Essential Questions in Middle School This Month

September 24, 2013

Dear Middle School Families,

Reflecting back on the first six weeks of school, I am amazed at all that our students have accomplished. I am proud of the content they are learning, as well as the ways they are approaching the learning process. In my weekly observations of classrooms, online grade books, and conversations with parents, I have seen solid academic rigor, as well as innovative strategies. I have observed teachers spending late hours conducting research and collaboration on how to best serve our students. Our dedicated faculty work tirelessly to guide students to an understanding of not only basic fundamental knowledge in core subject areas, but also to create units, lessons, and assessments that challenge them to use higher order thinking skills and develop the mindsets they will need to be successful in a complex and challenging world.

As I read each teacher’s postings in Schoology, I am struck by the thoughtful and engaging construction of their classroom environments. During learning walks I have the distinct privilege of seeing their creativity and hard work come together. Here are some of the essential questions teachers are posing and students are answering. You may have seen these, too

5th Grade:
How does an adverb change a sentence?
What is the impact of having a compound part of speech in a sentence?
How does place value impact how we live? Comparing and ordering decimals?
Is there a relationship between the digits in a number?
How does technology improve our lives?
How can you solve an engineering problem?
How to perform a controlled experiment? What are some science tools?
How might we analyze writing for fact and opinion? In studying a text, how do we
ask questions on context clues, as well as, make predictions and inferences?
How does the development of customs and traditions help to define a culture and a people?
What is the impact of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the social order and political order in the Middle East?

6th Grade:
In what parts of life do we use proper fractions, improper fractions, and Mixed Numbers?
How might we explain our set-up of certain situations involving factors?
How might we show our knowledge of factors within a certain time limit?
How might we use conjecture to broaden our math knowledge?
How might we decide which operations are needed to solve the problem?
How might we explain our method for solving a mathematical problem?
What are the benefits and challenges of working as an archaeologist?
How might outlining information aid in organization?
Why does conflict still develop?
How do new ideas change the way people live?
What is a primary source?
How Might We use word webs to enhance our written language, partnered with strong helping verbs, in order to support our writing?
What does Patriotism mean? How Might We understand what Patriotism means to me?
What is the Best Way to Find the Truth?
What do Folk Tales tell us about ourselves?
What’s the Story with Johnny Appleseed?
What is the language of science?
What is a system? How do systems interact?

7th grade
What does patriotism mean to me?  (from Veterans of Foreign Wars writing contest)
How is the American Revolution a demonstration of the need for human freedom?
How are revolutions and wars alike/different?
How do we learn to become better readers? What skills are involved? What does research tell us?
How do individual cells make up a system?
Why are cells small?
How might we connect/read in a way that impacts our empathy towards others?
Why do we need negative numbers?
How can you use a model to represent an equation with integers?
How are numbers related on a number line?
How might we create original stories in Spanish?
How do we use nouns and verbs in Latin to write sentences?

8th grade
What are the differences and similarities between civil wars and revolutions?
How can countries avoid the kind of bloodshed and devastation we experienced during our Civil War?
What is inductive reasoning?
What are the long terms goals that are achieved with solving multi-step equations?
What are the qualifications of a hero?
How do devices in our home utilize energy conversion?
How might we create a device that prevents energy transfer and keeps a popsicle cold?
How is heat transferred?
Why does a writer’s point of view matter in literature?
How might we share our writing with others and offer constructive feedback in order to become stronger writers?
How might we analyze the development of the main character and note the changes that take place from his youth to his adulthood?

Outside of the academic classroom, our students are learning a great deal, too. In chapel and in Christian education small groups, students are learning about what it means to have authentic faith, why it is important to serve others first, and how to draw lines related to moral boundaries. On Helping Hands Day, we reached out to the local community of Sandy Springs to construct outdoor classrooms, visit with the elderly, and create relationships with those who have special needs. Extending their citizen leadership skills, students ran for Student Council and delivered compelling speeches and presentations as they learned about democracy and the election process.

We have celebrated the accomplishments of our student athletes through the fall sports pep rally, as well as the All- School Homecoming Pep Rally. Our teachers have created and offered countless opportunities for students to explore their interests outside of the classroom starting with the 2nd annual club fair. We have had spirit days and monthly birthday celebrations, and our parents are collaborating with teachers to coordinate social events at Skyzone (Grades 5 & 6) on October 10 and a Fall Dance (Grades 7 & 8) on October 18.

