Leading Like an Artist

Posted on Updated on

I never left the classroom.

Four years ago, I made the most pivotal and sacrificial choice in my professional life: I accepted a position in the professional development department as an instructional coach thus relinquishing my physical classroom and its customary roster of 200 high school students.

As I placed each well-loved classroom library book into boxes, the individual students’ stories whose lives touched those pages sung to me. I sat down on the hand-me-down futon sandwiched in between dusty and barren shelves and sobbed.

But, I never left the classroom.

Since that day in 2010, I’ve carried my classroom with me into numerous contexts and four very different positions. First, I took my classroom with me into the role of an instructional coach where I sought to be a servant-leader. Then, with unexpected twist of fate, my classroom followed me into an intermediate dyslexia services position where I had time and space to consider where I might lead next. And, once again my classroom accompanied me cheerily back to the high school I loved, where I resumed the role of a servant-leader, expanding the influence and role of the library media center.

Now, to an outsider, it might seem that I’ve removed myself from the classroom even further by becoming that dangerous “A” word…a district administrator. I’ve crossed the line; I am an “other” a “them” in a see of teacher “us-es,” who solemnly shake their heads at those who’ve “left the classroom,” opting for cubicle space and cabinet meetings over the chaos and connectivity of campus life.

I never. left. the classroom.

And, I will never leave education.

I’m seeing more and more educators throw up their hands in despair and frustration at the system. Resigning their own and their students’ futures to the current condition of public education, some of the best and brightest are saying enough is enough and truly leaving their classrooms and generations of students behind, turning to reinvention in order to maintain their sense of purpose and identity. Nothing saddens me more than the exodus of teacher-artists.

In her blog, “Dear Teachers of 2014-2015: Welcome to the World of Art,” my friend and mentor Jennifer Isgitt calls for a new manifesto for teachers in this current sad state of the profession.

Every other day, it seems, I read another account, another memoir of a gifted teacher who just can’t handle the bureaucracy, the administration, the politics, the poor pay, the lack of recognition in education. Every year another teacher throws up her hands or writes his broken-hearted resignation letter for the national media.

In August before the new school year even really took root, Jennifer wrote about the pain educators are experiencing. It was in her blog that I saw myself there in black text as part of the problem–at least the traditional role and the role of my new set of colleagues and office partners. Her blog led me to a book that helped me re-define a vision for my (somewhat reluctantly) adopted role–that of a district administrator.

As a new curriculum coordinator, I resisted the title administrator for all of those same reasons that Jennifer included the word in her list of barriers that I don’t need to list here. With all of my reluctance to accept the heavy label, I clearly remember when my close friend and fellow coordinator finally said to me, “Audrey, you are an administrator.” I decided then and there to actively seek and create a definition of what that word could mean in a system that is crying for reinvention.

Jennifer’s blog planted the seeds of artistry. In her call to educators to “teach like an artist,” I heard a voice within me call, “lead like an artist.”

I’m slowly reading and processing Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception, thinking critically about the evolution of our society away from industrialization–in which our current educational model and those policy makers who dictate static and dying conventions and conditions for educators and learners are deeply embedded –and grappling with the role of public education in the connected society where artistry is the only real commodity.

Growing up, I never saw myself as an artist or a leader–not in the traditional sense of either words. I had no particular talents, ambition, or desire to be followed. In fact, sometimes the two roles seemed opposite from one another; I had no model for what it could mean to be both–none that I could immediately see at least.

In the connected society, however, one must be an artist in order to lead and vice versa.

Godin revealed to me that I am already an artist. Since boxing up my classroom four years ago, I’ve continually redefined and reinvented my comfort zone, finding comfort in the risk-taking behaviors that make it safe for me to move forward. I’ve adopted the stance of an artist, “creating ideas that spread and connecting the disconnected” no matter the job title or bulleted list of responsibilities and roles.

I’ve adopted a new definition of an artist:

…Someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo…[taking] it (all of it, the work, the process, the feedback from those who we seek to connect with) personally.

I’ve decided to be courageous:

Courage doesn’t always involve physical heroism in the face of death…sometimes courage is the willingness to speak the truth about what you see and to own what you say…Courage is necessary because owning our point of view brings risk. When you speak your truth, you have opened a door, allowing others to speak to you, directly to you, to your true self.

I’ve found a new definition of an educational leader that I am not afraid to own:

Leadership puts the leader on the line. No manual, no rule book, no uberleader to point the finger at when things go wrong…Leaders are vulnerable, not controlling, and they are taking us to a new place, not to he place of cheap, fast, compliant safety.

