Hidden Menus: What we should uncover about our students

Screen Shot 2016-08-28 at 10.10.37 PMHave you ever heard of a hidden or secret menu?  I had not until recently.  I didn’t know that some restaurants offer items that are not advertised and only available if you know to ask.  Isn’t that like our students?  Some of the things we need to know about them are readily observable, but other things (maybe the most important things) require more effort and deeper searching to uncover.
My daughter is a middle school-aged digital native and has essentially built herself a full class load of YouTube videos on subjects ranging from make-up application to school supply organization tips.  I’m guessing this is how she learned about the Starbucks secret menu.
On our way home one day, she asked me if we could stop by Starbucks.  As I pulled up to the drive-thru window, I asked her what she’d like.  Her response was that she’d like to try the Cotton Candy Frappuccino.  I looked all over the menu for this drink and didn’t see it anywhere.  When I told her there was no such drink at this particular Starbucks, she assured me that if I asked for it, the person taking the order would know what I meant.  So, I did; and out came this lovely pink drink that completely delighted my daughter.
Later, she showed me the extensive menu of drinks people have created and Starbucks regularly produces.  I guess I understand why restaurants don’t list every option available.  It would take forever for people to read through the menu and make a selection.  Similarly, students don’t preface all of their interactions or learning experiences by listing their idiosyncrasies.  Yet, this information is critical for those who support student growth and development.  This is why, as teachers, we must be willing to search for each student’s hidden menu.

Top 3 Hidden Menu Items

Learning preferences

We are at a point in education where our understanding of teaching and learning has led us to adopt best practices such as “learning by doing” and ongoing formative assessment.  These practices have resulted in engaging learning experiences and real-time information about where students are in their knowledge and skill development.   Just as important as the methods and status of student learning, are the processes and habits of student learning.  Student learning preferences is a hidden menu item that is important for teachers to know about students and for students to know about themselves.
  • Is it important for the student to understand the big picture, or the why, of a concept before going into the details of what and how?  Or, do they prefer to just get started and work through the details in order to see how all of the parts come together?
  • Do they need individual think time? Or, do they benefit from talking out an idea with others?
  • Must they have a highly organized space to work?  Or, do they thrive in dynamic workspace?

Social-emotional learning skills

Research has clearly shown the importance of social-emotional learning and the connections to achievement.  Social-emotional skill development is critical for individual self-regulation and growth.  Plus, it develops the skills necessary to maintain healthy and productive relationships in a world where people are highly interconnected.  Building student social-emotional awareness and interpersonal skills promotes the ability to successfully navigate various environments and situations.  Are we looking beyond how well students conform to rules and more carefully observing the hidden menu information about how our students interact?
  • Are they able to see another perspective when confronted with potential conflict or an opposing idea?
  • What role do they prefer when working in a group?  How does this impact their contribution?
  • Are they comfortable asking for help with something they don’t understand?


We are all products of our experiences and environment.  Where students are from and their families (structure and beliefs) influence how they behave and learn on a daily basis.  In order for us to make the meaningful connections with students necessary for productive learning, teachers must seek to understand and acknowledge each student’s personal story.  What is on the cultural hidden menu?
  • What are the family’s implicit and explicit expectations for learning, and what is considered “smart”?
  • How does the student spend time outside of school (time is treasure)?
  • How is behavior managed at home compared to what the child is experiencing at school?
Like the Starbucks Secret menu, the hidden menu items of students are extensive.  Those listed above are only a few to consider when trying to understand and support the students in our care.  What is your favorite student hidden menu item?  How does it help you connect and support your students?
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Let’s talk: Why and how to promote language development in children


The child begins to perceive the world not only through his eyes but also through his speech.  ~ Lev Vygotsky

language post

Language is a way we come to understand ourselves, through our connections and communications with others.  Human babies can decipher sounds to understand and communicate in a particular language before the age of two; and by the time they enter Kindergarten, children of professional families know approximately 4,000 words.