Teachers met with parents on the Glenn Campus in grades 7 & 8 for conferences. Teachers on the Founders Campus in grades 5 & 6 will meet with parents for conferences on October 23 (details forthcoming). Also, teachers have made it a goal to create clear and helpful communication through Schoology, Power School, and Weekly Emails. Teachers are offering weekly tutorials before and after school to assist students in their learning. Tomorrow, team building will take place during retreats on campus (Grades 5-7) and at Camp Winshape (Grade 8).

My goodness. I have worked in several high achieving schools, but never in a school with a more robust and relevant offering for students. How blessed are we? I am proud of our students, our teachers, and our parents. I am proud of our community and its commitment to high standards of excellence. I am proud to be a Mustang!


Chip Houston
Head of Middle School


Is Customer Satisfaction Measured in Your School?

The question was recently posed to me, “Is customer satisfaction measured at our school?” It was a response to a series of quotes have been tweeting from one of our faculty’s summer reading selections, “Exceptional Customer Service.”

It is a great question and one I hoped and expected would be asked sooner or later. The short answer is yes, in some areas.

Before we answer this question, we must answer another question, “Who are the customers in a school?” Students? Parents?

I would expand the question beyond the use of the term ‘customer’ in the context of a school setting, instead preferring to use the term ‘stakeholder.’ To me, stakeholder includes all groups (students, parents, faculty/staff, alumni, board members, etc.)

Occasionally, when receiving feedback from parents, I’ll hear a phrase that goes something like, “As parents, we’re the ones that pay the bills.” It follows logically, therefore, that parents are the customers. But, what about me? I am a faculty/staff member and a parent. With two children (and a third on the way) at our school, my wife and I pay tuition (in addition to taxes that presumably go to funding public schools). Am I a customer, too? There are several faculty members in this category. How do we balance providing the service and receiving it as well?

And what about students? In most cases, students are not paying the bills, but they are the primary “users” and really the primary reason schools exist. Are they customers, too?

So, I would argue that all groups mentioned are stakeholders. And the term ‘customer’ is insufficient to use in a school setting.

Now, let’s answer the original question. “Is customer stakeholder satisfaction measured in your school?”

Our school measures stakeholder satisfaction in a number of ways. This is a list off the top of my head without asking others. I’m certain there are many more ways that other folks on our team would contribute. My initial list includes…

– Admissions Survey to New Families (about their experience, orientation, etc.)
– Admissions Lunch with New Students (about a month after school has started)
– End of Course Student Surveys (in Middle and Upper School)
– After Event Surveys for Teachers (how to improve after events such as conference day, open house, faculty meeting, etc.)
– Teacher Observation forms that include feedback on student engagement.
– Middle School teachers are creating scoreboards around how they are implementing ideas from the summer reading related to providing “exceptional customer service.”
– Informal, qualitative data received in my email inbox/phone voicemail. 

We are beginning to generate great discussions around what customer service means, how effective we are at providing it, and how to measure it. I foresee expanding our measurements and including specific topics/areas such as…

– Carpool Systems
– Schoology
– Chromebooks
– Conference Day
– Orientation
– Grade books
– Block Schedule

What topics would you like to see measured?

customer service

How Might Teachers Use Their Soft Power?

Soft power is a concept developed by Joseph Nye of Harvard University to describe the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Nye coined the term in a 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. He further developed the concept in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

Put another way, soft power is essentially a country’s ability to gain global respect and influence through non-military means such as art, entertainment, product exportation, tourism, education, relief aid, etc. The term is now widely used in international affairs by analysts and statesmen.

Taking a page from the Innovator’s DNA, let’s ‘associate’ the concept of soft power with the classroom.

soft power

If teachers are leaders (I believe they are). And leadership equals influence (according to John Maxwell). Then, how can teachers increase their influence with students?

The answer is greater knowledge and usage of their soft power.

What are the soft powers of a teacher?
Traditionally, when thinking about teacher powers one might rank the power to grade and the power to discipline at the top. I would count these as hard powers. Soft power may be found in the following areas:

– Environment: How might we communicate an expectation non-verbally through the way we organize our desks, decorate our walls, post demonstrations of learning on bulletin boards, or be visible and present in hallways?