And, I’ve recognized my greatest asset is my ability to connect and to form connections between people.

In my new role as a leader-artist, I practice these things everyday: artistry, courage, and connection.

It’s through the stance of an artist that I’ve found comfort in the unknown. I don’t know what I want to be when I “grow up.” I imagine that there are many more roles and official titles that I might try on that haven’t even been invented yet, thanks to a rapidly evolving educational and economical landscape.

Regardless of how I might lead in the future, I will always be in the classroom. Educators are my tribe; education is my only true alliance.

Being a Change Leader in a System Resistant to Change

Posted on Updated on

I drafted the following list while participating in North Star of Texas Writing Project‘s Inquiry Day in April. It was a powerful day full of affirmations, inquiry, and open sharing among attendees. Meenoo Rami (#engchat), author of Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re)invigorate Your Teaching opened the day by sharing her own journey as a teacher leader and change agent.  Today, I needed to be reminded of just these things. I came across my notes from that day along with this draft for a blog post. Students may be heading out for summer, but for many of us, we’re in the middle of the next great “now what?” as we prepare for next year’s students and teachers to return to the freshly waxed and polished halls of our schools.

How to be an agent of change when the context you’re working within doesn’t have room for change:

1) Be open to change yourself and intentional about seeking experiences that inspire it.
2) Surround yourself with colleagues, mentors, and thinkers who share your same questions but who also have a host of their own questions to share.
3) Do not close your door. Resist the temptation when met with challenges and dissonance to simply shut your door and do your job. Find a new door to open in a network open to innovation.
4) Be vulnerable. Know that what you have to gain will often be greater than what you stand to lose. What do you stand to lose? Your pride, position, sense of control?  Those are all fluid and flexible anyway–cling to them too fiercely and they’ll slip through your fingers.
5) Purposefully lose control. Cast your dice into the wind. Let the chips fall where they may. When we relinquish control, we find new avenues of influence.
6) Be subversive. If the system does not allow you to innovate, use your creativity to wield the system to innovation– sometimes without it knowing it. And, if you really need to, abandon the system. When the results are powerful, share your success.
7) To avoid debilitating frustration, seek the patterns within the system that do work. Working within them, reach for one pattern you wish to influence next.
8) Find your happy place and the people who fill it. Hold it and them near and dear.
9) Cry, scream, storm, and rant when you need to (and return to #1 to try again).
10) Sometimes, it’s true what they say– it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

Today, I’m adding an additional nugget of Rami’s wise words, “Give yourself permission to do the Work you know to do with students [ and teachers].”

On the Eve of Testing: “Standardizing” the Library

Posted on Updated on


It’s Friday, which means I should be dishing up popcorn for patrons, talking book recommendations to students, and working on my Battle of the Books display and plans for poetry month in April.  I should be compiling the social justice web-quest for my English I classes and collaborating with their teachers to talk about scaffolding students’ information literacies through inquiry.  I should be checking in on the class that is in the library using our online resources to explore careers. But, I’m not.

Instead, I’m using an entire roll of purple butcher paper (valued at $175) to cover every. single. stack and shelf. in the library, because Monday is the first day of STAAR testing.

It’s not the extra task added to my already brimming plate that’s ruffled my feathers; I can manage my time and make things work. And I will get back to all of those things and more once the transformation is complete.

It’s the principle of the thing.

Why must every book cover and title, poster and sign be covered in preparation for testing in the library?  For two reasons:

Reason 1.  Students will be writing essays on the tests next week and might get an idea or thought from glancing around the library, and upon seeing a book that they read in the 8th grade, suddenly have inspiration for an example to use in their writing.  This would not be fair or a true test of their writing abilities.

“Libraries store the energy that fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve, and contribute to improving our quality of life. Libraries change lives for the better.” Sydney Shelton

Reason 2. A student in one Texas school may have generative material on the walls that a student in another Texas school or classroom does not have.  This is an unfair advantage on the test, where students are expected to write uniformly and predictably to achieve pre-set numerical scores that will accurately then rank their writing ability as “unsatisfactory,” “satisfactory,” and “advanced.”  There is no room for “creative,” “inspirational,” “unique,” “authentic,” and “relevant.”

 “A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination. If you read, you can learn to think for yourself.”  Doris Lessing

The test is a refined instrument that we rely upon as a democratic society to ensure that all students are receiving equitable and comparable education in the free, public system.  Apparently, our democratic society feels that thinking for oneself is not a desirable trait in its citizens, nor is the ability to be “immune from indoctrination.”

