiliar with Ross, he was the catcher for last year’s World Champion Chicago Cubs, as well as last season’s runner-up in Dancing with the Stars.  In his book, Ross touches on this idea of fairness.  He describes the many people who positively influenced him to become the best teammate he could be.  At one point, he describes perhaps the toughest lesson he ever learned in baseball, which occurred in 2008 during his brief time with the Cincinnati Reds.  Ross played well the previous year and admittedly developed a somewhat cocky attitude.  He didn’t feel that his talents were being recognized, especially by his manager, Dusty Baker, so he voiced his displeasure in a less-than-professional manner with the expectation of getting more playing time and recognition. Instead, the Reds sent him packing and informed him that his services were no longer needed.  It was a harsh lesson, but one that helped him to change his outlook.  From then on, he focused on serving others, even if it meant helping those who could potentially take away his own playing time.

This story is a reminder that the words to an old Rolling Stones song still hold true: “You can’t always get what you want…you get what you need.”  In life, equity is the idea that you give people what they need and that giving is rarely equal.  Sometimes a hug is needed, sometimes it’s a shoulder to cry on, and occasionally it’s a hard lesson.  The important part is that you can’t make that assessment if you don’t truly take the time to get to know people.  Just as your teachers took the time to understand your unique needs, so, too, must you take the time for the various individuals in your life.

The final theme is that of innovation.  Business leaders, both in Hanover and across the nation, remind us time and again that one of the most desired qualities for prospective employees is creativity.  They recognize that to continue to survive in the marketplace, they must do much more than simply replicate or manufacture someone else’s idea—they must come up with the ideas themselves.  The realization that there are multiple pathways to success as opposed to one “right” answer is surprising to some.  In life, simply selecting “C” on a multiple choice test is not an option.  The problems you will face will be much more complex.  As Albert Einstein reminds us, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”  Relentless determination, persistence, and the attitude that failure is not real failure unless we give up produced Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, Steve Jobs, Dorothy Vaughan, and Bill Gates.  So, do not be afraid to dream big.  Do not be afraid of making mistakes.  Do not be afraid of being labeled as “different” or even “eccentric.”  You see, these words perfectly describe some of the greatest contributors to mankind.  Not only can innovation lead to success, but it is, in fact, one of the most integral components.

Graduates, in just a very short time, you will walk across this stage.  You will receive a diploma that is representative of the hard work you have invested.  The diplomas will appear very similar, with the most distinct difference of course being the name in the center.  This difference should not be underestimated.  Each of you had a different path to arrive at this moment in time.  Embrace these differences because they are a part of what makes you, you.  Use your uniqueness to spur creativity and innovation without fear.  At the same time, remember that those with whom you come in contact are individuals as well.  Take the time to get to know them, to really know them.  Only then can you be the best teammate possible by treating them with the equity they deserve.  Finally, approach your next steps by asking yourself, “Am I adding relevance?  Am I adding significance through my actions?”


Relevance, equity, and innovation can be found in almost any profession, but they do not occur by chance.  Like the dedication that brought you here today, cultivating these ideas will take a focused approach.  I have no doubt that you are up to the challenge.  Congratulations, Class of 2017. I cannot wait to see the difference you will make.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Assessments to Remember

As I write this blog, the Standards of Learning testing window has just commenced. Everyone has put in long hours to assist our students in achieving at the highest possible levels. However, we intuitively know that a single measurement will never define the worth of a child, teacher, school, or school division. To be clear, I am not implying that accountability is unnecessary. In fact, I believe that we all need to be held accountable, and testing has its place.  It simply should never be the “be all, end all” of education.

Recently, I was reminded that we rarely remember scores on SOLs, or any tests for that matter. In fact, I do not recall a single numeric score on a quiz, a test, an exam, or even a teacher licensure assessment that I have taken.  While this may not be terribly surprising, I admit that I have no trouble at all remembering that Cal Ripken Jr.’s lifetime batting average was .276, or that the Spanish-American War took place in 1898 during the McKinley administration.  I love numbers, dates, and trivia, but I don’t remember test scores, ever.

Test scores aside, I want to share a couple of examples of what I do remember about my education.  I remember learning our states and capitals in 5th grade.  Rather than a simple 100 question test with 50 states and 50 capitals, my teacher (Mrs. Scott) allowed us to pick a partner (that’s right, we actually got to pick our own partner) and make an information booth about our assigned state.  Then, we held a “state fair” in which all of the other 5th grade classes participated.  My friend and I had the good fortune of being assigned Virginia.  We lived in Virginia, so we knew everything there was to know, or so we thought.  Over the next few weeks, we wanted our information booth to be the best, so I found out more about my home state than I had ever known previously.  I’m sure there was a traditional states and capitals test at some point, but I don’t remember if I correctly identified Montpelier as the capital of Vermont.  However, I do remember the collaboration, the research, and the end product we produced on that project.