Language is the foundation for literacy.  The ability to hear individual sounds in spoken words and manipulate those sounds (think nursery rhymes and Raffi songs) is a precursor to breaking the code of written language, or what we know as reading.  Then, once the mechanics of reading are established, the focus of literacy instruction shifts to comprehension. The strategies we teach for comprehension such as using picture clues, making connections, and visualizing are methods whose effectiveness is dependent on the reader’s bank of vocabulary and prior knowledge.  It is through life experiences and the language used to build understanding that students truly develop content knowledge as well as the skills of perspective-taking and analyzing necessary for deep comprehension.

As educators, it is important to know that children don’t come to school with the same levels of exposure to language.  Both, opportunities to engage with language at home and previous exposure to language in a school setting vary with each child.  Unfortunately, these variations can lead to gaps in understanding and achievement in school.  Children with low exposure can enter Kindergarten with fewer than 1,200 words (compared to a classmate with 4,000 words).

What can we do as educators and parents to be sure all children have a solid language foundation?  Harvard professor, Catherine Snow, shares how to use language to build literacy skills in Pre-K through middle school age students, and describes two major roles adults play in helping children develop knowledge through language.

Adult as Responder

By three-months-old, babies are cooing and smiling to interact with others; and children between the ages of two and five ask 50 to 150 questions per hour.  Whether a babbling six-month-old or a pubescent 12-year-old, children need their right to question and wonder confirmed by the adults in their lives. Responding to questions, and attempts to communicate such as babbling, nurtures curiosity and promotes a love of learning, while modeling language and providing important vocabulary and knowledge.  As adults, it is not our responsibility to know all of the answers to questions children pose, but to engage interactively and encourage continued communication.

Adult as Questioner

While the number of words a child hears from adults is important, the type of interaction is equally important.  Beyond vocabulary development, talking is how people learn to make sense of the world; develop personal identities and connect to history.  So, it is important that we as adults not only expose children to a variety of environments, topics, and experiences, but that we ask children open-ended questions that generate rich discussions.  Asking questions with discussable answers builds a much stronger vocabulary and bank of knowledge than simply labeling items or giving directions.

Good Opportunities to Talk to Children

Casual Conversations

Many times the richest and most powerful teachable moments surface during casual conversations with children.  When adults are skilled questioners, we can facilitate conversations about interesting topics through the use of open-ended questions with discussable answers.  Think about the difference between asking a child, “What is that?” and “What do you think would happen if…? .”  In the first case, the child might offer a short response such as “a tree”.  In the second scenario, the request is for a story that can be extended with other questions about how and why, leading to potential connections between the adult and child.

Reading aloud

Interactive or dialogic reading allows the adult to ask questions that develop inferencing skills, vocabulary, and connections – all of which build background knowledge and improve comprehension.  It is a practice that has the reader pause to ask open-ended questions that spark conversation such as, “Why do you think …?, What did she mean when she said…?, How does this remind you of…?, When have we heard something similar?”

Read alouds can happen in a classroom as part of a planned themed unit, with a caregiver in the library after school, or with a parent at night before bed.  There are no age limits for a read aloud.  When reading to infants or toddlers who are in the early stages of language development and may respond to your questions with babble, acknowledge the communication they do offer (babbling or otherwise), and model the answers you are thinking to your own question (ie.  “I think the bunny was excited!”).  The following is a demonstration of dialogic questioning using an online picture book.

Guided Play and Discussion

Time for unstructured, child-directed free play and social interaction is a critical element of learning.  Children need time to practice independence, problem-solving, exploration and discovery. However, as teachers and parents, play and discussion are the tools we should also use to intentionally build specific knowledge and skills; this is guided play and discussion. Whether your intention is to teach spatial language at the sand and water table or storytelling at dinnertime, incorporating those objectives into play and discussion provides opportunities for children to learn in meaningful and interesting ways.

Words matter because they communicate ideas, feelings, and information.  The deeper and richer a child’s vocabulary and knowledge, the better they are able to make connections and learn more.  As teachers and parents, we can support the building of language by listening to the wonders of children, providing interesting topics, and facilitating conversations that expand thinking.



