Posts by Patrick Larkin

I feel blessed to be an educator. I have had the good fortune of working as an English teacher, an Assistant Principal, a Principal, and an Assistant Superintendent. I currently serve as the Assistant Superintendent of Burlington Public Schools (MA).

About Teachers…

To me, teachers are superheroes. I was raised by one. She raised two sons as a single mom and kept up with her daily teaching duties in an elementary classroom. Looking back, I am not sure how she did it all while also allowing her kids to feel such a strong sense of safety and security. We always knew we were okay because she was always there when we needed her.

The landscape has changed without warning

I am not sure how my mom would have managed in the environment that we are in today due to the spread of COVID-19. Don’t get me wrong, I know that she would figure it out, but it might take a little time. There is a new routine now and every teacher is dealing with their unique personal situation on top of whatever expectations are being thrown their way. I have heard from teachers home supporting elderly parents and others who are home with small children all day long because their spouses are first responders. There are countless examples of these types of things in all school districts.

Remote Learning – What Are We Talking About?

There are very few communities where teachers have prepared to support students through online learning of any sort. In addition, there is no way to replicate what goes on in our classrooms each day, especially our elementary classrooms.

Let’s Focus On Staying Connected

I remember talking to a friend who is an administrator at a virtual school and he told me that his school purchases the curriculum that teachers follow. He told me that they wanted their teachers focused on building relationships with students and not writing curriculum.

This line of thinking has never been more important than right now when students are feeling isolated. We need to focus on keeping connections while so many of us are feeling isolated. Personally, passing along worksheets and busy-work seems insulting. Are we just encouraging more time along for students as they sit at their computers and try to keep up? How about some video hangouts or chats to check in and have conversations? Isn’t that what we all need right now?

I know we need to provide learning opportunities for students and families, but we need to think carefully about what this could and should look like. It should not be business as usual and just moved online. I even heard about one private school that was asking kids to get in their uniforms at home and be in uniform for virtual classes…really?

A Story From Another Superhero Mom

Dear Patrick:

In case it’s helpful, here is feedback on remote learning from a parent’s point of view and a recommendation.

My 3rd grader has had 4 days of remote learning (private school, end of school year is June 5th no matter what) and it has been very hard for the following reasons:

1. Overwhelming – too many assignments from various teachers and even short assignments take a long time because of technology involved. My son’s teachers are trying to recreate a full school day at home and even send morning work…

2. Links to assignments don’t work or teachers’ directions to assignments are not clear.

3. Technical issues with using apps and sites we have not used before. 

4. I have to sit next to my child non-stop to help navigate various tools such as Zoom, Google hangouts, Gmail, Google classroom, Padlet, and more.

5. My son doesn’t see me as a teacher. Helping him is painful for both of us, but he can’t do all of the things on his own. 

6. I am concerned about my son’s vision because of the amount of time he has to be in front of a computer to do school work. 

We are both stressed. I emailed the teachers and told them we will do what we can. They are working very hard to create content but I think parents can’t be expected to teach their kids at home now. 

Here is what I recommend for elementary schools: 

1. Teachers provide families with optional lessons/activities to do and encourage independent and family reading, board games, science experiments, watching a nature program/cooking as a family, etc.

OR

2. The above + one “must do” task for each subject per day.

We Can Learn From Other Countries Ahead of Us On This

Just as we are learning more about the virus and how to handle it from a health standpoint, we can also learn from teachers and families who have been trying to make sense of how this works from an educational standpoint. I have been saying less is more from Day 1…Please listen to this mom from Israel below. I think many will be able to identify with her.

To My Colleagues In School Administration

Please be thoughtful about this. No one has experience with anything like this. Take it slow. Keep your kids and families connected with your teachers and don’t add to the stress by having unreal expectations for staff or students. Get together with other local districts and come up with a unified plan that supports all of our students.

Never A Better Time To Practice #Gratitude

Click the image to go to the podcast

We started a podcast in Burlington Public Schools this year called Gratitude Daily. The idea was to pay more attention to the many things we have to be grateful for within our school community. Despite the fact that the individuals in our school community have been separated from one another physically, this practice does not need to stop.

In fact, with the anxiety-provoking news going in our world right now, we need gratitude now more than ever. As I stated in my post yesterday:

I can easily list all of my anxieties about these unparalleled time and continually discuss my fears, but I also know that these days will provide opportunities that would not have been previously possible.

