Defeating a bully culture with courage and empathy

How do we get kids to do crazy things…like add fractions? Almost every meeting at SAMS starts with the “fractions quote” –

At a time when the traditional structures of caring have deteriorated, schools must become places where teachers and students live together, talk with each other, take delight in each other’s company. My guess is that when schools focus on what really matters in life, the cognitive ends we now pursue so painfully and artificially will be achieved somewhat more naturally. It is obvious that children will work harder and do things–even odd things like adding fractions–for people they love and trust.” Nel Nodding, 1998

I love how this quote ties directly to our vision. SAMS is a school committed to authentic learning (adding fractions) in a caring environment (for people they love and trust). This quote and our vision at SAMS prompted a conversation at our parent meeting Monday night, so we spent some time addressing the concept of bullying. This issue can be scary, and it is also scary that we don’t always know the definition of bullying, how prevalent it is in our schools, and how to help children navigate a world with bullying and meanness.

Minnesota law defines bullying:

  • when an actual or perceived imbalance of power is in place
  • the behavior is repetitious and/or forms a pattern
  • materially or substantially interferes with student’s educational opportunities or performance or ability to participate in school functions or activities or receive school benefits, services, or privileges.

The hard part about defining bullying, in the ways mentioned above, is that it does not address overall mean or unkind behavior. Unfortunately, students, like adults, can be mean to each other sometimes. Being mean does not necessarily indicate a bullying situation. This information can be super difficult to distinguish and it takes a lot of conversation and investigation to decipher.

Once we’ve determined the nature and the extent of what is going on, we know we have an urgent responsibility to serve the needs of all students involved in the situation or bullying experience.  As educators, who believe there is no such thing as other people’s children, it is as important to educate, provide empathy, and a caring environment to both the victims of bullying as well as the one perpetrating the bullying.

Both Amy and I are comfortable sharing the ways in which we respond to bullying or unkind behavior here at SAMS.  Though we are learning all the time about best practices, we are confident in our abilities to both lead anti-bullying efforts here at SAMS and support kids who are victims or perpetrators of these bullying experiences.  Reach out to us, set up a meeting with Traci, find us on Twitter…just know that we are always open to conversations with you all about relevant issues like this one.

So the question becomes, how do we, as adults, who care about all kids, engage in meaningful conversations with our children and students about things like bullying, meanness, or unkind behavior? Empathy, upstanding, and positive culture? I was listening to a radio program where Dr. Robert A. Saul was sharing his insights regarding how to raise young citizens in the age after Columbine. He said that for any community to be healthy, everyone must believe in the following three statements for every problem that occurs: I am the problem, I am the solution, and I am the resource. I am challenging every St. Anthony community member to see not just bullying, but all issues we face in our community as our issue. I also challenge us to see ourselves as the solution and the resource to solve the problem.  To get us started, I’m proud to announce that we are starting a advocacy group to defeat bullying culture and cultivate empathy and character.  Stay tuned for more information and let us know if you want to be a part of this work.

For more information regarding bullying click on this link.

Playing is learning!

I was in the gym early this morning watching the 8th grade students build their sleds together, with duct tape and cardboard. They were laughing, working, and trying to push the limits of naughtiness. It was wonderful!

Our head engineer approached me and said “When do they stop playing?” I responded with, “I don’t think they do,i think we just stop giving them the opportunity”.

Here at SAMS we want students to work hard, but we also want them to play hard. It is just the kid version of our vision to create a school committed to authentic learning in a caring environment.

But…sometimes it is hard to let kids, who look like mini adults, play. It is especially hard to do this the cold months before spring break.

Starting the end of January all the way to spring break is a tough time in a middle school. It is cold, kids don’t get outside, and they are grumpy. The same holds true for the adults in the building. We are cold, short fused, and somewhat annoyed at the grumpiness of the puberty driven middle school students! And this is exactly why, here at SAMS, we engage in our “Sledding Day” activities.

Here at SAMS we have “Work Hard Play Hard” days, like Sledding Day because:

1. If you don’t work hard, we still care about you, without lowing our expectations. We give you a “work hard room” to finish your work or to learn the essential material.

2. If you want to push the boundaries, we understand, we know you are trying to find your way in the world, and we are here to help guide you.

3. If you want to sing and dance, we give you a stage to perform.

4. If you want to work with friends, and even new friends, we give you some cardboard, duct tape, and a sledding hill to have fun.