Start by Talking:  What Education Leaders Should Know About How to Build Strong Reading Skills by Leah Shafer

Developing Language, Knowledge, and Vocabulary via Dialogic Reading Methods by Susan Ebbers

Use Open-ended Questions to Improve Kids’ Language Skills by Lisa Wilkin, M.Ed.

Steps to Help Foster a Preschooler’s Spatial Reasoning Skills by Deborah Farmer Kris

How to Raise a Voracious Reader:  Promoting literacy with dinnertime storytelling, family conversation, and books about food by Bari Walsh

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Managing My Expectations

Here is a challenge for you.  Try to count the number of times the people wearing white t-shirts pass the ball.  They are moving around a lot, so it’s challenging, but see how close you can get to counting the correct number of passes.

How did you do?  Were you surprised by the results?  If so, you were probably highly focused on counting.  The first time I saw this video, the meeting facilitator stopped it before revealing there was a gorilla in it.  I was distracted that day and couldn’t focus on the ball passes so I saw the gorilla, but sat in complete shock as the facilitator asked people about passes without first discussing the gorilla.  I noticed a few others with confused looks on their faces, then realized most people had not seen it.

The video wasn’t a hoax.  It turns out, our brains ignore the unexpected.  It’s called inattentional blindness or selective attention.  In an effort to efficiently process tremendous amounts of information and make decisions quickly, our brains rely on schema, stored knowledge that has been grouped and organized for understanding, to fill in blanks as we perceive information.  We filter out whatever we don’t expect based on our mind’s idea of the situation.  No one expects to see a gorilla walk through the circle, so when focused on counting, most do not see it.

Why is it important to know about inattentional blindness, especially as educators and parents?  We need to know so we can actively manage our expectations of children (abilities, worthiness, potential) and for children (belief in success and achievement).

The literature on motivation and school performance in younger school children suggests that expectations shape the learning experience very powerfully. For example, classic studies in the psychology literature have found that merely stating an expectation results in enhanced performance, that higher expectations result in higher performance, and that persons with high expectations perform at a higher level than those with low expectations, even though their measured abilities are equal.  ~ Schilling and Schilling

If a great deal of student performance is attributable to our expectations, we must be intentional in setting and stating those expectations as well as in our practices of supporting and assessing achievement.  It’s easier said than done.

  1. Our brains rely on our stored collection of experiences, knowledge, and understanding to set our expectations about what should or could be.  Schema: Balls. People. Movement.  
  2. Our expectations determine what we see or filter out.   I don’t expect to see a gorilla.  Ignore the gorilla.
  3. Our stated beliefs (high expectations for all) may not be in line with the schema the brain uses to determine expectations (high expectations for only some students).

Unfortunately, we all have unconscious ideas in our minds about what could or should be, based on experiences and messaging, that may seriously conflict with our stated beliefs (implicit bias).  For example, most parents would say that they believe their daughters are intelligent, capable beings with the same potential to achieve as boys.  However, parents are twice as likely to Google “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” and almost twice as likely to ask “Is my daughter overweight?” than “Is my son overweight?”.

The same is true of teachers.  Most teachers firmly believe they have high expectations for all students and that they do not vary how they assess or support students based on gender. However, a recent study shows students were given a math exam in which the girls outscored the boys when scored by teachers who did not know student gender, but when graded by teachers who were familiar with their names (and gender), the boys outscored the girls.

Neither of these examples speaks to the values or character of the people involved.  In fact, it’s important to know that nice, well-intentioned people have blindspots, too.  Awareness is the first step to managing our expectations.  I plan to begin by exploring the following questions:

  • What are the unconscious beliefs that inadvertently lower my expectations of and for certain students?
  • How are my behaviors and practices out of line with my beliefs and intentions?
  • What can I do to reshape and expand my schemas?


American Friends of Tel Aviv University. (2015, February 26). Teacher prejudices put girls off math, science, study suggests. ScienceDaily.

Banaji, M., & Greenwald, A. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. New York: Delacorte Press.

Carpenter, S. (2001, April). Sights Unseen.  Monitor on Psychology.

