Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Hawaii Innovative Leaders Network for PBL School Leaders

Two short years ago, I attended an informational session with Bob Lenz from the Buck Institute.  Our Department received a grant from the Castle Foundation, and he was providing information and seeking school leaders to participate in the first Hawaii Innovative Leaders Network. In my application, I stated, "In this world where information and experts are readily available, all of us can create our own learning opportunities based on our interests, talents, and passions. PBL is a framework where we can all be explorers, discoverers, creators, and sharers and where we can make a positive difference in our world." I was excited to be accepted.

This past week was our last official event, and we all had the opportunity to share how we had grown through our HILN experience. It was bittersweet; I was proud at how far all of us had traveled on this PBL journey, but I was sad to see it end.  Our culminating activity was a  presentation to a panel, some of our HILN colleagues, and invited guests. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on my personal journey as a PBL leader. 

The first HILN sessions set the tone for what was to come. ("A Unique Opportunity") I'll be honest; I was a bit hesitant at first because I didn't know anyone else who was part of this cohort, and uncertain about what to expect. The activities were designed to get to know others better, and I could see that I was somewhere in the middle where PBL was concerned. I had done a lot of reading and our school was committed to making the change from teacher-directed interdisciplinary units to student-driven project-based learning, but as we know, change takes time. Some school leaders were just exploring the possibility of implementing PBL at their schools while for others in HILN, PBL was an integral part of the teaching and learning experience at their schools (e.g. SEEQS and Innovations Charter School

Our quarterly HILN sessions went by quickly. This was the first time that I participated in professional development of this nature where we met quarterly over a period of time with the opportunity to apply what we had learned and to reflect on our experiences prior to the next session.  I looked forward to the HILN workshops; there is something to be said about building a culture of trust with like-minded school leaders. I quickly realized that I would gain from this PD what I put into it, and building relationships with my fellow HILN colleagues was essential.  It helped to have a leader whom I liked immediately upon meeting her. Cris Waldfogel put me at ease and pushed me to reflect more deeply and to think above and beyond. The HILN workshops were all part of us experiencing PBL through the lens of a school leader.

The relationships we built with our HILN colleagues  are what made our discussions and the activities so effective.  One of the most powerful activities was our "Learning Walk" where we visited each others' schools and had the opportunity to share challenges we were facing in a safe and supportive environment and to seek and receive feedback from our colleagues in the form of "wonderings" or probing questions.  ("PBL Learning Walks - An Awesome PD Experience"

I realize that now, I look at problems or challenges through a PBL lens. I find myself asking questions, exploring to discover answers, and then sharing what I've learned often through a blog post. "Why?" questions are pondered prior to asking "How?" or "What?" and modeling the process for our teachers has helped them to be more open to implementing PBL, even if they are starting with baby steps. ("The World Looks Different from a PBL Perspective")

We culminated HILN by presenting our learning to a panel and others in the audience. We submitted a digital collection of our learning prior to this presentation, and as I reflected on the critical elements of PBL - vision, culture, capacity building, and continuous improvement - I realized just how much I had gained through my participation in HILN. I loved hearing my colleagues share their PBL journey and realized how much all of us had grown. This was not intended to be a dog-and-pony-show, but rather a response to the driving question, "How have you used your Project Based Learning Leadership Elements to promote and sustain high-quality PBL in your school or district?" Somehow, though, we all managed to weave in some of the exemplary projects at our schools as part of our presentation, and frankly, I was blown away by what some of our students are doing at their schools.

Our commitment to PBL at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School continues to evolve. I believe that PBL will always be evolving because as our world changes and new problems emerge, our students' questions, interests, and curiosity will dictate where their learning will take them. PBL is a way of thinking, a shift from student as a passive receptacle of lessons to an active maker of their own learning. It is an exciting time to be an educator!

Link to my Digital Collection
Link to my Demonstration of Learning

Monday, January 15, 2018

Preparing for an Emergency

Yesterday, I received an Emergency Alert text on my iPhone like thousands of people around the state. "This is not a drill," the text stated. My initial reaction was to go to my son's room (he hasn't yet returned to the mainland) to ask if he got the text as well. (He did.) My husband was at a meeting in Honolulu at the time and called to ask if we got the message. I immediately closed our jalousies (not much protection there), and tried to call my Mom. She doesn't have a cell phone and lives by herself. I couldn't get in touch with her, so I called my older sister to ask if she knew where Mom was. My sister was skeptical and asked questions:  Are you sure it isn't a false alarm? I don't see anything on TV about it. Why aren't the sirens going off? Hmmm . . . good questions. I checked on Facebook and saw that others had posted about the text message they received.