A Gratitude Challenge

Find one thing each day that you are grateful for that would not have been possible if we were not in these unique circumstances. Parents, ask your children to do the same. Share these with one another each evening. Let’s try to take the focus away from all of the things we can’t control and focus on what we can, one another.

For me, I have spoken to my mom more in the last three days than I did in the previous three month and I am grateful for that. Our first episode of the Gratitude Daily Podcast – School Closure Edition shared gratitude from an eighth grader in New Hampshire who had the opportunity to connect with her cousins a few states away.

Please share your Gratitude, by tweeting at @gratitudebps, emailing us at gratitude@bpsk12.org, or sharing your gratitude on a message on our podcast’s website.

Watch What Happens…Closure Day 1

As we start this unique journey together, I think the biggest challenge will be to create some structure to our days so that we can try to get into a rhythm or ourselves and our families. Having said this, I think this can certainly look quite different from one family to the next. There is not one right way to go about this process, so don’t feel bad if things don’t fall immediately into place. I am sure it will take some time to figure out what works best for each family and each student may need a different plan.

I am going start with gratitude

I am thankful for the unexpected gift of more time with my family.

I can easily list all of my anxieties about these unparalleled time and continually discuss my fears, but I also know that these days will provide opportunities that would not have been possible in my daily work schedule. Haven’t others sometimes wished for my time with their children?  

Creating a schedule

There are a number of options for schedules like the ones below and it is preferable to let students help structure this so that they have buy-in.  Be sure to structure in some time for movement and getting outside. It is also a great time to start to limit screen time and I am going to try to model this in my home. 

I also like the schedule below because of its flexibility. I especially like the prompt at the end which highlights one great thing that happened. I can’t encourage people enough to do some journaling during this time. For those who are especially daring, students and/or parents could create a video log each day or start a podcast of their experiences.

Learn something new

I asked my eighth grader yesterday what she would like to learn now that formal schooling is off the table for a few weeks. She said sign language.  She goes to school in NH where the Governor just declared that students will go to online learning next week. I am hoping that she does not get some boring worksheets from her teachers. Find something that your students are interested in and build in time for that now.  

Watch What Happens 

While I know that there is nothing that can ever replace the work that our teachers do building relationships and learning experiences for our students in their physical classrooms, I also know that these same educators will start to provide some cool experiences to support students and their families over the coming weeks. 

I Need More Practice With Social Responsibility

I am feeling guilty about my selfishness in going to the gym yesterday. It is a part of my daily routine that I rationalized I could continue, despite the unprecedented events going on in our world due to the spread of COVID-19. It was after my workout that I started to get caught up on guidance from medical professionals on what we all need to do during this time. These articles reenforced what I knew deep down was the right thing to do, but I put my personal wants, not needs, first. One great article, by Dr. Asaf Bitton, is referenced in the quote below.

“We have a preemptive opportunity to save lives through the actions we take right now that we will not have in a few weeks. It is a public health imperative. It is also our responsibility as a community to act while we still have a choice and while our actions can have the greatest impact.”

https://medium.com/@ariadnelabs/social-distancing-this-is-not-a-snow-day-ac21d7fa78b4

This whole thread of tweets below is also worth reading:

This morning, I talked to my mom who lives about 90-minutes away by car and told her not to come for a visit and that we hoped to see her in a couple of weeks in person. Today, we will also be discussing a family game-plan with all of our kids, three who are home from college and three who are ages 13-18. We will make a plan for the next two weeks as to how we can structure our time constructively while we are practicing social distancing.

“We must move to pandemic mitigation through widespread, uncomfortable, and comprehensive social distancing. That means not only shutting down schools, work (as much as possible), group gatherings, and public events, but also making daily choices to stay away from each other as much as possible to Flatten The Curve…”

https://medium.com/@ariadnelabs/social-distancing-this-is-not-a-snow-day-ac21d7fa78b4

Good luck to others during this trying time! I will pray for the health and well being of all of us and encourage you to be better than I was yesterday.

A Few Takeaways from Inspired Learning 2020

I had the good fortune of attending the Inspired Learning 2020 Convention held at Nipmuc Regional High School yesterday and I wanted to share a few takeaways while the thoughts were still fresh in my mind.

First of all the keynote speaker, Matthew Dicks an elementary teacher from Connecticut, was tremendous. Matthew Matthew is a 45-time Moth StorySLAM champion and 6-time GrandSLAM champion whose stories have been featured on their nationally syndicated Moth Radio Hour and their weekly podcast. One of his stories has also appeared on PBS’s Stories From the Stage. His keynote focused on his experience as an elementary teacher and he encouraged the educators in the audience to “speak less and expect more.” He shared the following insights which I think are worth reflecting on:

  • “The moment I’m saying nothing in my class is the most productive”
  • “Find a way to have kids do something you think they could never do.”
  • “I sit in the back of the classroom and assign impossible tasks to children.”