5. Bottom line, we know kids want to have fun and to play. We also know, they want to work hard, so why not let them do both and name it.

Thanks to our staff who worked so hard to make sledding day successful.  And, for letting themselves see that it is also OK to play as an adult.

Saving for the Future can be EPIC

I had the pleasure to emcee an event recently – completely dedicated to raising funds for our school district. More specifically, for teachers and students in the areas of arts and innovation.

The night included a fancy dinner at a classic steak restaurant with drinks and a silent auction – fun was inevitable. But what made the night extraordinary – actually EPIC – was the generosity and commitment of the community to support student learning.

At SAMS, Amy and I always base our thinking and leadership on the simple concept that there is no such thing as other people’s children. We believe when a community of teachers, parents, and administrators who, in their hearts, want for every child, what they would want for their own child – we will have an EPIC school.

At the SAVfortheFuture event, when I witnessed extraordinary amounts of money raised so that every child can be Educated, Prepared, and Inspired, I saw a Community of life-long learners in a small caring environment. A small caring environment dedicated to providing every child an EPIC experience at St. Anthony New Brighton Schools.

We love to see students!

We love to see our SAMS students. As cheesy as it sounds, they are the heart of our school. Middle school kids are full of energy and eye rolls, enthusiasm and mood swings- and they are also the reason we work hard to build a school committed to authentic learning in a caring environment at SAMS. So, fittingly, our expectation for attendance is simple- we want students here all day, every day unless of illness, religious holiday, funeral, or other family emergency. We know that sometimes medical/dental appointments can only be scheduled during school hours, and we understand. We just prefer families work to get students back to school as quickly as possibly.

We are trusted to work closely with Hennepin and Ramsey Counties to ensure that all students are attending school. It is our responsibility to report accurate attendance records to the county truancy offices- this job falls mostly to Traci Adams and me. The counties tell us the average student misses less than 7 days in the span of a school year. Using their suggested protocols, we put into place some basic attendance practices.

As with all of our practices and policies, every action we take regarding student attendance at SAMS is rooted in support and concern. Too often our efforts to support students and families with attendance concerns comes across like the authorities pursuing suspects. We want to eliminate that feeling as best we can and focus on the real reason we want kids in school- because without them our vision, our work, our school is nothing. ALL will learn and contribute here, and if they cannot, we want to help. We help families deal with a variety of issues that can lead to excessive absences like transportation, peer conflicts, school avoidance, emotional health concerns, physical well-being. Our intention is always to make sure that school and home are working together.

Many of you know that Traci Adams is the staff member at SAMS who works with the daily attendance. She needs to be notified by phone or email when a student is going to be absent. If she has not heard from a parent/guardian, she will try to get a hold of a parent/guardian once or twice throughout the day. But at some point, absences that are not reported by parents are unexcused because of management. Once a day has passed and we have not heard, we move the reason for absence from “waiting to hear from parent” to “unexcused” on Infinite Campus.

At this mid-point in the year, if a student is missing 8-10 days of school, I usually send an email letting the family know that their child’s absences are becoming a concern. The main purpose of the letter is to find out if there is any support the child or family needs from the school. Sometimes families are pro-active to let us know if there is a medical or family emergency. This is very helpful.

When a student reaches more than 10 absences, I usually sends a second letter requesting that any further absence be documented by a doctor for illness or reported to me directly. No longer is the parent asked to call the attendance line once that letter is received. These absences are recorded by me at that point. This allows for more in-depth conversations so we can work with families to help provide a support system or attendance plan.

If a student has unexcused absences, there are consequences at school. Warnings are given the first time, and further offenses lead up to SAMS-style in-school suspension (kids are isolated when possible but necessary access to learning is still provided). Once a student has more than 3 unexcused absences, the county is contacted. If a student is a Hennepin County resident, it is six unexcused absences before the student is reported to the county. Once a report to a county is made (in either Hennepin, Ramsey or Anoka), there are different protocols followed. We will always support families if they are brought into county truancy systems; however, we work diligently with families to avoid this from happening.

This is never a fun topic, and I just really want parents to know that we work with middle-schoolers all day, every day. There isn’t a situation or a problem we aren’t willing to roll our sleeves with and try to help solve- and that is especially true with attendance. We love working with all families to make sure that students feel safe, welcome and able to be at school; this ensures us the chance to make our vision- a school committed to authentic learning in a caring environment- a reality. See you at school!

Guest Blogger Amy Kujawski

What do you expect…from others?