Then it dawned on me that I didn't receive any messages from US Army Garrison Command. Because I work on a military base, I get their messages by email, text, work phone, and on my cell phone. This time, I didn't get anything. When my husband called, he said the message was false though it wasn't confirmed until a few minutes later.

Since then, I've read lots of personal accounts on FB about the incident which turned out to be human error in pressing the wrong button. People are angry; they were frightened, understandably.

I realize that as a senior citizen, I viewed the incident with different lenses from others. After hearing a presentation about what schools should do in case of a North Korea attack, my initial reaction was, "Why would I want to survive something like that?" Of course, as a school leader, my responsibility is to protect those we serve, so we had a discussion and created a contingency plan should something like this happen during school hours.

Many are quick to blame those in charge for this error. We expect government to protect us, but unfortunately, we live on tiny islands in the middle of a huge ocean. We don't have the capacity - yet - to sustain ourselves should there be a threat to our safety from an attack. I think this was a wake-up call to be better-informed and better-prepared should there be an unexpected disaster - natural or otherwise. This human error also exposed chinks in our system that need to be addressed and improved so such a false alarm doesn't happen again.

Frankly, I am proud of our people in Hawaii who, although they felt helpless and terrified, behaved civilly despite the fear and the uncertainty over their own futures - for themselves and those they loved. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when word was received that it was a mistake. Life went on, and if nothing else, this false alarm gave us an opportunity to reflect on what could have been and to be better-informed and better-prepared in the future.

I think we've become a little bit spoiled about instant notifications. In the "old days," such a mistake would not have happened because we would not have the option of receiving these kinds of emergency notifications. Technology is great, but it presents other problems as we saw yesterday.  Many shared their stories about calling those they loved, crying, and praying.

I have confidence that given the opportunity, we can make a difference. As citizens, we should ask tough questions and be part of the solution. Let's work together to ensure that if something happens in the future, we can help and support each other.

Evacuating to the Teen Center
Every month, schools are required to perform emergency drills so we are prepared in case of an actual disaster. Once a year, we conduct an evacuation drill with oversight by the military. We realize the necessity to hold a drill to get everyone into our three safest buildings on campus and evaluate whether we need to make adjustments. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

What is the Culture at Our School?

It's Winter Break. It's pretty quiet around the school with a few workers on campus to catch up on maintenance or end-of-the-year responsibilities. I usually spend a couple of days during school breaks to clean my office and to trash things I no longer need, but this time, I did a pretty good job of keeping my office relatively free of clutter. (That's an accomplishment for me!) I've been having a difficult time writing a new post for this blog. It's not that I've not been reflecting; on the contrary, I've probably been reflecting more-than-usual as I near the end of my career as an educator and a principal at our school.

George Couros to the rescue! His latest blog post, "People Shape Culture" was exactly what I was thinking about, and when George's first line stated,  "I am struggling with an idea here, so I have decided to blog it out . . Let's see where it goes." It was as if he was reading my mind.

I've been thinking a lot recently about the culture of our school. I reflect on the first few years of my tenure here, and I realize how much I've grown as a leader. Yet my basic beliefs about teaching and learning haven't changed much. I still believe that we need to focus on our students and what they need to be successful. The culture of a military-impacted school is different from a local community school where students might attend with the same classmates from K-12. There are different challenges at our school, challenges that we've addressed through supports as well as our curriculum and instruction. ("Proud to Be a Principal at a Military-Impacted School"

I was lucky to work under school leaders who trusted me and gave me the green light to try new strategies or lessons to engage my students. I believe this is why I, as a principal, work to build relationships with our staff so they are comfortable to be innovative in their classrooms to meet the needs of their students. Many of the ideas and changes we have implemented were suggested by teachers: co-teaching, Response to Intervention, project-based learning, Google Apps for Education (G-Suite), student-led conferences, integration of technology for teaching and learning, our Exploratoria, afternoon enrichment classes, and more.