It’s not just in my library that this is happening today.  Classrooms and testing centers all across Texas have sterilized their walls and spaces in preparation for the April testing season. It’s not my campus or institution that sets the context for this irony.  We comply, as all others must, in the name of public education, bending a knee to allow the state the measure our students and our work, only to jump back to our feet when the day is over and return to the real work at hand, that of facilitating learning.

Now, I must return to today’s work at hand.  Mr. Shakespeare, Maestro Beethoven, and Emperor Napoleon must be tucked into their respectful nooks for the coming days lest some student writer get the wrong idea for his writing.

Reel Reads for Real Readers: Dorothy Must Die

Video Posted on

Danielle Paige’s new fairy-tale twist! Dark, twisty, with just enough silly.

Reel Reads for Real Readers: Pulse by Patrick Carman

Posted on



Telekinetic super powers in a dystopian world?  Everyone wants you…but for good or evil?  Pulse by Patrick Corman reminds me a lot of the new NBC drama Believe  with a YA twist.





Find love, for love in a broken world will comfort you. Hold on to hope; it will sustain you. Have faith, for in the end it will save you.

Reaching Readers on the Threshold of Spring Testing

Posted on Updated on

1Finally, it’s starting to feel like spring in Texas complete with thunderstorms, 80 degree afternoons, and plenty of sunshine.  In addition to pesky spring allergies, however, spring brings with it another pest–standardized testing.

Many of us gear up these final few weeks between Spring Break and “the Test” with test-taking strategies and test plans for our students.  “Real” instruction halts…for weeks…with what benefit to our students?  One friend posted last night on Facebook that she was sick from the fact that her 3rd grader was experiencing testing anxiety at home over a practice STAAR test.  (Sigh).

Many studies have shown that traditional “test prep” leading up to the day of the actual test is actually detrimental to student performance as authentic, engaging, relevant literacy experiences are set aside to practice crossing out multiple-choice options, filling margins with notes, and learning how to use a highlighter “just the right way.”  Student anxiety rises, which leads to lower performance.  We’ve created a very unhappy, Pavlovian drooling dog.  Rather than conditioning students through engaging, rewarding, personal, and powerful literacy experiences to build their confidence and solidify their identities as readers and writers, we’re delivering electro-shock therapy every time they go to read or write in order to get ready for the test.

Thank goodness for teachers who see that the greatest marker of students success is not a snapshot of a quantitative score in a completely unauthentic setting, but rather the greatest marker of success is seeing each student develop and grow in his or her own reading and writing identity.  And when the latter is accomplished, the former follows.

One practice  that is often first on the chopping block this time of year is independent reading or SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).  As you may have already figured out, I am an independent reading champion–especially in the secondary grades.  I often hear comments from teachers and administrators such as, “We don’t have time to let students ‘just read.’  We have to prepare them for the test!”

Well, we know from countless studies, teacher and student experience, and good ole’ common sense, that when students “just read” a book of their choice for the sheer joy of reading, they are actually:

1)  building reading fluency and stamina

2) developing vocabulary skills and being exposed to thousands of new vocabulary words for their lexicon

3)  developing their identity and confidence as a reader

4)  becoming better writers

6)  practicing close reading (and even analysis!) with texts that are on their appropriate reading level

7)  building background knowledge

….the list goes on and on….what I see in this list are the exact goals that I have for my students in the days leading up to the test.

What does it look like in practice?

Rebecca is a first-year English I teacher, who has discovered that a thriving independent reading experience is at the heart of her students’ literacy experience in her classroom.  She held fast to her practice, even daring to up the number of minutes spent a week reading books of their choice in her classroom rather than bringing in practice test items drilling test-taking strategies.

When she asked me for ideas for her students to respond to their books and celebrate their reading experiences the Friday before Spring Break, I introduced her to a response strategy from Aimee Buckner’s Notebook Know-How called “lift a line.”  In the back of my mind, I knew that Rebecca had been working with her students on creating thoughtful open-ended responses to texts, and I wanted to build upon those skills while providing them an opportunity to celebrate as a community of readers .

Lift a Line–a text-based response strategy.
lift a line 2

After 10 years of experience working with teachers and students on the TAKS short answer question and now the STAAR open-ended response item, I understand that the #1 obstacle students face in scoring higher is the thoughtfulness of their response.  Many of them are taught (drilled) the structure of the response through any number of mnemonic devices and acronyms.  While many hours are spent in class memorizing these strategies, not much time (if any) is spent on building text-based response skills, which these testing items are designed to measure.

Here’s the difference.

Let’s look at this formula to start:

1+ 3 = 7

Is this a formula?  Yes.  It has all of the parts of a formula, right?  Numbers, computation symbols, solution, etc.

