As an educator I know first hand what an art it is to teach, and I know first hand how important and powerful it is to launch learning and to foster a learning community right from the start of the school year or start of a new semester. You don’t need me to tell you that this year is a unique one, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t make space for that reality. Students and educators alike have been through some extremely difficult times, and of course we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. 

Inside our free guide ‘The Art of the Start’ you’ll find seven different sections, each one with ready to roll out resources. These seven sections have been designed based on emails we’ve received from educators like you. Today I want to specifically talk about the seventh section which places an emphasis on the power of play. In her Edutopia article, Sarah LaHayne writes the following about play :

“Play is not only foundational for child development but can also help children process and heal from the impact of living through stress, trauma, or grief, including a global pandemic.”

Sarah LaHayne

I think as adult learners we also need to remember how powerful play can be for us. In an NPR interview, Dr. Stuart Brown, head of a nonprofit called the National Institute for Play. gives us a definition of play:

“Play is something done for its own sake,” he explains. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

Dr. Stuart Brown

This is why I set my alarm early a few days of the week to do a little yoga. For me, yoga has been a wonderful way to play and stay playful. I might not get every pose exactly right, and I may not always be aspiring to become an expert, and that’s completely ok. As a matter of fact, it is probably because I don’t have a strict goal with my yoga that I’m able to focus on just enjoying it for the sake of enjoying it. They call it the yoga practice…you never really master yoga, you constantly are just practicing. I often say the same thing to educators about teaching. They call it the teaching practice…there is no mastery of teaching. We are constantly practicing, finding that balance between the art of teaching and the science of teaching. If we can get into a mindset that this is all just practice, then we allow ourselves to try new things, push ourselves in new ways, and become better at our practice one day at a time, in that mindset we find joy. 

In the academic week, where are we holding space for enjoyment for enjoyment sake? This might be drop everything and read time, it might be a spontaneous game of tag, a student sharing their photos of their new kitten, or an impromptu chat in the hallway.  We have to care about what our students enjoy about being at school, and we have to nurture those moments. School has always been more than about getting from point A to point B in the curriculum. Tell me about some of your strongest memories of being at school, and I bet those moments will have something to do with how a peer or an educator or a subject helped you connect with yourself or others. It has been my experience that students are best able to connect with others when playfulness is valued. And I’m talking about learners of all ages. 

I work with school leadership teams all the time, and I’ve noticed a correlation: the teams that aren’t afraid to be playful, the teams that laugh together are the very same teams who are more productive and are more collaborative. I did a little digging around to see if my lived experience is mirrored in any research, and I found out that in fact it is. Tracy Bower is a contributing author for Forbes, and here’s what her research tells us: 

“Company cultures that allow for play are better able to tap into the best in their employees, and employees themselves can bring more effectiveness into their work.”

Tracy Bower

The Art of the Start guide has a few of our favorite ways to encourage playfulness with learners. As always, we are curious to hear what has worked for you. 

I want to take some time to talk about a recent free guide we created called Finding Your Metaphor for the Moment. When I provide coaching for school leaders, we often spend a lot of time thinking and discussing metaphors as a communication tool. 

Now I didn’t invent the idea of leaders using metaphors to galvanize teams. There has been a lot written about how this matters and ways to experiment with it. I want to read you a quick quote from one of my favorite pieces from Forbes that explores this idea:

Metaphors and analogies  are exceptionally efficient ways to accelerate insight.  If you see recurring points of friction, think about the best metaphor or analogy for your system and communicate it explicitly. One team used the analogy of a hybrid car to explain how their hybrid structure would work: We’re one car, headed to one destination. We have two engines, a gas engine and an electric one that propels us forward. Both are necessary and equal.  In any given situation, we use the one best suited to the conditions.”

What I love about that example is how simple it is. So, if you were to think about your school’s library system, is it more like a hybrid car or a jet ski? If you reflect on the orientation schedule for your school, is it more like a roller coaster or a bridge? What about the communication system you’ve established with parents and care-takers in years past, would they describe it to be a water fountain or a water park?

When we reframe systems we engage with in a creative way, I think it makes us pay more attention to some of the details we may overlook. In our free guide ‘Finding Your Metaphor For the Moment’ you will find yet another example. The guide walks you through a few pages on how Baseball might be an interesting metaphor for classroom culture (I know me using baseball metaphors is a shock to many of  you, right?). In what ways do students have ‘batting practice’ where they can take swing after swing and devote time to one specific skill at a time? Fellow baseball fans will know the term ‘battery,’ this refers to a really tight knit bond between the catcher and the pitcher. So I would ask myself how my classroom culture is inspiring and providing space for each learner to co-create a new battery. 