Miller, R. (2001). Greater Expectations to Improve Student Learning. Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schilling, Karen Maitland and Karl L. Schilling 1999. Increasing expectations for student effort. About Campus, 4:2.

Stephens-Davidowitz, S.(2014, January 18). Google, Tell me. Is My Son a Genius?  The New York Times.


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Fresh Eyes

job teams.jpgGrand Day is one of my favorite events at school for so many reasons, not the least of which is seeing the pride of students, teachers, and grands over the accomplishments of learning and friendships.  Beyond that, listening to grandparents talk to each other about what they perceive as happening with and for their grandchildren allows me to see what we do with fresh eyes.  I don’t know if it is the wisdom grandparents have earned over time or an appreciation for fundamentals now overlooked, but grandparents seem to recognize the implicit learning objectives built into our teaching as readily as they see the obvious, stated objectives.  One grandparent stopped me to ask if we have always given the students “jobs” in the classroom.  I thought, “Yes! We vertically align learning objectives and facilitate interdisciplinary experiences to deepen student understanding while empowering them with skills and strategies all of the time.  Thank you for noticing.”  I did not say that.  After I explained the jobs chart, he was so impressed with the idea of developing academic skills while promoting a sense of personal responsibility and community.  But, I wonder if we think about the depth of learning that will occur each year when those charts are set up.  Or, have we done it so long that we just know “jobs” are what we do?

I have enjoyed the work we do as a professional learning community analyzing our curriculum and teaching practices to consider how we can get better.  One of the things I have tried to do is bridge the perceived gap between early learning objectives and those of more advanced grade levels.  On the surface, there may seem to be little connection between the tactile table and essay writing or color sorting and algebra, but foundational knowledge and skills are critical for future academic success.  Is the connection difficult to see because we focus on the activity/lesson and not the why behind it?  In his book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek says, “It is not just WHAT or HOW you do things that matters; what matters more is that WHAT and HOW you do things is consistent with your WHY.  Only then will your practices indeed be best.”  Are we starting with WHY when we plan our lessons?  How might that look?

  1. Why:  We believe students need a firm foundation of early literacy and math skills and habits that include conceptual understanding as well as procedural knowledge.
  2. What:  We build number sense and phonological awareness while emphasizing strategies, communication, and flexible thinking.
  3. How:  Daily lessons include number talks with subitizing activities and differentiated small groups during literacy block.

One might argue that it doesn’t make a difference where you begin if you end up in the same place.  Only, I don’t think we always end up in the same place when we begin with the activity or lesson rather than with the WHY.  So, I will continue to bridge the gap by pointing out the connections between early learning and upper grades, and highlighting how our WHY is the building of foundational skills/strategies for later success.   I will always work to see what we do with fresh eyes.


Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Portfolio, 2009. Print.

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#TEDTalkTuesday: Every kid needs a champion by Rita F. Pierson

I have watched this TED Talk by Rita F. Pierson several times, often thinking about the teachers and community members who were champions for me.  I do not know how I would have made it through challenging times without them.  More recently, my perspective has shifted to thinking of my responsibilities as an administrator charged with championing the causes of both students and teachers.  Ms. Pierson’s insistence that we must actively love and support even the most difficult children is so motivating, I believe the talk should be on a continual loop in schools everywhere.

Even if you have seen this TED Talk before, I hope you’ll watch it again and ask yourself the following questions:

Who has been a champion for me?  How would I have ever made it through that difficult ________ (behavior, learning challenge, home situation) without them?

When have I seen that a child needs a champion and stepped up?  Is there an opportunity right in front of me now?

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Building an Early Math Foundation

Math is a language we all use but at various levels of complexity and confidence that are likely linked to our early math experiences in school.   Research shows that early math understanding is critical to ongoing engagement and success with higher level concepts.  Specifically, the development of number sense, or the ability to think flexibly about quantity, is a key foundational skill on which algebraic thinking is based.  Math Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University says, When students fail algebra it is often because they don’t have number sense.”