This entire week I have planned to blog on the concept of mindset as defined by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford. And why not, because, I’m pretty confident there are thousands of websites, youtube videos, blogs, already committed to sharing this powerful research finding. I could go on and on explaining how having a fixed mindset can prevent you from learning, stretching, and daring. But I think if you watch this video, it can explain the concept way better than I could do, plus this blog is not even going to be about mindset…

It is going to be about expectations and here is why. While driving one night I was listening to the latest broadcast of This American Life (I’m still in Serial withdrawal). The episode called Batman began with a few reporters asking NPR employees “do you think the thoughts you have in your head, your private thoughts, could influence the way a rat moves through space” – I know, I know a crazy question, but stay with me, because the episode drew me in and had me thinking about schools.

The podcast went on to share the story of Daniel Kish who has been blind since being a toddler, but can basically “see” by using echolocation. Daniel rides bikes, climbs trees, hikes, and does everything we would expect of a person who can see.  Here is the crazy part; Daniel does not think he is amazing or even special. Basically, he is not very impressed with himself, but the world is amazed. And why? Why is the public so enthralled, but Daniel is not?

It comes down to expectations. Unfortunately, people don’t expect the same from a blind person and, according to Daniel, these low expectations keep blind people from “seeing”. This theory is often referred to as the Pygmalion effect or Rosenthal effect.

Former President Bush coined the term “the soft bigotry of low expectations” – how within schools and in society we often have low expectations for certain students or people. Inevitably, these low expectations have a self-fulfilling effect, because people usually live up (or down) to people’s expectations. If you don’t believe me, listen to this podcast and be impressed, seriously impressed!

Bottomline: as educators and parents…don’t let your thoughts be a child’s barrier.


Kindness is defined here, and felt today, thanks to a stranger named Ted.

An envelope was mailed to me today at school, and its content was a simple letter and a wallet that belonged to an 8th grader at SAMS. A few months ago, this 8th grader, Ben, lost his wallet at a Vikings game. A stranger picked it up, found a SAMS school ID card, and mailed it to the principal (me) so I could get it back to Ben. The wallet’s content was intact — with money, giftcards, and even coins.

I wish I could meet Ted and get to know him because I’m just so honored to know people like him. His actions, his willingness to take the time and effort to do the right thing, and his simple approach to good character are inspiring. Like me, other grown-ups around SAMS appreciate this small gesture because we know how rare they can seem.  It will be great to see Ben’s reaction when he sees his wallet and reads the note, and I’m intrigued to hear what his friends and classmates think.  I want them to feel the kindness in the moment and in Ted’s gesture.  We could talk to these kids for hours and hours about the power of kindness, but it’s measures like these, taken by strangers like Ted, who remind us why the work we do in schools together is powerful and important.

Enjoy the story.  Enjoy your Friday.  Wishing you kindness to be found in your mailbox too.

Surgery and Teaching

I spent some time over break thinking about SAMS as well as the vision we have to provide authentic learning in a caring environment. I also thought about how I know for parents and our community this vision can seem vague or even laden with educational jargon…but for us at SAMS it is our work; it is our guide.

Although schools are not hospitals, we can make some connections between what surgeons have to do to save lives (I assume this is any hospital’s vision) and what teachers have to do to enrich lives (vision for many schools). The show Grey’s Anatomy has been on TV way too long and is way too dramatic, but it somehow takes horrible content (how to perform surgery) and make it entertaining. In this clip Meredith needs to perform her first solo brain surgery – she has to pull up a ton of knowledge and skills to make this happen effectively, similar to how a teacher has to pull together a ton of knowledge and skills to make an effective lesson. In the show, and in medicine, success is seen in retaining life.  In teaching it is seen in learning. Now, teachers do not have cameras and make-up to capture these moments, but we do have systematic approaches to how to teach, similar to how medicine has protocols and practices for conducting surgery. Although most people have been through K-12 schooling, it cannot be assumed they understand the inner workings of teaching and learning. Similarly, just because I watch Grey’s Anatomy, I cannot assume I know how to take out a person’s appendix!

I want to spend time discussing the industry of teaching, the way we teach, and why we teach this way. Without a clear learning targets and instruction that matches, learning is not guaranteed.  Without scaffolding and effective feedback students will not be motivated, nor will they have the grit to learn.