The point of this thought experiment is to provide space to envision what we want to do, and how we want to think about our goals. We invited a few educators to share their metaphor for the year ahead. We will hear first from Angeline Aow, who is a pedagogical leader and consultant. Join me in listening what she has to say about the mighty onion:

What a great example–which fruit or vegetable is YOUR curriculum framework most like and why? 

Let’s dig into another example, this time from a Head of Community Relations:

Nancy thank you for demonstrating how our thinking around metaphors can be scaffolded with questions. If I were to go back to my baseball example, and I wanted to use it with a department or a grade level group I might ask them to share a story that was one of our ‘double play moments,’ or to tell me what activity they have in their batting rotation in the cleanup position. 

Let’s turn to one more example, this time courtesy of a Head of School, Kathleen Naglee

Thank you Kathleen for sharing that personal story. Her example reminds me that when we share our metaphor, we have an opportunity to share our stories and that cultivates stronger relationships. 

Ok, ready for our final example? Here we go:

I really appreciate what Dr. Waid says there about radically reimagining our education systems and ways of learning together.

So hopefully they have inspired you to think more about finding a metaphor for the moment, or perhaps for thinking about inviting learners to co-create one for the start of the your next unit.  If you are looking for more resources to help you do that, head over to shiftingschools.com.

I am excited to talk about one of my favorite shifting schools resources. If you follow us on social media, you may have seen us sharing custom made Jamboard templates. We have a collection of them in our resource library, and we’ve received so much feedback from educators. Why? Well, my guess is because Jamboard leverages collaboration. I think of it as a space to build an archive of ideas. The specific Jamboard template I want to dig into is called ‘Momentum From Mistakes.’ On the template you find four quadrants. Each quadrant is a space for the class or group to reflect on learning they’ve come to by way of a mistake. For example, one quadrant asks students to complete the following sentence: “Now I know to spend less time on (X) and more time on (Y).”

Why would I recommend you consider having a collaborative space to reflect on mistakes? In my experience, when we start a dialogue that reminds us that none of us are perfect, and that all of us can learn from mistakes, we take some of the shame out of mistake making. If you know me well, you know I love geeking out on new technology. Guess what, whenever I am trying a new edtech tool, I get to know it through mistakes. 

Often when someone tells me they don’t have the confidence with edtech, we talk a little more, and I realize–ah! They think those of us with confidence never make mistakes. And I feel it is my responsibility to let them know that I make mistakes with Edtech all the time. And it is because I’ve made hundreds of mistakes that I have a stronger sense of digital literacy. Whenever I think about all the mistakes I’ve made with technology, the memories of being in college and working on my wife’s Windows 3 computer. She used to hate it, cause I’d be geeking out and would have to reinstall the operating system at least once a week…..and of course always right before one of her papers where do…ah those were the days!

For too long there has been too much silence around mistakes in learning. We see someone who appears successful in a given subject area and we make assumptions. Even the phrase ‘natural leader’ is in my mind a misguided notion. In my career I’ve led a number of teams. I’ve even been told I am a natural leader. Guess what? I’m not! I work really hard at it. I look for feedback, I reflect, and I consume a lot of media about leadership. One of my favorite bloggers and thinkers when it comes to leadership is Dorie Clark. In a recent piece here’s how she defines great leadership:

“It’s about leading others consistently and allowing them to learn and make mistakes in a safe environment.”

Dorie Clark ~ Forbes.com

That’s exactly why I love our momentum from mistakes jamboard template. It says let’s make room to discuss the different mistakes we are making. It asks us a fundamental question: How do our mistakes in the past and present help us navigate future learning?

When you check out the template in our free guide, you might decide to change the prompts we have—-and I want to always reiterate that our Shifting Schools templates are never meant to be prescriptive–they are always meant to inspire even better ideas. So if you find yourself coming up with other sentence frames, I would love to hear how you have taken our template, remixed it and made it better. You can email me about that via info at shifting schools dot come. 

In closing I want to share two of my favorite quotes from Baseball and consider what they tell us about the significance of mistakes. Ready?

Quote number one is from Babe Ruth who famously said:

“Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.”