During my 11th grade year, I remember an American History teacher bringing in a discarded butcher’s cut of meat.  He then proceeded to saw through it with a rusty hacksaw before proclaiming, “And that’s what medical procedures were like on a Civil War battlefield!”  Yes, it’s a gruesome example, but it made a lasting impression.  I don’t remember what I earned on my Civil War test that year.  I do, however, remember that I decided to become a U.S. History teacher in large part because of his passion for teaching. 

One final example I recall occurred in my 10th grade English class.  To my surprise, my teacher told me that my writing had potential.  It was the first time I can remember someone ever complimenting my work in this regard, and it motivated me to write more.  To this day, it still inspires me, and I haven’t stopped.

Traditional assessments have their place.  They give us data points that can help us assess both progress and needs.  They are not, however, the only game in town.  As we wind down this year, let us remember that ten years from now (probably more like 10 weeks from now), our students will not remember their score on a standardized test.  They will remember engaging lessons, being empowered, relative hands-on experiences, and teachers who believed in them.  While it is natural to count the few days remaining to a much deserved summer break, let us all commit to using the time we have remaining in the most impactful way possible.  Your students will remember it.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Why Do We Do It This Way?

A good friend recently told me the following story: 

There was a young married couple, and the wife wanted to impress her new husband with a home cooked meal.  He liked ham, so she prepared a ham the same way that she had seen her own mother prepare it countless times over the years.  Her husband walked into the kitchen and noticed that she cut off the end of the ham before placing it in a pan and into the oven.  He asked her, “Why did you cut off the end of the ham?”  She paused, somewhat perplexed.  She responded, “Well, that’s what my mother always did.”  While her husband did not think anything more of it, she found herself pondering the same question. 

The young bride phoned her mother and asked her, “Mom, when you prepare ham, why do you always cut off the end before baking it?”  Her mother was similarly perplexed and responded, “Well, that’s what my mother always did, so I did it, too.”  By this time, the young lady was determined to get to the bottom of this conundrum.  She phoned her grandmother, certain that her sage wisdom would shine a light on this mystery.

The matriarch of the family was glad to hear from her granddaughter and listened intently while she explained her source of confusion about the ham.  After the question was posed, the grandmother laughed to herself.  She then responded, “Honey, the reason I cut off the end of the ham was simply because this was the only way it would fit into my small pan.”

Are there lessons for educators here?  Absolutely!  Effective business leaders will tell you that the seven most dangerous words in business are, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”  To be fair, sometimes there are perfectly good reasons for doing business a certain way for years, decades, or even centuries.  Sometimes, it simply works.  However, there is nothing wrong (and often everything right) with questioning, “Why do we do it this way?”  In fact, we grow in our profession by asking this very question.  Next time something seems a bit peculiar to you, I challenge you to dig a little deeper.  Does the tried and true method yield results, or is it just cutting off some perfectly good ham?

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Lessons Which Stay With Us

Throughout the school year, I’ve been inspired by listening to feedback from several advisory groups who represent various stakeholders within our schools and community.  This year, some of these groups began meeting for the first time, such as our community faith leaders, while others have been revived, such as the Superintendent’s Business Advisory Council.  In addition, we have expanded existing advisory groups, including the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Panels (elementary and secondary), in an effort to include more voices and create greater opportunities for feedback.

At a recent student advisory panel meeting, I asked secondary students to discuss their favorite lessons and innovative teaching techniques.  The students were divided into several groups and provided several amazing examples.  I was convinced that students have the highest regard for our remarkable teachers.  I then posed a different question to them, “Of all of the lessons you have been taught, whether you enjoyed the lesson or not, what percentage of the lessons do you feel can be applied in a real-life situation?”

Without exception, all of the students paused.  They contemplated their response and then spoke, but some were apprehensive.  Out of approximately 30 students, all but one indicated that they only saw a real-life connection in 5-15% of the lessons.  Taking the mid-point of the responses, we can surmise that students are seeing a connection in roughly 1 out of every 10 lessons that they are taught.  Admittedly, this is not a scientific study.  However, I believe it is far more important—it represents the voices of those we teach.

To be clear, the intent of the question was to gauge the relevance of lessons from the students’ perspective in order to gain greater insight.  It was not intended to question the quality of the lessons currently taught by our exceptional educators.  As noted above, students clearly have an abiding respect and love for our teachers, as do I.  Rather, my question was all about making authentic connections. 

For instance, we have all attended conferences, lectures, and professional development sessions.  While some may have been entertaining, they did not necessarily have a significant impact upon us.  However, others made a lasting impression upon us, which I believe remain with us because they have an immediate application to our lives and/or profession—they were relevant.  They serve to influence and inspire us.  Our students are no different and need these type of relevant connections in order to remain engaged and inspired.