Providing a clear learning target is similar to GPS – everyone in the classroom needs to know where they are headed and how they will know they have reached the destination. For teachers these often resemble “I can statements” like: “I can calculate for the radius of a circle” or “I can analyze the historical significance of two causes of the American Civil War”

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Instruction that matches the learning target is like running a race (and running in the right direction) – this means when teachers ask students to define, the instruction looks different then it would if the students had been asked to analyze. Both verbs require different and hard thinking. To ensure students are prepared to meet the learning targets, teachers need to provide instruction and practice that matches the thinking required.

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Teachers provide scaffolding in the form of additional time and resources or other differentiation tools to support students reaching the learning targets. For example, when the learning target is for the players to learn the fundamentals of swinging a bat, the coach often has them use a tee for practice.  This is scaffolding.

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Effective feedback means providing students with feedback about their learning that is specific and timely, and provides direction. Although this seems easy, it is often the toughest strategy to do well. It is similar to being a border collie- someone needs to herd the learning in the classroom!

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By providing instruction that is clear in its target, provides appropriate scaffolding, with specific and timely feedback, students become active participants in their learning. They become engaged and motivated to learn.

SAMS is dedicated to creating a school committed to having authentic learning in a caring environment. As parents and community members, be committed to this vision with us. Trust that we know your child can learn and contribute.

What are you thankful for…

I sent this message to the families and teachers of St. Anthony Middle School:

It has been a crazy, fun, and quick start to the school year. I have enjoyed meeting our new 6th graders and building even stronger connections with our 7th and 8th grade students and their families. As many of you know SAMS is a school where all are expected to learn and contribute in a school committed to authentic learning in a caring environment. We take this work very seriously, but we often do not take ourselves very seriously! 

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We are driven to work really hard, but also work hard at having fun and connecting with each other in a really human way. I often (well somewhat often) email everyone to report out information, share important dates or events, but today I want to email you and say thank you,

I want to say thanks for being committed to raising and teaching all the students of SAMS as if each child was your own. 

I want to thank you for wearing really ugly sweaters — here is the proof.

I want to thank you for dropping your kid off in the inside loop in front of the school and having to read about this request over and over again 🙂

I want to thank you for letting the principal refer to herself as the princiPAL way too much and way too often.


I want to thank Traci for being at the center of everything and everyone and doing it with such grace and with a smile.

I want to thank the students for letting us give them feedback on their learning in ways that make it meaningful.

I want to thank the parents for trusting us with their children, their babies, the things they love the most.

I want to thank the teachers for working hard on how to build instruction that equates to authentic learning, but for never forgetting to love kids first.

I want to thank everyone for showing that we value every subject and every content, not just those that are “tested”. 

I want to thank the community for showing with actions and words — that they value education.

I want to thank the incredible teachers (Patty, Sue, Margie) from All Day Preschool at the St. Anthony Community Center who trudged over with 30 preschool students to do science experiments with the high school chemistry students. Plus, touring them around both the MS and HS so their parents could see them. 

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Hope is more than just a strategy

Alan Blankstein states in his book Failure is Not an Option, “Hope may not be a strategy, but a strategy without hope is going nowhere fast”. SAMS has a yearlong hope to have 100% of teachers have 100% of their students achieve mastery of at least one essential standard. This is our hope and we are in the midst of figuring out our strategy to get there.

Although I know the principal is important to a school dedicated to ensuring learning for all students and the actions and beliefs of the principal matter. I also know it is only second to the role teachers play in student learning. By knowing this, it is clear to me that here at SAMS what matters the most is not the leader, but the leadership that is most crucial.

My essential standard for SAMS is simple in statement, but difficult in practice. If we have a vision to create a school committed to authentic learning in a caring environment, then my two objectives are to provide an environment at SAMS where every staff member can 1. Identify the vision and 2. Apply the vision. It looks a little like this:

Essential Standard: SAMS is a school committed to authentic learning and caring environment.
Benchmarks (outcomes):
1. SAMS staff can identify and define the vision – authentic learning in a caring environment.
2. SAMS staff can apply the vision in practice and decisions.

My role at SAMS is to be the keeper and the promoter of the vision and belief. I must provide the resources, time, and motivation to move this vision into reality. But I’m not alone, everyone at SAMS is responsible for leading this charge, because it is not about the leader – it is all about leadership.

I continue to appreciate the efforts made by designated teacher leaders on both the Authentic Learning and Caring Environment teams. Their staff development work allows for all staff to learn and contribute as the adult learners at SAMS. This growth mindset, by the adult learners, will model for students the type of thinking and courage it takes to be a learner.