Mrs. Zalesky’s “Pet” Project!

photo taken by Carrie Jackson (

At Timberview Middle School the learning spaces belong to the students.  There are no teacher desks in the rooms; instead they have common office spaces at the ends of the hallways.  There are various types of tables, chairs, stools, etc, so the learning space can be adapted to suit the students’ needs.  There are “collaboration areas” outside the classrooms where students can work in groups.  There’s even an “outdoor learning area” with whiteboards, sidewalk areas, and a garden!

It’s an impressive set-up!  I love the philosophy behind the design.  In fact, most people would agree that the learning spaces in our schools are structured with the student in mind.  But what about the learning?  Does it belong to the students, too?

Mrs. Zalesky’s “Pet” Project

I had a meeting last week with one of our teachers, Mrs. Zalesky.  She mentioned that her students were in the process of getting a “class pet.”  I was intrigued.  As she talked me through the plan I soon realized that this wasn’t just about a teacher going to the pet store and bringing back a gerbil. This was a project where more than just the learning space belonged to the students.

Classroom Interview

A couple of days after our meeting I scheduled some time to go into Mrs. Zalesky’s class to learn first hand about this project.  A couple of students made their way to the front of the class to present their research to me.  As I listened to them talk I realized just how much learning had been taking place in the last couple of weeks.  And the students were involved in the entire process.

The students came up with a set of criteria before they selected their pet.  They needed something that would be affordable (both initially and in upkeep), fairly easy to maintain (seems like there was quite a bit of discussion about cleaning up the…nevermind), and kid friendly.  Based on these qualifications and a few others, the class chose the bearded dragon as their class pet.

The class then researched the bearded dragon.  They learned that he is diurnal (active during the day, in case you didn’t know that one), lives in the desert, likes warm days and cool nights, appreciates places to hide, and is social (good with people).  They would also be able to chart the bearded dragon’s growth, observe and inspect its skin as it sheds, and conduct other scientific experiments.

After obtaining approval from the principal, they continued with their research into purchasing their new pet, beginning with cost:

The students looked at several options for cage purchases, food, and the cost of the pet itself.  After determining the best cost options they began taking donations to purchase the necessary materials.

Photo by Mrs. Zalesky
Name contributions!

I really enjoyed visiting with Mrs. Zalesky’s students about their project.  You could see the excitement in their eyes, and hear it in their voices.  Every single student was eager to share something about the research process with me.  To say that learning was evident would be a huge understatement.  The students used math, science, and research skills to select the appropriate pet for their class.  They learned how to come to a consensus when choosing a name.  They learned about the responsibilities involved in owning a pet.  And they built stronger relationships with their classmates and their teacher through the entire process.

Mrs. Zalesky’s classroom belongs to her students!  And the learning…that belongs to them, too!

Oh, one other thing.  Through their research the students learned that the bearded dragon will live over ten years with proper care!  Good luck with that Mrs. Z!


Why I Love Lunch Duty…and You Should Too!

Yes…you read that right!  I love Lunch Duty!  It’s one of the highlights of my day!

One of the counselors at Timberview Middle School made this statement in a meeting last week. I’ve been in education for over twenty years, and I’m certain that before that day, I had never heard those words spoken.  Teachers dread lunch duty.  For most, lunch duty means hundreds of hungry kids who have been held up in a classroom all morning, gathered in one place, all with plastic-ware and mashed potatoes at the ready.  Teachers stand by with discipline referrals in hand, and paper towels nearby, prepared to counterattack any threats of students leaving their seats without permission, or (get ready for this…) sudden accidental milk spills!

And so we serve our duty in the lunch room, willingly or otherwise, because it’s in our contract.  Why don’t they just come out and say it?  Instead of “Other duties as assigned,” just put it out there; “Look, you’re going to have to do lunch duty.  Sorry, we all have to!”  Because we’d have no teachers!  Nobody wants to do lunch duty.  So we call it “other duties as assigned.”  Very clever sneaky school district lawyer types!

Why I Love Lunch Duty!

I really do love lunch duty!  And It’s my goal in this blog to encourage you to love it, too!

Ask any kid what his favorite part of the day is.  Some will say recess; maybe PE; or music.  The occasional future accountant might say math.  But most will put LUNCH in their top three!  Why?  This one’s easy:

Lunch is the thirty minutes during the day students are able to enjoy the company of their friends.  They can talk about things that interest them, relive last night’s football game, or discuss the video game everyone’s playing.  They can complain to their friends that their parents grounded them because of something they didn’t even do.  They can make after-school plans.  They are in their zone!

Ben Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and the Boston Youth Philharmonic.  He is also the co-author of the book, “The Art of Possibility.”  In this book he talks about “shining eyes.”  This is a quote from his TED video in 2008:

“My job is to awaken possibility in other people.  And of course I wanted to know if I was doing that. Do you know how you find out?  You look at their eyes.  If their eyes are shining, you know that you are doing it.  If their eyes are not shining, you have to ask yourself a question: ‘Who am I being, that their eyes are not shining?’ We can do this with our children, too.  ‘Who am I being that my children’s eyes are not shining?'”

I love seeing shining eyes in our students! And I see them everyday in the cafeteria. When I ask them a question about something they are passionate about, and I take an active interest in their lives, their eyes light up! Do you want to see shining eyes?  Don’t just supervise during lunch duty, participate in it!  Why not be an active part in the students’ favorite part of the day? Walk around, have conversations with students.  Ask questions, then let them talk.  You’ll see their shining eyes!