My son and I experienced one of these moments while he was in elementary school.  He took Tae-Kwon-Do for several years and even earned his black belt.  This involved a lot of repetition, but the instructors also tried hard to “keep things fresh,” which was a key reason my son kept coming back.  One Saturday morning, the students seemed rather lethargic and class was not going well.  The master teaching the class called everyone together and explained to them that before every class, he would imagine that this would be the last time he would ever have to work with his students.  He said he would ask himself, “How will I teach this class if it is my last one?  How will I connect with students, and what do I want them to know and remember?”  By doing this, he strived to make every class truly meaningful.  It was a very transparent moment with the students.  Instead of being reprimanded for being disengaged, the students saw an instructor who cared enough to keep himself accountable to them and wanted them to remember his lessons long after the class ended.  The teacher connected with the students in an authentic way; the class rallied and ended on a high note.

I know that we all care immensely about our students in a similar way, and the quality of teaching in our classrooms is outstanding.  Now, let’s concentrate on making sure our students are able to make authentic, relevant connections to the lessons we teach them.  I’m not suggesting that we must completely overhaul our curriculum.  There are still incredibly relevant lessons in everything from classic literature to mathematical formulas.  Rather, I submit to you that sometimes it is appropriate to simply explain to students that while a particular formula, problem, or passage may not itself be directly used later in life, the process of problem solving, using the scientific method, writing, editing, revising, etc. are skills that are critical life skills, invaluable across a wide range of professions.  In addition, I challenge you to find specific ways to connect the curriculum to the world in which they are interested, such as designing a problem or lesson around a topical issue, or allowing students to present their work to an authentic audience.  This will immediately increase the relevance of the lesson, yielding higher levels of student engagement and achievement.  This is at the heart of education!

When you are planning your next lesson, or just reflecting, ask yourself, “If I only had today to make a difference in the lives of my students, what would I want them to remember and be able to apply?”  While this question may seem a touch grim at first, you may be surprised to learn how making relevant connections with students becomes your first thought rather than a secondary thought.  Our students have spoken—they need and want to understand the connections.  Our themes this year of “Relevance, Equity, and Innovation” are not new fads or trends, or boxes to check off a laundry list of “best practices.”  Rather, they represent a daily journey of growth, reflection, and constant improvement.  I thank you for taking that journey with me.  It will serve our students well.

Monday, February 6, 2017

The Literacy of the 21st Century


In the last couple of weeks, we have made significant progress towards making our Five-Year Technology Plan go from words and numbers on paper to a reality.  On January 24th, I presented the proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget to the School Board.  The budget includes funding to replace our technology infrastructure in all schools, adding ITRTs and technology support personnel, funding teacher laptops, and funding a 1-to-1 computing device initiative for all secondary students.

This was followed by the unveiling of our new Classrooms of the Future initiative, which I first identified as a goal in my Post-Immersion Report last summer.  With funding provided by the Hanover Education Foundation, this exciting opportunity allows teachers to compete for a complete classroom makeover, including modern furniture and technology, in order to promote more innovative and active learning spaces.  I’m encouraged by all the many possibilities that await us as we explore better ways to serve our students’ needs.

In the Information Age, we have access to more resources than ever before that can be used to design lessons that are more relevant and make real-world connections.  Further, technology affords us the opportunity to know our students in a more authentic way through adaptive software that aids in identifying which students would benefit from more rigorous work, as well as which students may need concepts retaught in a different way.

However, as with any new initiative, we must be deliberate in our efforts.  As we transition into a more digital platform, it is easy to fall victim to changing methods simply because something appears “cool” or “fun.”  In other words, technology should not simply be a substitution for what is already being done.  For instance, a dry erase board has become the modern substitute for the chalkboard of yesteryear.  A computer though, should not simply be a replacement for a textbook.  While a substitution may serve as a starting point, we will eventually need to work towards redefining what is possible in our classrooms by providing students with opportunities to participate in lessons through the use of technology that was not previously possible.

As technology becomes more prevalent in our classrooms, begin asking yourself these questions as lessons are designed:

1.    Is using technology going to enhance the delivery of the curriculum?
2.    If so, will it likely be a more effective method than my previous way of delivering similar material?
3.    Does the lesson deliver the appropriate amount of rigor?
4.    Is it relevant/applicable to real-world situations?
5.    Is the lesson student-centered as opposed to teacher-centered?

If the answer to all of these questions isn’t “yes,” that’s okay!  Start with making sure the answer to at least one or two is “yes.”  As you become more proficient and comfortable in a new environment, begin using technology to make your classroom truly transformational.

Happy Trailblazing!