Like reading skills, mathematical understanding begins developing at a very young age.  In order to build the foundation our students need to be successful mathematicians throughout life, we must consistently provide them with rich, engaging, and developmentally appropriate experiences that nurture healthy attitudes as well as strong skills and practices.  Beginning with our youngest learners, we are thoughtfully utilizing our knowledge of child development, content, and best practices to achieve the following overarching goals:

  • Students will have a growth mindset about mathematics in which they believe everyone has the ability to become good at math by learning strategies and developing skills.
  • Students will have a firm understanding of mathematical concepts while developing procedural knowledge and fluency.
  • Students will understand that there are multiple ways to solve problems, look for different approaches, and be able to explain their thinking to others.

The beauty of teaching is the ongoing need to learn.  As we look to develop these foundational skills in our students, we are reexamining and deepening our own understanding of what it means to learn math.  It has been fascinating and fulfilling to be a part of our productive struggle.  I created a Storify to curate and make our progress visible.



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Seeking To Understand

There is a difference between wondering and seeking to understand, even though they both involve questioning.  When my daughter was very young, she made an observation about who appeared to be homeless.  She asked about a pattern she felt she recognized and wondered about why that might be true.  After acknowledging how important it is to notice things such as that and encouragement to always ask those questions, I began to talk to her about how we could learn more about homelessness.  But, her mind had moved on to other thoughts and ideas.  She wasn’t truly seeking to understand.  She was wondering about an observation.  For someone her age, even noticing and thinking to question something so complex was impressive.  Certainly, my goal as a parent and educator is to develop her wonders into a curiosity that drives her to not only observe and question, but to search for understanding and act on what she learns.

Seeking to understand is about more than asking questions or getting to answers.  It is about asking questions and pursuing answers to the point of creating ideas.  As adults, how often do we wonder or question without pursuing answers?  How often do we accept an answer without enough understanding to take action?  In the book A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger says, “ambitious, catalytic questioning tends to follow a logical progression, one that often starts with stepping back and seeing things differently and ends with taking action on a particular question.”  He goes on to describe how we lose the innate desire to question that we are born with, and he then outlines how we can reclaim this skill.

I see this problem from a slightly different perspective (possibly just a difference of thinking whole:part rather than part:whole).  I would ask… Is the problem that we aren’t asking enough questions?  Or, is it that we don’t always have the drive to take action?  What tempers that drive?

As I reflected on the past week, I thought of two notable situations where teachers pursued the art of questioning for the purpose of taking action.  One involved a student’s behavior and another involved curriculum.  They both likely began out of frustration with questions such as, “Why is this child behaving this way?”  and “How are we supposed to make this work?”,  but developed into truly earnest inquiries that led to productive action.  What made these teachers invest the time and energy to pursue understanding?  Why didn’t they stop at wondering?  I believe there were three ingredients that fueled their drive:

  1. Devotion – The definition of devotion is attachment, loyalty, and affection.  A person must have a level of investment in an idea, place, people or situation in order to pursue understanding.  At Trinity we have worked intentionally on developing relationships between the adults and children in our community, seeking to build connections.  Our teachers care about each other and our students.
  2. Belief – If a person feels his or her efforts will be futile, there is an obvious negative impact on motivation.  One must believe in their own abilities (growth mindset) and in their ability to influence a situation (power) in order to move forward and take action.  It is a part of our mission and vision at Trinity to develop knowledge, skills, habits, and attitudes necessary for success in learning, including a growth mindset and the development of personal empowerment.  This sentiment extends to the faculty and is facilitated through professional development, practices, and policy.
  3. Resources – Having the people and tools available to support an effort is critical.  When a person is motivated and empowered, but lacks the necessary resources, they will work outside of the existing systems to seek understanding and solutions.   But, when a person is motivated, empowered, and has a team of people ready to work with them to seek understanding and solutions, great things happen.  Trinity has tremendous resources in a faculty that is knowledgeable and skilled.  Each person brings unique interests and strengths that they make available for the community.

There is a difference between wondering and seeking to understand.  At Trinity, we seek to understand.   As a leader, I aim to intentionally promote seeking for the benefit of our students and the professional growth of our teachers.  I believe in the possibilities.  The possibilities are endless, if we seek to understand.

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