Make lunch duty an opportunity rather than a burden.  Do this for a couple of weeks and you’ll really start developing some great relationships with kids.  They won’t tell you this, but they’ll appreciate that you care about them!

Is “Surrounding Yourself with Smart People” Enough?

“Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you!”

It’s listed in every leadership expert’s “Top Five Traits” (or “Six Characteristics,” or “7 Habits,” or whatever)!  “Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.”

And while I believe that successful people do indeed surround themselves with brilliant people, I think there are two other elements that must be included here:

  1. The leader must be comfortable enough to ask questions, no matter how trivial.
  2. The people surrounding the leader must be willing to take the time to share their knowledge with him or her.

I realized very early in my new role as an administrator at Timberview that I was surrounded by exceptionally brilliant people!  These people, many of whom opened the school together three years ago, know their stuff!  They are masters at what they do, and they know the system very well.To be honest, being surrounded by people smarter than you can be quite intimidating!

I realized something very important early on: When you are the new guy in an established system, you absolutely must ask questions…lots of them…even if they seem trivial.  Otherwise people assume you know everything that they know.

The second part of this idea is even more important than asking the questions.  The people surrounding you must be willing to share their knowledge.This is where Timberview shines!  Not only do the office staff, counselors, administrators and others willingly answer my questions, they do it in a way that is caring and considerate.  Let’s face it, they are extremely busy with their own issues!  And yet they take time to stop what they are doing to give full attention to my questions.  They make sure I understand by asking clarifying questions and they follow up later to make sure I’ve gotten the information I need.

When I become a famous leadership expert, I’ll put together a list of “Top Ten Traits.”  Number one on the list
will be,” Surround yourself with smart people; who are kind and compassionate, and willing to share their knowledge with you, like the staff at Timberview Middle School!”

They Don’t Bite!

Contrary to popular belief, middle school students, for the most part,


Education researchers agree that students will resist rules and procedures, as well as disciplinary consequences, unless a firm relationship foundation has been established.  This relationship is especially important at the middle school level!

Our key strategic focus this year at Timberview Middle School is “enhancing student relationships.”  If we asked every teacher on our campus how important “enhancing student relationships” is to the development and education of our students, I am confident that 100% would say, “very important,” or even, “the most important thing!”

But what does it mean to “enhance student relationships?”  And how do we know if we’ve succeeded?  We can talk about the importance of developing relationships.  We can create lists of strategies.  We can read books, attend conferences, and follow the “experts” on Twitter!  The truth is, no kid cares about any of that.  They just want to know that you care!  And in my opinion, this is how they know:

Bring yourself to their level,  and trust that they, in fact, won’t bite!

Psychologists tell us there are four levels of social distance that can occur:

  • Public Distance (12-25 ft)
  • Social Distance (4-12 ft)
  • Personal Distance (1.5-4 ft)
  • Intimate Distance (6-18 in)

I realize that a large amount of teaching occurs at the Public Distance. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day, or teachers available, to spend all of our time in the Personal Distance.  But spending at least a little time there everyday will help develop those relationships that are so important to learning.

I challenge you this week, whether you are a teacher, parent, school volunteer, or other position where relationship building is important, to spend some time in the Personal Distance.

“I am not a Role Model”

This Summer my boys and I were watching a game between the Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox!  It was a game worth forgetting if you’re a Rangers Fan, as they ended up on the wrong end of a 19-2 score.  But this game has been stuck in my mind all Summer because of something that happened on the field that night.

Chicago outfielder Alex Rios made what appeared to be a sliding catch on a line drive hit to right field.  As he came to his feet claiming to have made the third out, the umpires met to discuss the play.  After reviewing the video replay, the umpires (and TV viewers everywhere) saw that not only did Alex Rios not catch the ball, it wasn’t even close!  The ball landed several feet in front of the right fielder.  Alex Rios knew he didn’t catch that ball.

Being the Twitter Nerd I am, I sent out this tweet regarding Rios and what I thought about his character:

Soon after, I found myself in a Twitter conversation with several others about the expectation of athletes to also be role models.  Their argument:

The YouTube link in the tweet is a video of a kid asking Alex Rios for his autograph while he was at an evening event.  Not only would Rios not give the kid an autograph, his language was offensive and inappropriate.  Definitely not the role model I want for my kids!

Are athletes Role Models?  Can athletes choose to be Role Models? Or are Role Models chosen?

I’m reminded of a Nike commercial from the early ’90’s, where Charles Barkley boldly claimed, “I am not a role model.”  

I get it Sir Charles.  You’re telling kids to look up to their parents, teachers, and others.  But can you really tell kids not to look up to you?  Can you really say, “Watch me play basketball, but pay no attention to my daily life?” And Alex Rios, can you say, “Watch me play baseball, but pay no attention to me when I display my true character?”

I don’t believe we choose to be role models.  I believe others choose it for us!  We can only choose what kind of role model we will be.  Trust me, someone, somewhere, has chosen you to be their role model.  Someone looks up to you.  Someone is watching every move you make!  And the scary part is, the type of Role Model you choose to be will shape that person’s life forever.

My goal as a first year administrator is to be a great Role Model; to my kids at home, students at school, teachers, parents, staff, and fellow administrators.  I want to base my daily decisions on that goal and always ask myself, “What kind of Role Model am I right now?”

Oh, and Alex Rios, you’re baseball skills are awe inspiring; you’re Role Modeling skills however, could use some work!