But what’s missing?  Reasoning…this formula is not rational.  I would argue that this student understands the basic parts of a formula, but the student is missing the mathematical skills to use the formula efficiently to demonstrate his understanding of basic arithmetic.

We do not teach young mathematicians to add and subtract by drilling in their minds the parts of the formula and writing a correct formula FIRST.  We teach them mathematical concepts by having them experience and manipulate concrete situations involving these concepts.

That’s what happens when students are taught to respond to a text by working through a formula or rigid strategy, rather than developing authentic responses to the text first, then crafting an effective written expression of their response.

The ability to form text-based inferences is not a strategy; it is a habit of mind.  Therefore, it takes lots of modeling, scaffolding, practice, and extensions with increasingly more and more complicated texts.

Buckner’s “Lift a Line” allows students to practice beginning with a line from a text that speaks to them for whatever reason and then responding to it in their own way.

At the end of the independent reading time, Rebecca invited her students to choose a line from their books that stands out at them for any reason at all.  Write the line at the top of the page and then spend 5-7 minutes writing about their thoughts, questions, connections, wonderings, confusions, etc.  Anything that comes to mind.

Modeling this step when first introducing this strategy is paramount so that students see and hear how you as a reader respond in different ways to things that you read.

IMG_20140307_090852 (2)

After writing in their notebooks about their line, Rebecca invited students to think about what they wrote and then illustrate the line on a piece of paper so that we can see some of their thoughts visually on a page.

What happened?

By beginning with students’ reflective responses as readers, Rebecca scaffolded their reading experience to move them to a deeper level of interpretation.  In order to respond to the line and then illustrate it, students had to think analytically to draw new meaning.

lift a line 2

What did this accomplish for students in the weeks before they take their STAAR test?

1)  students celebrated their reading experiences as a community, which builds their identity and confidence as readers

2) students drafted, revised, and published a creative, thoughtful response to a text

3)  response skills were reiterated and extended in an authentic setting

4)  they had a positive literacy experience where they were engaged and HAVING FUN!

This was a success in Rebecca’s mind because she had been carefully scaffolding and integrating powerful reading and writing practices in her classroom all year, not just in the days leading up to the test.

image (6)image (5)image (2)1

From here, students have a terrific foundation build on authentic response to create a full-fledged open-ended response-style paragraph complete with their own inference for a topic sentence that they formed from their line (textual support) and a conclusion or connection they drew.  Niiiiiiiice!

Still not feeling ready to “drink the cool-aid” so-to-speak when it comes to independent reading?

You might visit my series on independent reading in high school.  Leave me your thoughts, questions, and experiences!


From Consumers to Creators: Infographics in Social Studies

Posted on Updated on

How did science and technology innovations help to direct the US out of the Great Depression?

We are an information saturated society.

Information, data, and facts stream through our consciousness at surprising rates.  Our students have been raised on Google with its instantaneous access to information 24/7.  Immediate access, however, does not mean that our students (and most adults) have the skills and habits of mind to process that information, seek patterns, make sense, identify problems, and create solutions.

At TCEA in February, I wanted to attend a session on using infographics in Social Studies, but I ran out of time (too much to see…).  I’ve dabbled with creating infographics myself for the purpose of publicizing the library’s statistics and information, but I had yet to try having students create them to demonstrate learning. I was unable to attend the session, but I was able to locate some terrific sources to help me wrap my head around how students can re-mix information and data in a visual, graphic format.

Through my Google search, I found several terrific boards on Pinterest with infographics for social studies. But, with the exception of a handful of teacher blogs, I struggled to find resources for engaging my students in an inquiry process for the purpose of creating their own infographics.  Luckily, I came across Kathy Schrock’s Google Site, which provides how-to videos, rubrics, examples, and websites for creating infographics. Now all I needed was a willing teacher and a batch of curious students.

Thank goodness for professional relationships.  Wednesday, I blogged about one such relationship with my Math department chair.  Luckily, I had a similar relationship with a US History teacher founded on trust and like-mindedness.  “Marty McFly” (he chose his own pseudonym) teaches English and US History, and so he brings with him his experiences with inquiry, research, and literacy to his social studies classes.  “Marty” is also passionate about engaging his students in higher-level questioning, inquiry, and thinking in regards to his curriculum.  And, he’s comfortable with experimentation when the outcome is not easily known.

