#18 The Challenge Resumes

So, I unplugged from technology for vacation and a new baby. Now the 60 Day Blog Challenge resumes, albeit with an extended pause, but continues nonetheless. That’s why we call it a ‘challenge.’ It’s not supposed to be easy. But it is fun.

Thanks to all of the dear friends who have brought food and sent gifts. Your thoughtfulness and generosity means more than you know. We are grateful for you and your influence in our lives. We feel loved.

“Roll your windows down the summer’s nearly gone.” – Time is a Runaway by The Alternate Routes

I’m looking forward to the upcoming school year and excited about the possibilities and the people. I’m bringing my heart.

Before it’s over, here are a few highlights from our family…

photo (24)
Got his first job this summer!

photo (23)
Both boys caught their first fish with Papa!

photo (22)
 We welcome a new member to our family!


#17 Private versus Public Schooling

I don’t want this post to be controversial. I was raised in public schools and taught in public schools from 1999 -2010. I taught in several great public schools with great teachers and administrators, with many of whom I am still connected. This will be my fourth year in independent schooling.

Here are a few comparisons I’ve noticed …

1. Smaller class sizes  – @MVPSchool the student teacher ratio is approximately 18:1. At CHS, I taught AP classes with 29, but also with 18. It is possible to have smaller classes in public schools with Gifted and AP teachers, but it places a greater burden on colleagues who must teacher 30+ students. In my opinion, there is a tipping point around 25 students where the teacher’s focus tilts more towards classroom management rather than learning.

2. Stronger sense of connection – In a smaller community, people are more likely to know one another and they are more closely-knit. There is greater parent involvement. Matthew 6:21 “For where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” Actually, I’ve felt a strong sense of connection at most schools. As an educator, I feel a greater partnership with the parents  @MVPSchool.

3. Greater opportunity for innovation – Less red tape. In particular, at Mount Vernon educators are encouraged to ask “How might we?” You are not likely to hear, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” While there are more obstacles to innovation in many public schools, I still believe a resourceful and motivated teacher will not wait for permission from above to be innovative nor allow a culture of test-driven expectations interfere with inspiring his/her students.


We are currently working on ways to partner with public schools. It shouldn’t be an “either or” proposition, but rather a ‘both and.” What are some ways public and private schools can partner for the benefit of students in all schools?


#16 Thoughts on Digital Citizenship

Students have the power to make decisions in the realm of social media where the consequences can stick around for a long time. Educators must model and instruct the proper use of these tools. Parents should closely monitor their student’s activity while the student gradually earns trust by their consistent actions. All three stakeholders should discuss and agree on guardrails that allow students to utilize the latest technology while simultaneously maintaining responsible digital citizenship. Not an easy task.

1. Be informed and involved with your student’s social media life. They know more than you do in this realm. How will you guard against being green? Trust and verify. Spend time and talk with your children.

2. Partner with educators. Read the resources they share with you. Share resources with them. Participate in offerings such as Parent University where external experts are brought in to discuss specific topics such as social media.

1. Commit to being a responsible digital citizen. Be trustworthy in all that you do. Online and offline.

2. Make wise choices. Learn this skill at an early age and it will take you far in life. I recommend reading Andy Stanley’s book Principal of the Path and The Best Question Ever.

Professional Educators…
1. Engage the students daily about what digital citizenship means and how to practice it. Infuse lessons on digital citizenship into your regularly scheduled programming. Be intentional.

2. Be the best in your field. Seek out new and innovative technologies to use in the classroom that will prepare students to be globally competitive. Seek out how to develop responsible digital citizens. Lead future leaders.

3. Partner with parents. Equip them. Share with them. Work together for the good of the students.

Here are some excellent resources to get started…
Cybraryman’s Resources

Why Digital Citizenship Must Be Taught in Schools

Nine Elements of Digital Citizenship

6 Must Read Posts on the Importance of Teaching Digital Citizenship

Teaching Integrity in an Age of Cynicism

Search Twitter using hashtag #digcit
What resources have you found to be helpful regarding digital citizenship?

I Became a Teacher Because…


Social Studies Teacher at Dunwoody High School
Social Studies Teacher at Dunwoody High – 2001

I became a teacher because…

1. Growing up in my neighborhood, I was the oldest kid of “our gang.” I enjoyed being the leader. In contrast, in my own grade level, I was a late bloomer and one of the youngest which often meant I felt behind my peers. Comparing these two groups and my status in each one led me to enjoy leading and teaching others.