If you’re interested, I encourage you to check out his TEDx Talk titled Speak Less, Expect More. Matthew also had a breakout session on storytelling and how to become a better storyteller and also help students with this. The TEDx Talk below is focused on both how to become a better storyteller and also how to slow down the pace of things in our fast-paced world. The best part is that it only takes five minutes…but will you do it?

The second session I attended focused on Media Literacy and it was led by Michelle Ciccone, a Technology Integration Specialist at Foxborough High School. Michelle shared some great resources on Media Literacy. This is definitely a topic that warrants greater focus in schools to ensure that these skills are embedded throughout the curriculum.

A few of the resources shared that would good starting points:

In any event, we are at a critical time in regards to helping students become more savvy at digging deeper and finding sources of information that are unbiased. In addition, I think it is important that the definition of literacy in the current day includes digital literacy and being able to understand where information comes from and what the intention of the provider might be. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) had an updated position statement in November outlining its Definition of Literacy in a Digital Age.

It is worth a read and highlights the fact that this new set of literacies moves well beyond consumption and also encompasses creation, advocacy, the ability to build cross-cultural connections, and an awareness of bias and privilege. While I am sure it would overwhelm many, the framework is a valuable resource for schools serious about moving forward with this work.

The following statement from the introductory paragraph is spot on:

The world demands that a literate person possess and intentionally apply a wide range of skills, competencies, and dispositions. These literacies are interconnected, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with histories, narratives, life possibilities, and social trajectories of all individuals and groups.

Thanks to the great team at Nipmuc Regional High School for hosting this great day of learning!

Routine Is The Enemy of Progress

One of my biggest takeaways from the Innovate Inside the Box Book Study that I just completed was not necessarily a new one, but it was an important reminder in the never-ending struggle to maximize productivity. What are the behaviors and routines that lead to a good day? Some people call these practices. But whatever term you use to identify these strategies, I think one of the biggest favors we can do for students is to help them identify which habits help them accomplish their goals.

I have to admit, I am a big fan of Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans because of the fact that it shares the habits of successful people across a number of professions. There are definitely some common threads in the routines of individuals who are world-class performers in their chosen fields. Yet, we don’t focus on this much in schools. In most cases, we are so busy with the traditional “routine” that we do not take the time to think about other ways to maximize our efforts.

The bottom line is that we don’t necessarily need schools to gain new knowledge or skills. This is both liberating and overwhelming. Yes new knowledge is at our fingertips, but the fact that there is an abundance of ways to gain this knowledge can be paralyzing. It is easy to get caught up in the weeds and spend way too much time choosing a pathway to new learning and lose focus on what the original goal was to begin with.

While I could ramble on here for a bit, I want to be sure to maintain my focus and go back to the quote at the top of the post. In order to foster innovation, we need to set the stage for learners to gain the right frame of mind for new thinking. What are the key practices that can help people get into this mindset? I think mindfulness and or meditation would be at the top of my list. In fact, Tim Ferriss noted “more than 80% of the interviewees (for Tools of Titans) have some form of daily mindfulness or meditation practice.”

In order to best help learners, I think we need to build in more time for them to practice and reflect what routines and habits put them in the best position to be happy and productive.

The Pull of FOMO in Consumption vs. Creation

As I re-read chapter 12 of Innovate Inside the Box, I recalled a recent post from Tim Ferriss in which he discussed why he is not reading any new books in 2020. Tim’s thoughts echoed a struggle of mine where I tend to pile on with new books and never really give any of them the time necessary to dive deep and reflect in a manner that might allow me to create some new habits, pathways or focal points for myself.

I’m susceptible to fear of missing out (FOMO) when it comes to new and popular books. I’ve always found refuge in books, but being wedded to the identity of “the well-read guy” can breed keeping-up-with-the-Joneses consumption. Taking new books off the table for 2020, in a sense, also takes that type of FOMO off the table. 

Tim Ferriss – Finding the One Decision That Removes 100 Decisions (or, Why I’m Reading No New Books in 2020)

While I am not likely to take the same stance in 2020, I definitely understand how FOMO can lead to an imbalance of consumption and too little reflection and creation. I think I need to spend more time looking through my notes and reflections after I finish a book that I enjoy. This book group is a perfect example as it is providing an opportunity for me to review the wonderful insights and strategies shared by George and Katie. The first time I read it, I just wanted to finish it as fast as possible because it was new and I wanted to be able to say that I read it and share some citations on social media…(FOMO in action).