Quote number two is from Reggie Jackson who said:

“You can’t steal second base and keep one foot on first.”

As an educator how would you take those words of wisdom and apply them to your classroom context?

If you are a big baseball fan like me, you may already know that in 1923 Babe Ruth struck out more than any other player in the league. The more well known fact about Ruth’s career is that he was the first player to ever hit 60 homers in a single season. Is he defined by his mistakes or by his success? 

Reggie Jackson is legendary for many things-and again if you know your baseball history you may know that he was the first to strike out 2,000 times in a career. That’s a lot of swinging and missing. And you know what else Reggie Jackson did in his career? He found himself on the American League All Star list 14 times. He was on the world series winning team FIVE times. 

In fact, watch any baseball game and you’ll see mistakes all over the field. A mistake pitch from a pitcher that ends in a homerun, or a swing and a miss. Why do I love baseball…it’s pretty much the only thing you can be successful 30% of the time and considered an All-Star.

And the mental mindset you need to have to make that many mistakes and continue to be strong mentally is exactly what we want to work on with students. 

Making mistakes, making many, many many mistakes is part of the journey. As I often say in my trainings, failure is everything that happens right before you become successful. We fail our way to success…that’s life. We have to change the narrative about success. Being successful isn’t about being perfect. For both Jackson and Ruth–their experiences of success were most likely linked to being on a team where others encourage them, and where their mistakes were taken as opportunities to learn to get better. And that’s exactly what the fifth resource in our free guide intends to do for students. Let’s be open about making mistakes, let’s learn from them and allow those mistakes to lead us to success.

Today we’re going to focus on a resource we used in several of our trainings last year, we call it the “Let’s Go Fishing For Fresh Questions!” protocol. The resource has a menu of three ways to ‘fish for a question’.


In my experience, this resource is useful for SEL because it reminds students that creating and sharing questions builds community, and also establishes a classroom culture where we see curiosity as an asset AND we rehearse advocating for ourselves and others. One thing I hear from teachers in training that I work with is that many of their students feel like they cannot admit to not knowing something, or not knowing how to use a tool. If students don’t learn in school that it is ok to ask for help, where do we expect them to learn it? 

Here’s a question to ponder: Do your students know it’s ok to ask for help? I haven’t met a teacher yet who wouldn’t say “sure!” to that question. Then I ask, what structures do you put in place so that students know it’s ok to ask for help? If your answer is “well, they just know” or “Well, I tell them they can ask for help.” Then you might consider helping students learn HOW to ask for help. Asking for help is a mindset we must foster in our students. It’s a life skill that goes beyond school to the heart of life itself. 

Jackie Welsh talks about this issue in an article she wrote for middleweb.com where she says:

“Why don’t students ask more questions in school? The short answer is that most students believe it’s their job to answer, not ask, questions.”

And I want to pause here for a moment and invite you to reflect on a question:

Who in your life has done the most to teach you how to formulate great questions?

In education many of us have people we admire, folks we look up to. One thing I am working on is noticing how often and how well others use questioning. I’m passionate about inquiry, it has always been a big part of my practice, and the longer I’ve been in education, the more I have come to value questioning as a craft. 

This is why this resource resonates with me so deeply: it gives students an accessible menu to use in rehearsing the art of building better questions. We talk a big game in schools about wanting our students to be curious about the world around them, and if we really mean it, don’t we need to engage them in strategies that foster curiosity?

Harvard Business Review looks at data that says YES, most employers say they value curiosity, but that there is a big disconnect between how much employees say they feel their curiosity is truly valued by their employer. And I’m wondering, if we asked our students to tell us when and where they think we, their teachers, have valued their curiosity, what would we learn? What would your students tell you?

A small shift that I will be making in my practice is that I am going to be sure that the office hours I hold with teachers learning with me will have a menu of question starters–and I’ll explicitly say ‘this menu is not meant to be prescriptive, but it is meant to help us ask better questions as a community.’ 

When watching my favorite team, the Seattle Mariners, during warm up, it dawned on me that question-construction is a little bit like what you see before the start of a game. You’ll have players help each other with stretches,  players gradually loosening their arms, and of course batting practice. The thing about pre-game warmups is they are collaborative. There is a building of flow a building of energy. If you look closely you’ll see players laughing and smiling. Why? They know that the right mindset matters at game time. So if one of them drops a ball during warm ups, or if they have a terrible pre-game batting practice they support each other.  And I think that same mindset can really help in the classroom. I think baseball is the perfect analogy for exploring question construction (and let’s be honest I can make a baseball analogy fit almost any idea). 