2. One of my first jobs as a swim coach helped me realize how much I enjoyed teaching others. Swimming was one thing I was really good at and it was fulfilling to have a unique knowledge/skill that I could lead others to develop in themselves.

3. I always enjoyed history (that’s my ‘context’ strength) and usually made “A’s”. History is fun for me. Teaching history forced me to learn far more than I ever did as a student. I feel like I have a fairly solid concept of human history and that context helps me to interpret the world today. Studying the relationships and events of the past reveals clues about relationships and events in my own life. Despite thousands of years, human nature is essentially the same. (If they say, why? why? Tell ’em that it’s human nature)

4. I started out as an International Business major, but hated Accounting 1 & 2. It wasn’t Sister PJ’s fault. I just didn’t enjoy it. Eventually, it led me to change my major to education. This led me back to Georgia.

5. After much soul searching in my freshman year, I realized that while my grand goal as an 18 year old of being a millionaire by age 30, driving a black BMW with leather seats, and living in a castle in Germany was not as motivating as I once thought. I discovered I was much more motivated by leading and influencing others to be their best.

Why did you become a teacher? I want every teacher reading this to know that I hope you will respond in the comments section. I really am interested to learn what led you to become a teacher/educator, too.

#14 What Are Your Strengths?

What stands out when you look at this report card…?

Math                 A+
Science            A
Composition    A-
Literature         A
History              F
Music               A+

If you noticed five “As” then congratulations! Your default is to look for strengths. Why is it that we are drawn to the “F” despite all of the positive?

It raises a larger question – is it better to focus on shoring up our weaknesses or exploiting our strengths in life? Our time and energy is limited. The decision of where to focus our efforts will have a great impact.

A few years ago, I read Strengths Finder for work and I still go back to it. Below I have highlighted a few of the descriptors that really resonated with me. I encourage you to take the survey and discover your strengths, too.

(according to Strength Finder 2.0)

You recognize that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Probe your friends and coworkers about actions that might have contributed to their current successes so you can help them make better choices in the future. 

Compare historical antecedents and situations to your current challenge. Identifying commonalities may lead you to a new perspective or an answer to your problems.

Select jobs that allow you to have the leeway to work as hard as you want and in which you are encouraged to measure your own productivity. You will feel challenged and alive in these environments.

As an achiever, you relish the feeling of being busy, yet you also need to know when you are “done.” Attach timelines and measurement to goals so that effort leads to defined progress and tangible outcomes.

Remember to build celebration and recognition into your life. Achievers tend to move on to the next challenge without acknowledging their successes. Counter this impulse by creating regular opportunities to enjoy your progress and accomplishments.
You do not require much motivation from others. Take advantage of your self-motivation by setting challenging goals. Set a more demanding goal every time you finish a project.

You probably will excel in any role in which you are paid to highlight the positive. A teaching role, a sales role, an entrepreneurial role, or a leadership role will make the most of your ability to make things dramatic.


You tend to be more enthusiastic and energetic than most people. When others become discouraged or are reluctant to take risks, your attitude will provide the impetus to keep them moving. Over time, others will start to look to you for this “lift.”

Explain that your enthusiasm is not simple naivety. You know that bad things can happen; you simply prefer to focus on the good things.


You may get your greatest joy by encouraging people. Freely show your appreciation of others, and make sure that the praise is not vague. Consistently seek to translate your feelings into specific, tangible, and personal expressions of gratitude and recognition.


Avoid negative people. They will bring you down. Instead, seek people who find the same kind of drama and humor in the world that you do. You will energize each other.

Consider roles in which you listen and counsel. You can become adept at helping other people see connection and purpose in everyday occurrences.

Within your organization, help your colleagues understand how their efforts fit in the larger picture. You can be a leader in building teams and helping people feel important.
You are aware of the boundaries and borders created within organizations and communities, but you treat these as seamless and fluid. Use your Connectedness talents to break down silos that prevent shared knowledge.

Refine how you learn. For example, you might learn best by teaching; if so, seek out opportunities to present to others. You might learn best through quiet reflection; if so, find this quiet time.

Be a catalyst for change. Others might be intimidated by new rules, new skills, or new circumstances. Your willingness to soak up this newness can calm their fears and spur them to action. Take this responsibility seriously.

