Thursday, March 30, 2017

When Dreams Come True

When I began as a principal of McCall Elementary five years ago, I had so many dreams and visions for our campus. I was raring to go and ready to begin making my difference immediately.  As a leader, you know that you have to be purposeful and patient about what rolls out as leadership changes on a campus; the climate of a campus is a delicate balance and you do not want to move too fast and upset the balance.  So, many of my ideas had to wait and be fostered quietly, slowly, and with a great deal of patience before coming to life.  One component of instruction that I wanted to bring to McCall was a garden.  A garden is a BIG undertaking.  A garden was a vision and a dream which is now a living, active component at McCall!  

So, how did we go from an idea five years ago to a working garden today, March 30, 2017?  It was a long journey!  I worked my first two years establishing relationships with my teachers and community.  As teachers got to know me and my philosophy, they began to know that active learning makes my heart sing--the more engaged the kids are, the more they take from a learning experience.  I heard a lot of, "Wouldn't a garden be a great way to teach science and responsibility for the kids? ". Well, yes, yes it would and I would love it and the kids would love it, but I knew we had a LOT more work fundamentally to do in the classrooms before I could foster learning outside the classroom walls.  Additionally, while the teachers who stepped forward were passionate about leading a committee to make a garden happen, I knew from my research, that this was really a project that required a much more comprehensive group of adults in order to make this dream a reality for McCall.  For years, we just did not have much more than just our teachers and myself excited about a garden project, so the timing just was not right for us to start one.  Again, we had plenty to keep us busy inside the building of McCall, so it was always something that was a high desire but on the back burner of importance.  

Two years ago, a quiet volunteer from our PTA began a discussion about her passion and desire to incorporate that at McCall:  Jennifer Garvin (pictured below in the blue denim ball cap) wanted to write some grants to get a garden installed at McCall.  BINGO.  I knew we just could not tackle the project without a passionate person willing to drive us, Jennifer was just what I had patiently been waiting for the last several years.  I knew that our teachers would be fully supportive of a garden, and I also knew that all we had invested inside our classrooms would be ready to implement in a garden setting and that the kids would love it.  I encouraged Jennifer to start writing and submitting grants.  

Jennifer worked so hard on so many grants and talked with so many individual businesses within Plano to garner an interest in our garden project.  In those discussions, she stumbled upon Whole Foods.  Whole Foods was opening a new store in Richardson and wanted to partner with a school for a garden.  Last spring is where our project really took off.  I was invited, due to Jennifer Garvin's networking and relationship building, to be a part of their Grand Opening and receive seed money to start our garden.  I wrote about that event here: Whole Food's generosity and interest allowed us to have a viable project, which then allowed us to have a credible project and gain interest from Lowe's Home Improvement store in Plano.  Lowe's donated manpower and the construction materials to get our perimeter established and all of our raised beds built.  In addition, Lowe's provided the fence, cobblestones, gravel walkway, garden shed, and tools.  The picture below of our Lowe's crew last fall building the beds of the garden. 

Once the beds were built, it was time to get serious about how to make the garden a classroom space to be used to its maximum advantage.  Kelly Hopper, another fabulous PTA volunteer with a passion for gardening, joined in Jennifer's leadership and the two have developed a Google Drive of lessons and ideas that would make any curriculum department salivate over. I just couldn't believe how many gifts kept rising to the top of this journey.  In addition, they contacted Master Gardners across the city and solicited their ideas in addition to their vast ones. We have had so many volunteers across the span of this project that I cannot even name all of them who have helped us get to spring planting season.  So, the stage was set, all we had to do was get the teachers to plan ahead to their spring projects and wait for the season to begin.

Just before Spring Break,  Mrs. Hopper and Mrs. MacDonald worked to get the soil in the beds balanced and prepared for the spring planting.  They made sure that each bed was labeled with a grade level marker and a garden gnome placed in each bed.  The kids began to get very excited about the development of the garden and the fun the spring was promising to bring.

As of today, the majority of our grades have been out to plant and begin to make observations of the garden.  We have sunflowers beginning to grow and a promise of some radishes coming up soon.  The kids are excited about tending the garden and their responsibilities to make sure that they have something to harvest in the upcoming weeks.  The journey to our garden was years in the making, but I believe that wait is worth it in the end.  I could not be more proud of a project than I am of this one.  So many people came together for the good of the kids, that it really is satisfying to witness.  Come by and see our blossoming garden anytime!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Raise Your Hand Texas: The Gift of Learning That Keeps on Giving