– Unit Design: How much influence do we gain or lose with students based on how engaging vs. irrelevant our lesson plans, assessments, and activities are? Do our students get the message of our passion for preparing them for the future vs. just doing a day job each day?

– Behavior Modeling: Want to see kids pick up trash after lunch? Model your expectations. Tired of students talking over each other? Demonstrate by not talking over them. Seeking to develop creative thinkers? Become a creative thinker yourself.

– Personal Connection: Show interest. Love kids. Ask them questions. Sponsor their clubs and coach their sports. Cheer them on.

– Opportunity Creation: Actively seek out or create opportunities for your students. Be their advocate. Let them stand on your shoulders. Advance them and position them for greatness.

– Communication: Be clear and consistent. Demonstrate preparation and thoughtfulness. Respond in time.

Soft Power vs. Hard Power
Soft power takes more time, energy and finesse. It is a skill to be developed and practiced. It is not limited to the items outlined above. In contrast, hard power is often easier and more expedient, but not necessarily as effective. Anyone can assign detention or silent lunch. Thousands of teachers use grades as a means to manage or control classroom behavior. It is the rare and highly skilled teacher who uses soft power to lead his/her students and actually gains the full commitment of their pupils.

How might you make greater use of your soft powers? What soft powers can you add to the list?



How Might We Create Irresistible Faculty Meetings?

I’ll be honest – I don’t know the answer to this question yet. However, I am intrigued by it. And committed to the ideal.

Our family is full of educators. I love it because we get to “talk shop” and compare notes. Yesterday, a close family member recounted the tale of her first faculty meeting this week that consisted of a principal reading the emergency crisis plan for two hours. We’ve all sat through some doozies.


Tomorrow we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s famous speech. To borrow the iconic and powerful phrase, and in no way whatsoever drawing a comparison, “I have a dream”…

I have a dream of a year full of faculty meetings that flip the traditional mental model on its ear. Faculty meetings that are so valuable to our team’s practice that teachers are upset if they have to miss it. Faculty meetings that generate a word of mouth buzz in the community. Meetings that people don’t mind paying admission to gain access. Yes, irresistible faculty meetings.

How do we get there? 

Start by asking the “user” about their experience and what they need/want. So, teachers, consider this an invitation. Post your responses. Share your ideas. I’ll be asking. I’ve already started.

What is your best faculty meeting experience? What is your worst?

Some sound bytes from an educator at another school (who may or may not live in my house)…
– avoid just a presentation of information
– anything that breaks from the dry norm
– no policy meetings where people just talk
– i can read it on my own
– don’t feel like you have to fill it just because it is scheduled
– gift card giveaways
– bring in external experts, funny with new insights

Some of my own thoughts…
– I like to start with celebrations (wins, parent emails, birthday cake, good stuff)
– I like the meetings to be connected to the larger Professional Learning design
– I like to empower teachers to share their best
– I hope to inspire teachers and “fill their cups” – this is a place to connect and replenish
– I want to try creating some short videos (for comedy, for illustrating helpful scenarios)
– I want to hear and share stories; I want us to solve problems
– I love the idea of demo slams, but perhaps occasionally trying focused demo slams (for example, instead of giving everyone 60 seconds to introduce any new app, website, or tech thing, the constraint is placed so sharing is only focused on things we are using – so each teacher would have 60 seconds to share a useful insight on how they organize their google drive folders or color code their email, or what useful tips they can share about e-portfolios, understanding by design, or chromebooks, etc.)

What are your thoughts?

# 25 Cracking the ‘Email Code’

For the past few years, I have been experimenting with a variety of approaches to email. My goal has been to respond to every email in a timely fashion and leave with my inbox at zero at the end of the day. I’ve literally gone months without being successful at this goal.

The more you respond to emails, the more you generate. As my friend says, “It’s like digging a hole in sand, the hole just keeps getting deeper and collapsing on itself.”

Thankfully, persistence pays off. I believe I may have finally cracked the code. For 7 days in a row now, I have been able to get to zero at the end of the day before leaving. Wanna know how I did it? Here’s what I’ve learned…

1) Create folders only around people, not topics. Create as few folders as possible. 