As far as possible, shift your career toward a field with constantly changing technologies or regulations. You will be energized by the challenge of keeping up.

Time disappears and your attention intensifies when you are immersed in studying or learning. Allow yourself to “follow the trail” by scheduling learning sessions during periods of time that will not be interrupted by pressing engagements.

#12 The Year of Self-Discipline: Part 2 – Weekly Plan


1 in a 3 Part Series on Self-Discipline

1 – Effective Email
2 – Weekly Plan
3 – Life Planning

1 Week = 168 Hours.
Better plan intentionally to make them count.
You don’t get them back. 

Six Step Weekly Planning Process

Six Steps to Plan Your Week For Success

Seven Steps to Plan You Week

The Perils of Step by Step Planning  😉

 Weekly Planner Template

What are your tips for making the most of your 168 hours each week?

#11 Empty Gmail Inbox Daily


1 in a 3 Part Series on Self-Discipline

1 – Effective Email
2 – Weekly Plan
3 – Life Planning

Each year for the past several years, our school has declared a theme. The year of story. The year of design. The year of celebration and innovation. The year of collaboration. I have decided to have my own personal theme this year: the year of self-discipline.

I want to be healthier. This includes goals I keep putting off such as going to bed earlier, exercising more consistently in the morning, eating more natural foods, drinking less coke. I need to practice greater self-discipline in this area.

I want to make better use of my time at home. This includes spending more time with the people I love, making a greater impact in the lives of those around me, watching less tv, playing less Oregon Trail, planning more dates with my wife, reading more books to my kids.

Identifying obstacles is a good place to start. Email is one of my biggest, time-consuming obstacles. It can also be an emotional de-railer if you check it before going to bed. My goal is to have an empty gmail inbox at the end of every day. Not an easy feat.

The topic of how to manage one’s email effectively has been covered by more people in better ways than I could begin, so in this post I’ve compiled the best resources I have found. I have tried a few of these and they have helped, but I’m still not satisfied with my current level of effectiveness…

HBR: A Super Efficient Email Process

Farnam Street: The Tyranny of Email – 10 Steps to Save You

Edudemic: Set Up a Gmail Meter

Michael Nichols: You Can Keep 

Up With Your Email

Office Coach: 10 Things You Should Never Do With Email

Effective Email Communication

What resources can you share related to effective email usage?

The Front Lines of Customer Service in Schools

What would it look like if we applied the concept of customer service to the classroom? The term is more frequently associated with business and sales rather than education.  For independent schools, customer experience must be a wildly important goal, though the word ‘customer’ falls short of describing a school’s relationship with students and parents. Partnership is closer.


Teachers and their direct communication with students and parents are the front lines of customer experience in a school. There are many other levers that teachers have control over that directly impact customer experience. We will focus on one for now: communication. There are a few non-negotiable ‘Do’s’ that teachers must commit to and administrators must support/inspect to guarantee a positive customer experience.

1. Update the Grade Book – Open 24/7 online to students and parents, this is the first place parents go for information about their child’s progress in your class. The teacher committed to exceptional customer experience will not only update the grade book frequently and consistently, but they will pay close attention to the labels and descriptions they write in the grade book so that the wording precisely matches the labels and descriptions they write on the assignment, rubrics, and LMS posts. The keys are timely, descriptive, and accurate.

2. Post Classwork and Homework Accurately to Blog – We use Schoology as the platform for teachers to communicate each day’s assignments. There are many platforms, but the important thing is for a student or parent to be able to quickly and easily access what happened during class each day (in case of absence). Teachers need some flexibility in case a lesson takes longer than anticipated or students take a particular interest in an unexpected area, yet students and parents need accuracy and timeliness. We ask our teachers to update their pages each Sunday night by 6:00 p.m. for the upcoming week. Teachers know to update their page the same day that they alter the plans.

For the average teacher, updating one’s page can be viewed as a tedious chore, but the teacher committed to exceptional customer experience realizes this is one of the first and best chances to communicate the quality of their practice. Compare two examples…

Example 1
Classwork: Ch 5 – The Columbian Exchange
Homework: Work on project

Example 2
Classwork: Essential Question – How do the ideas, goods, and technology traded on the Columbian Exchange compare/contrast to international trade today? 

Homework: Read article ‘The Columbian Exchange’ and article ‘What is International Trade?’ and write down 5 questions. Bring questions to class discussion tomorrow.