We began planning by identifying the content-specific objectives and learning outcomes.  Students were wrapping-up their exploration of the Great Depression and New Deal and were preparing for the unit test.  In addition to the time period objectives, “Marty” also wanted to address some of the process and critical thinking skills in the US History TEKS:

(A)  create thematic maps, graphs, and charts representing various aspects of the United States; and

(B)  pose and answer questions about geographic distributions and patterns shown on maps, graphs, charts, and available databases.

We agreed that students could demonstrate their understanding about an issue or topic relating to the unit AND satisfy these performance standards by having them work in small groups to create an infographic that seeks to answer a question.

Whenever I work with students with inquiry (which is ALWAYS), I begin by thinking about which part of the inquiry process is best to engage them in.  I’ve learned that it’s not always developmentally appropriate (or timely) to begin by having them create their own researchable question each and every time. For this project, “Marty” and I decided to create the questions for students since they were driven by specific content needs and formed from the US History TEKS:


Another decision we needed to make was how much direct support to provide to the whole class.  Knowing that the infographic creation website was a brand-new tool for them, I struggled between taking the time to stop and walk through the process of creating one with the entire class, or allowing them to be independent problem-solvers and learners.  We opted for the latter…(more on that in a moment).

To prepare for classes, I created a Google Doc with all of the directions, links, and resources, which was shared with students through the class Edmodo wall.  We began the lesson by asking the question, “How does visualizing data help us understand an issue or topic?”

Using the YouTube video, “Fast Food” from “The Infographics Show” YouTube Channel, I invited students to comment on how the video helped them to remember significant facts about the topic.  We made a list of all the ways we saw the creators of the video visualize data (charts, symbols, maps, graphs, etc.)

Next, we analyzed a few different infographics as mentor texts in order to define what they were.  Here are some of our favorites:


Life Then and Now

Walking Debt–inspired by Walking Dead

Once students understood what an infographic was and its basic elements, I began to walk them through their research process beginning with the list of 10 researchable questions.  Demonstrating the use of three of our online resources, Student Resources in Context, Gale Virtual Reference Library, and Sharpe Online Reference, I reviewed how to cite sources and take notes electronically in a Google Doc, which they could share with their group members through Drive.

Students spent the next full class period searching for sources with data and information that would help them respond to their researchable questions.

On the third day, students met in their groups to share and compare information, determine which pieces of information they would use and how they would visually represent it, and create a hand-drawn, rough draft of their infographic. (I learned the importance of a rough draft for any digital project from my early days with Digital Storytelling).

Our plan to allow students to be independent learners of the infographic creator sites backfired, when the tutorial videos posted on sites such as Visua.ly and Piktochart were blocked by our school filter  (…..yep, I should know better by now…).  So,  we ended up spending about 10 minutes on the final day walking them through the process of creating an infographic in Piktochart.

List of Infographic creation websites:





We discovered that students needed more time to synthesize the information and create the infographic than originally planned, which ties back to our original reflection on teens as information consumers that they are so used to consuming information rather than using it to form new interpretations and solutions.

“Marty” had some interesting thoughts relating to the gap between students who successfully completed the assignment and those who really struggled,

 I think this demonstrates Piaget’s theory that not all people reach the formal operational stage. Those that I knew would understand did, and those I knew who wouldn’t understand didn’t. Those that didn’t I think would need someone to walk them through step-by-step in order for them to create something we would say was a good product.

That “Marty McFly”  is one smart guy…

 Overall, “Marty” felt that the project, “gave [students] a better look at numbers (people affected, money lost, money needed to formulate programs, etc.) so it helped them understand the enormity of the situation…it helped them learn the different New Deal programs better. It also helped them see the parallels of the recent recession.”

We both agree that had we chosen one website like Piktochart, demonstrated for all students the basic features they need to create the infographic, and provided more support and modeling of the keyword searches for various questions, then we would have seen greater completion and better products.

How did the New Deal’s approaches to resolving the Depression compare to the opponent’s approaches?

Looking at the final infographics, I have to say that I am impressed with most groups’ ability to synthesize that amount of information, identify a clear message for their graphic, and use visuals to convey that message.  I do still see many who relied heavily upon text rather than images, which I find curious.  Perhaps that can be addressed in the planning phase next time.   I’d also like to include a mini-lesson on utilizing the images and primary documents available in our electronic collection and Creative Commons images to add another layer of content to the infographics.

My greatest take-away from this experience is that we need to have students locating and re-mixing information in various formats for  the purpose of creating new solutions and messages.  By learning to manipulate and represent information for a given audience, they will learn to be more discerning of the information that courses through their daily lives rather than being mass consumers.

Student Samples:

12 great_deirjfgbisurgstrh2 ist_period_meigan_gray_question_6 untitled2 (2) untitled2