Let’s talk bunting……Bunting is a skill that, in my opinion, gets overlooked by many in today’s game. Bunting the ball isn’t easy, it isn’t glamorous, it isn’t fun to watch, but you know what, it is a critical part of the game of baseball. In fact, the game that I went to was won in the bottom of the 9th because a player was able to bunt a runner from 1st to 2nd, putting him in scoring position. The next batter hit a single, runner from 2nd scores, game over. Of course everyone remembers the person who hit the single to win the game, but the real hero…the teammate who gave himself up, sacrificed himself for the good of his team. 

Sticking with my metaphor, I’m going to start asking students to ‘bunt,’ meaning I will say—you may not have the wow question ready yet, we as a team might need to bunt first, we might need to move our questions, our curiosity up a bit before the big question hits us. We might have to sacrifice what we think we know to be true to make room for something new, something better. What is something we need to ask more questions about before we continue?

I think throwing a few questions around, playing catch with each other’s questions and building on them will build camaraderie and foster the kind of relationships I want my students to have access to. If you have a better analogy or another sport that you think compares to the practice of collectively building questions I would love to hear from you.

As I reflect on this…I think about how Tricia, Chrissy and I work together during a brainstorming session. We start asking questions, we start answering questions, which leads to more questions. All these questions are bunts. Then all of a sudden, and rarely is it me, someone will ask the question we really were trying to get at? That’s the game winner and how do I know…because usually when Tricia or Chrissy asks the question, I get chills, I just go “WOW, and I can literally fill a whole new part of my brain open up. That is what I want for my students, for teachers in my trainings, I want them to experience that moment of “That might be the best question ever!” moment that unlocks a whole new potential of learning. 

Again, you can find our fishing for questions resource in the free guide “Small Significant Shifts for Stronger SEL” if you do use this resource or any other out of the free guide please leave a comment and let us know how it went! 

This week we explore an idea that has meant a lot to me, not only as an educator and a business owner, but as a local resident of Seattle. The resource that pairs with this post is a free editable slide deck series that walks you and your students through the process of drafting a class mission statement.  Inside the free PDF “Small Significant Shifts for SEL” the slide deck, you’ll find a few sample mentor texts of mission statements. We’ve linked the mission statements of Nike, Patagonia, The University of Washington, and the Seattle Seahawks. That’s right, the Seattle Seahawks have a mission statement:

Seahawks organization is guided by overall principles of acceptance and understanding that help us create a culture of respect, equality and inclusiveness both on and off the field. It is our goal to use these core principles and our commitment to passion, character and excellence to empower change within our community. We, as an organization and as individuals, represent and respect a wide range of human differences, personal experiences and cultural backgrounds.

Pretty powerful stuff, right? It is short and sweet, but also moving and clearly they get it–football is more than a game.

So let’s have a short little thought experiment with that mission statement. I want you to think of ONE, just ONE student from your past year, and try to see the following experiment through their perspective. I’m going to take that mission statement and turn it into a fill in the blank activity, and ask YOU to fill in the blanks answering from the lens of the student you selected. 

Ready? Here we go:

  1. It is the goal of our classroom to commit to the following three things:
    A)    B)   C)
  2. We as a classroom will respect the following three things
    A)  B)   C)

How hard or how easy did the answers come to you? Was it challenging to answer from the lens of a student? 

You might already be excited about the idea of your students taking a mission statement mentor text and making it their own. I know I’ve really enjoyed that activity with learners. And if you have participated in any of the workshops with Shifting Schools, you’ve already heard me preach the benefits of scaffolding an activity like this. This is why inside the free slide deck, you’ll also find a few ways to do some pre-thinking. For me, my favorite pre-thinking activity is to ask students to think about the THREE verbs that really tell the story of what our learning community is like. To get to those three verbs, our resource recommends giving space and time for student to think about these three questions:

1) Last week, which word best described our learning:
a) navigating b) collecting c) exploring d) other

2) When you feel most connected to your classmates, which action are you engaging with:
a) demonstrating b) playing c) pioneering d) other

3) Pick one: Success in our class asks us to regularly…

  1. A) act 
  2. B) reflect 
  3. C) practice 
  4. D) inquire

Now while this activity is great for students, the process of them collaboratively working towards a collective mission statement is a great way to bolster student ownership and foster community, but secretly there is another huge benefit to doing this activity: as a teacher it really helps you notice and get curious about how students are experiencing learning in your classroom.