Example 1 communicates ambiguity, dependence on a textbook, and lack of thoughtful planning. Example 2 is clear, specific and leads to learning even if read by someone on the other side of the planet. Which class would lead to a better customer experience for a student and parent?

3. Notify Customer When Grades Drop Below 73 – Although customers have 24/7 access to their grades, they still expect the teacher to communicate early warning flags. Teachers expect middle school students to take ownership and responsibility for their grades. Parents expect teachers to inform them every time a homework assignment is not turned in. Strike a happy balance by making a quick call or email approximately whenever a student’s overall average dips below 74. Every 3 weeks, we check student progress in all grades and notify parents along with recommendations for how a student can improve their performance. Usually, this involves attending tutorials, making up missing assignments, changing habits, or scheduling a conference.

Communication is essential between stakeholders in a school. Teachers cannot control everything that happens in a classroom, but these are three things they can absolutely control and use to their advantage to accelerate student learning and create an exceptional customer experience.


#9 How to Challenge Gifted Students: An Interview with Dr. Arianna Shirk

A key challenge at Mount Vernon (and every school I have worked in) is how to challenge those students who score 100 on everything. Often, the teacher’s energy and focus goes to the “lower performing” students. The high achievers often do not receive the challenge they deserve because teachers think, “Oh, they’re fine. They’ve already got it. They get everything. They can help tutor the others.” This is a myth in need of busting. All students deserve and need to be challenge beyond their current ability, including and especially the ‘gifted’ students.

A key approach to solving challenges at Mount Vernon is Design Thinking. One important component of design thinking is learning to empathize with people who are or have experienced the challenge you are trying to solve first hand. In my attempt to gain empathy for the gifted, yet unchallenged students in our middle school as we seek to design better and more challenging programs, I have interviewed my sister-in-law, Dr. Arianna Shirk.

 shirk family

Dr. Shirk is family and she is extremely intelligent, motivated, creative, and high-achieving. Allow me to brag about her for a moment. She earned scholarships to high school in NC, Furman University for undergrad, and Wake Forest University for Medical School. At Furman, she was allowed to make up her own major as part of their Engaged Learning initiative and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Perspectives on Poverty and Health. She studied the interaction of eastern and western medicine for a year as a Luce Scholar in Taiwan. She scored a 1580 on SAT, twenty points shy of perfect. Currently, she is a Pediatric Emergency Medicine Fellow at University Alabama at Birmingham and plans to move to Tanzania to help build one of the first free standing children’s hospitals in Eastern Africa.

How old were you when you first became aware of your need to be challenged beyond the typical classroom?

I was pulled out for enrichment learning classes in 1st grade where I wrote a play, learned chess, and did science field trips.

What most challenged you in middle school?
They gave me creative challenges with room for creativity.  A term paper on the Japanese Industrial Revolution. Special projects –  We did an election notebook in 7th grade 1992. We had to volunteer for the party of our choice. We wrote a report on a candidate at every level (county, state, and national) of government and studied the election process. We created a piece of election propaganda. I was assigned to be the debate coach which included watching the debates and prepping a fellow student candidate for a mock election. And I was a spelling bee nerd – I spent a few too many hours study Webster’s dictionary and running words with my parents.

What bored you the most?

When I had to regurgitate the book. I disliked one of my freshman high school classes because we never covered anything in class that wasn’t in the book. I did my homework and was bored to tears in class because nothing was new in class – I could memorize but wanted to learn to see it in a new way I couldn’t figure out myself.

What advice do you have for gifted students who want to be challenged?

If you have an idea, ask your teacher if you can do it. I’m still doing it – working on adapting my fellowship next year and plan to prepare myself better to practice medicine and maneuver the healthcare system in Africa.  If possible, choose writing topics that are more complex and require more research to write so you have the chance to learn more.  Figure out what you love and figure out how to make it part of your education every step of the way.

What advice do you have for educators who seek to differentiate for gifted students?

Show interest in them as people. Treat them as more than just students. Know more about them than just their grades or their ability to memorize things. My teachers that became mentors  made me feel confident and that I could do more than people expected middle schoolers to do.

Students rise to the challenge when they have ownership – when it engages passion or imagination. If they are doing something to check a box or get a grade it can limit their potential. I’m very good at checking boxes, but I had mentors along the way that made me create my own boxes.


Thank you Dr. Shirk!

For the readers, what strategies do you recommend for challenging the students who need a bit more?