Beyond the consumption of books, I wonder how we can build more time for reflection into our work in education? As administrators, we can encourage and support teachers to provide time for students reflect and share representations of their learning in multiple forms (as Katie describes). We also need to find time for our teachers to reflect during the year and engage in this same type of reflection and creation so that we provide the structures for everyone in our learning communities to deep learning.

What Are You Looking For?

I have been really enjoying my first Instagram Book Study. The discussion is centered around Innovate Inside the Box by George Couros and Katie Novak. One of the chapters that we most recently looked at was Chapter 9 which is titled Observant.

The focus of the chapter is supporting learners to become keen observers and to give them opportunities to find and develop their passions. Of course, we all become more empowered when we have the ability to go more deeply into areas that we find interesting. But before we can fully engage in this type of learning, we need to develop some mindfulness skills in order to tap into this type of deep learning on a regular basis.

I think the chapter makes this important point well under the headings Becoming More Observant in a World Full of Noise Is More Valuable than Ever and How Do We Become More Observant in Our Passions? With so much information available online and the endless amount that comes at us through social media “finding meaningful and relevant information feels a lot like trying to find a needle in a haystack.” We need to help students navigate this landscape effectively and efficiently and blocking out the noise is essential.

In addition, we need to model the aspects discussed surrounding being more observant and helping our students build their toolbox which will allow them to slow down, listen more, and limit negativity. They need guidance in finding what helps them best develop a sense of calm and focus. There is so much research on the benefits of mindfulness and positive psychology. If we can introduce this to our students when they are young, it will certainly have lasting benefits in their learning.

A post that I wrote back in August, Encouraging Calmness in the Storm, touches on some of this. The words of Mr. Rogers sum it up best.

We can only accomplish this if we, the adult learners, are routinely modeling are own practice in achieving this calmness.

What are you doing to find margin?

I had the chance to listen a speaker talk to a group of school district administrators about the importance of finding balance recently. A few were on their devices as he made his plea for the group to spend more time working at “finding margin.”

As I share this, I am fully aware that I am also in a constant struggle to ensure that I am the appropriate level of balance. Finding the best way to be fully present both professionally and personally is important. While I believe we can have both I also believe that we must prioritize the personal over the professional and come to an understanding that we are not our jobs. Ultimately, we will be replaced in our professional positions, but there is no one who can ever replace us in our personal positions as spouses, partners, siblings, friends, etc.

With this in mind, I think it is important that leaders model the importance of finding margin. There are so many ways that this can happen:

  • It can be a commitment to exercise a few times a week
  • A few minutes of meditation
  • Keeping a gratitude journal
  • A regular technology disconnect
  • Time dedicated to learning something new
  • Dinner with loved ones or friends regularly

The session reminded me of a couple of quotes from Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead :

“Self-awareness and self-love matter. Who we are is how we lead.”

“At some point, if everything on the list is important, then nothing is truly a driver for you.”

While the focus of the session was on leadership, I know that all of this is equally true for classroom teachers who lead our students each day. The to-do lists just seem to get longer and on most days they will not get fully completed. Without finding some margin for yourself, the only thing you assure is that you will not be there for the people who most need you. I am always drawn back to the analogy of the oxygen masks on the airplane. We need to keep ourselves breathing first.

ACES – Info we all need

I recently finished The Deepest Well by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris and the implications of the work of Dr. Harris are something that every community needs to consider. The book delves into the work Dr. Harris has done in looking at the impacts that childhood trauma have on the the longterm health of individuals. The terminology that she uses for these traumatic events is Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). The fact of the matter is more of us have them than not. Research show that nearly 70-percent of us have had some type of Adverse Childhood Experience. In addition, they have a proven impact on our health outcomes, 4.5 times more likely fo have depression and 12 times more likely to have suicidal thoughts.

What’s your score on the ACE Screening for Adults?

For those working in schools it is important to understand the research on ACES because of the effect of adversity on both brain structure and function in children. Children with ACES are over 30 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning and/or behavioral problems. With this in mind, how could ACE screening and subsequent interventions help us support students and their families?

As Harris states in her TED Talk below, “This is not a social problem or a mental health problem. As Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has been widely quoted as saying,

‘Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”‘

The 15-minute TED Talk below from 2015 is well worth the time, as is an investment in reading The Deepest Well.