In her book, Teaching to Transgress, Bell Hooks writes:

“As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.”

An activity like this one invites students to see how one another are experiencing learning, and to envision what they want it to be. Social Emotional Learning needs us to make space for conversations like this one. This is a wonderful way to have students not only get curious about each other’s experience, but also about their own. We know that self-awareness is a huge part of developing our social skills. In looking for ways to build it into our practice we rehearse it. So what I see is not just an opportunity in the rough-draft process of developing a mission statement just for my class–but I see an ongoing opportunity for each student to return to it later on. At the end of the day or end of the week I might create an exit ticket that invites the students to tell me how connected they felt to our mission statement at that point in time. 

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As an example of what that might look like, let me read you another mission statement, this one belongs to the toy you never want to step on: Lego

Their mission statement reads:

‘We want to Inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow’ Our ultimate purpose is to inspire and develop children to think creatively, reason systematically and release their potential to shape their own future – experiencing the endless human possibility.”

So let’s say that was the mission statement my students came up with. My exit ticket might be as simple as this: On a scale of 1-5 how inspired were you this week? What could we do more or less of to help you feel more inspired? What might help you better understand what is inspiring your peers this week?

Now here is the crucial thing, if I am collecting exit tickets that tap into SEL, in order for my students to know I value it, I have to show I’m thinking about what they share. So every once in a while, I’ll speak to what their exit tickets are telling me, and I’ll let them know what changes I’m trying to make. It’s a two way street. If we go through the hard work of making our own mission statement, that mission statement needs to work for us, and we need to work at it. 

Inside the free guide “Small Significant Shifts for SEL” you’ll find the slide deck that you can customize for your learners. The mission statement mentor texts in the example are local and personal for me, a Washington State resident. While they will work for you anywhere, it could be great to pick mentor texts that work for your location, and amplify small businesses in the neighborhood. You might even invite a small business owner to speak to your students about their process of drafting their mission statement.

By going to local businesses, you can ask students to have a conversation about how tangible their values are as a customer. For example, I live not too far from Pike Place Market, and they say that they are:

“… guided by the following values: collaboration, inclusion, respect, optimism and gratitude.”

The next time I head to the Market, I’m going to be on the lookout–where do I see collaboration in motion? Where’s the respect? How inclusive is the market? Does it make me feel optimistic, and does it make me want to express gratitude?

Before you take your students through this experience maybe you too need a mission statement. What if you had a mission statement and you shared it with your students? What if you were in it together? Trying each day to live up to your own mission statement as you support students in doing the same. 

{“type”:”block”,”srcClientIds”:[“879c712c-42b3-4acb-bccf-c0082bc10674″],”srcRootClientId”:””}I love hearing and reading other educators’ mission statements. Here’s Steve Murphy’s mission statement, a HS Social Studies Teacher:

Mission:  Developing globally aware, empathic citizens with a passion for service learning and service leadership to positively impact the world around them.

Of course you can watch Steve’s free webinars in our webinar section under Resources on our website and see if he’s living up to his mission statement.

Or what about Tyler Rablin’s mission statement. Tyler is a HS ELA teacher, creator of our Making Assessment Meaningful Course and has two free Webinars as well for you to watch. His mission statement reads:  

Mission: Creating passionate, well-rounded people who are excited about learning and empowered to make a difference in their own lives, their communities, and the world.

Mission statements aren’t just for companies or classrooms….we all have a mission statement just very few of us put it down for the world and others to see. Maybe it’s time to share your mission statement about what it means to be an educator with your students. 

My mission statement you ask:

Mission: To support schools and organizations in preparing students for their future not our past.

Something you may notice is how each activity is somehow connected to the practice of noticing and wondering. Christina Cipriano, the director of research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence said this about the essence of SEL:

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about teaching people how to be better citizens and more positive contributors to their society.” (courtesy of edsurge.com

In my experience, if we want students to want to make positive contributions to their community, we need to get them curious about that environment, and we need to create opportunities for them to see it and think about it differently. That’s what this week’s resource is all about: asking questions about our purposes for being together, learning together, and wondering how we can best leverage our shared experience as learners. 

If this resource inspires you to rethink your mission statement as an educator, or if you already have one, we’d love to hear about in the comments below.