February was an absolutely magical month for me as a professional.  I had a pretty fantastic February in my personal life as well, so it stands to reason that when our lives are in balance, great things happen to us as leaders and human beings.  I have written before about the experience that has impacted me as a professional more than any other professional learning, my Harvard experience with Raise Your Hand Texas (click here for that blog post).  Raise Your Hand Texas is the gift that keeps on giving; each year they gather the alumni of the program and bring them together for a symposium of learning.  They bring Harvard professors and other guest lectures to keep our Harvard journey moving and growing. It is an incredible investment and one that as soon as I have the date is blocked from my school calendar.  It has become a sacred time for me, and after this year's experience, I daresay will never be missed again.  The Symposium is how I started the magical month of February and it is the reason that February was so powerful for me:  I was ignited by both learning and the strengthening of relationships with peers met on my Harvard trip. This year's symposium was in Austin, Texas home of the capital and the legislators that work for us.  There was no coincidence, this was purposeful planning for RYHT to host us in Austin.  Part of the RYHT program is the expectation that we will engage with our legislators on matters relevant to public education in Texas.  

This year's symposium carved out considerable time for us to hone a message to our hometown legislature and develop a relationship with them by taking us to the Capital to meet with them.  Raise Your Hand Texas did an exceptional job of preparing us for the visit and debriefing with us after our visit.  The picture below is what I like to (tongue in cheek) refer to as the "March on Austin" --it captures four confident (plus one behind the camera) principals in the halls of the state capital.  I captured this on our way to meet with Senator Van Taylor. Mr. Taylor serves the Plano community and is also on the Senate Education Committee:  he is an important ally to us.  We were determined to make the most of our visit with him.  We had our plan and purpose.  The commonality among us (Michele Loper, Kristin Bishop, Toni Strickland, and Kristopher Vernon) is that we all serve Title 1 campuses.  Our communities need our voice to speak for them as they often are not able to use their own for a litany of reasons.  We were excited and nervous.  We were hopeful.  Mr. Taylor was a great listener and took notes.  He asked us questions.  He saw our commitment to our kids and our community.  I would say that our meeting was productive, but not as deep as we hoped it might be.  

I have made a promise to myself that I will not only uphold what Raise Your Hand Texas has asked of me:  by developing and foster a relationship with Mr. Taylor.  I plan to take their expectation higher by also getting myself better versed in local elections. I feel that our impact can be the greatest with those that are closest to us.  That is my viewpoint only and I do not wish to fan the flame of politics here, but I have a responsibility to 575 children to ensure that we have the biggest fans of public education in office for their benefit.  I will continue to work on my relationship with Mr. Taylor by communicating with him via email and phone while he is in Austin and then inviting him to my campus in the fall when the session is over.  There are many issues which can impact my campus and I want to ensure that I respectfully convey their potential impact on my community.  Admittedly, this part of the Raise Your Hand Texas expectation is way out of my comfort zone, but after that first step, I am confident and determined to make this a reality.  I have also let our superintendent know that I am also ready to be an ally for our district.  Again, politics is not my thing, but our politicians need to be armed with information straight from the source and not from many other sources they rely on to frame their opinion and shape the policy that drives our work.

So, breaking out of my comfort zone was a professional hurdle, but doing that with the comfort of friends who cheer you on is AMAZING.  That brings me to the BEST part of Austin:  my camp friends!  Remember when you went to summer camp and you had a group of friends that was special for that one week every summer?  Well, those are my RYHT camp friends!  I am not sure what the perfect storm was for us all to meet two years ago at the Art of Leadership at Harvard but meet we did and form fast friendships.  Over the course of the last two years, we have just become closer and closer.  My camp friends are made up of principals from all over the state and representing all the levels of public education: high school, middle school, and the outlier elementary principal (ME!). They are all at the top of their game and I learn something each time we gather. The common bond we have is a passion for all things school and, mostly, the children that we serve.  I have learned about how different districts do things and their thoughts about leadership among a million other lessons.  We have bonded by sharing stories of our campuses, our personal families, and hopes and dreams as professionals.  They are a passionate bunch and we love each other so hard. The role of the principal can be a lonely spot, but I know that I have five people that I can text and get a response quickly.  We have burned up our group text this month and our continuing conversation is what I think has given me the best post-symposium glow of happiness.  Raise Your Hand Texas gave me a gift that I never expected on my learning journey: friendships.  I figured I would go and have a great learning experience in Boston two years ago, but what I got is far more than I can ever express thanks for.  I look forward to our continuing conversations and cheering them each onto whatever heights they might want to reach.  My biggest dream would be to get in a situation where we could all work together as a team.  If you dream it, you can do it!  Please follow my fabulous friends on Twitter:  LeeViMoses, Lance Groppel, Lindsay Harris, Todd Bloomer and Crystal Mueller.  I can't wait to pencil in next year's Symposium on my calendar.