2) Group individuals as much as possible. (I chose to organize mine based on two categories I read about from Patrick Lencioni – The Team I’m On and the Team I Lead).

3) Color code your groups (and all the individuals in that group the same color). 

4) Avoid going straight to the mass inbox. Instead, go to the groups. Prioritize them. I now start with the Team I’m On before reading anything else. Then, I move to the Team I Lead, etc. 

5) Create filters to eliminate the junk.

6) Finally, go into the mass inbox and get through it. Try to check email twice per day for about 30 minutes each. Set some boundaries. Creativity loves constraints.


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#24 What’s Your Communication Posture?

As teachers, one of our goals is to maximize all of the communication tools at our disposal. There are more tools available than one might think. More importantly, how do teachers utilize these tools to put ourselves in a stronger position of serving our students and parents?

Proactive vs. Responsive
Communication Postures
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#23 The Tension is Good

Notes from Catalyst Conference 2010
The Tension is Good

 The Opposable Leader: Why Organizational tension is essential to progress by Andy Stanley


  1. Every organization has problems that shouldn’t be solved and tensions that shouldn’t be resolved.
    1. For example: What’s more important?
    2. If you “resolve” any of those tensions, you will create new tension.
    3. If you resolve any of those tensions, you create a barrier to progress.
    4. Progress depends not on the resolution of those tensions, but on the successful management of those tensions.

      i.     Examples of tension between…

  1. Fulfilling all responsibilities at work vs home
  2. Excellence vs careful stewardship
  3. Research & development vs sales
  4. Management vs leadership
  5. Attracting the unchurched vs nurturing your church
  6. Numeric growth vs maturity
  7. All theology vs no application
  8. Spirit lead church services with no end vs preschool/daycare hours
  1. To distinguish between problems to solve and tensions to manage, ask the following:
    1. Does this problem or tension keep resurfacing?  If yes, it is probably a tension that needs to be leveraged for your organization’s success.
    2. Are there mature advocates for both sides?
    3. Are the two sides really interdependent?  (ie: home vs. work)
  1. The role of leadership is to leverage the tension for the benefit of the organization.
    1. Identify the tensions to be managed in your organization.  Identify ones that won’t and those that shouldn’t go away or be solved.
    2. Create terminology.  “This is a tension we have to manage.”
    3. Inform your core.
    4. Continually give value to both sides.
    5. Don’t weigh too heavily based on your personal biases.  As a leader, your words weigh a thousand pounds.  Don’t allow strong personalities to win the day.
    6. Don’t think in terms of balance.  Think rhythm.  Not every department needs equal money or time, etc.  There are times when you need more music, or speaking, or stewardship.  It’s like art.  There’s a season for everything.  Not for the balance.  Don’t try to be a “fair” leader.  Listen to the rhythm.

i.     You have a bias in every conflict.  As leader, your goal is not always to resolve or win, but create and maintain the visibility of necessary tensions.  Be able to verbalize the downside to “your” side, too.  As leader, make sure nobody wins and that the tension remains.

“As a leader, one of the most valuable things you can do for your organization is differentiate between tensions your organization will always need to manage and problems that need to be solved.”

Urgent vs. Important: Executing Your Most Important Goals

Urgent vs. Important
Urgent vs. Important – Prioritize your goals and calendar to deal with both.

hat do you see? think? wonder?

I wrestle with balancing the urgent vs. important items on my ‘to do’ list. I love the image above so much that it is framed and hanging on the wall in my office. The whirlwind is all around is and it is powerful enough to dominate every minute our days. The girl with the camera is focused on what’s important, not what is urgent. It seems illogical and dangerous. What is so important that she is willing to ignore the impending whirlwind? What is so important in your life that you should ignore the whirlwind, too?

From the 4 Disciplines of Execution:
“The whirlwind is urgent and it acts on you and everyone working with you for every minute of every day. It robs from you the focus required to move your team forward. Executing in spite of the whirlwind means overcoming  not only its powerful distraction, but also the inertia of “the way it’s always been done.”

“We’re not saying the whirlwind is bad. It isn’t. It keeps your organization alive and you can’t ignore it. If you ignore the urgent, it can kill you today. It’s also true, however, that if you ignore the important, it can kill you tomorrow. The challenge is executing your most important goals in the midst of the urgent!”