I reflected on our staff, and I realized that 90% have been hired or were transferred to our school after I became principal fifteen years ago. This is probably why our school culture is one that is aligned with my personal beliefs about education. We hired the right people for our culture and put them in the right seats on the bus.

When I leave the school, I expect that the culture will change. If it's true that people shape culture, then what we've implemented based on our beliefs will remain, but the new leader will bring in his/her ideas to positively influence the culture. And that is how it should be!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Giving Thanks, 2017

When I first started blogging, this was one of my first posts. That was back in 2012, and since then, I have continued to blog and share my thoughts with our school community. I think this "old" post is still reflective of how I feel about our school so I am re-posting and updating it since so many of our families are new to our school. Happy Thanksgiving to our DKIES `ohana!

This Thanksgiving day in 2017 is a perfect opportunity to reflect on my principalship at Daniel K. Inouye Elementary School and all that I am thankful for.  What makes a school special and unique is its people, and DKIES is no exception.

All of my schooling has been here in Hawaii, and I can't imagine being uprooted in the middle of the year and having to go to a new school, make new friends, learn new rules, procedures, and curriculum, and adjust to these new surroundings. Yet our DKIES students are asked to do this not once but multiple times in their school careers.  More often than not, this is occurring while a parent is attending training or is deployed.  Our students make the best of their situation even while they are missing a parent who may be off-island for training exercises or who may be deployed and in harm's way.  I marvel at their resilience, and my hope is that they will take what they've learned at DKIES about aloha and share it with others when they leave Hawaii.  At DKIES, Eagles Pride means to
Take care of yourself. Take care of others. Take care of our school.  This is a message we hope they will live throughout their education years.

I am grateful to the DKIES parents who support our school and trust us with their children. Military  parents' lives are so different from what I experienced as a young mom when I had family and friends to support me.  Being uprooted from their system of support is a challenge, and their confidence in our school to take care of their children is a responsibility we take seriously.  To the soldier parents who have committed to serving and protecting our nation, I send my heartfelt thanks. And to the spouse who is left behind to take care of the home and the family while the soldier is absent, you deserve kudos for all you do.  It takes a strong person to accept and adapt to military life and often, you turn every new change of duty station as an adventure and a learning opportunity for your family.  Mahalo for all you do.

I am so honored to be at a school with such a great staff.  I love going to work every day because I work with people who care about our school as much as I do.  Others may not realize the challenges of working with a highly transient military population, but your commitment and pride in your work is what makes our school so special.  I hope you realize the positive impact you have, long after the students and families have left DKIES and Hawaii.  I am truly proud to be part of our DKIES `ohana.

4 1/2 years ago, we were one of the original schools on military bases in the United States to receive funding to upgrade and renovate our facilities. In 2016, all of the construction was completed, and our school was renamed after a great American hero from Hawaii, Daniel K. Inouye. When I first became principal of Hale Kula Elementary School in February 2003, I would never have imagined how the school would transform during my tenure. I am so appreciative to Congress and the State of Hawaii Legislature for funding our $33.2 million project, to everyone who made this project possible, and to our school community for their patience and support throughout the challenging construction phases. It is humbling to realize all that went into this project to benefit our students now and in the future.

I am truly blessed with a wonderful and loving family, supportive friends, a job that I love, good health, living in a place that many consider paradise. I couldn't ask for more.

May all of you have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

I'm Not Data-Driven

I'll admit it; I'm not data-driven. I do look at our school's data and we have discussions about how we can improve, However, there's so much data available today that it's hard to decide which ones to pay more attention to.

There was a time when I meticulously took all of our students' academic information and put them on spreadsheets. I color-coded them to identify those who may need more support. Then I realized that it was the teachers who should be doing that with their students if we wanted to see gains so I asked teachers to send that information to me. Today, our Instructional Coaches meet with the teachers to review their data and make decisions regarding interventions.

We also carefully reviewed the behavioral data to see if there were areas on campus where we were getting more disciplinary referrals or to see if there were trends with grade levels or groups of students. Our monthly Peer Reviews and Triage Meetings are an opportunity to discuss concerns for individual students and to come up with a plan of action to support those identified students.

However,  I don't spend an inordinate amount of time looking over our data to determine next steps. Although I know it's important to review data regularly and to gauge progress towards our goals, I prefer to look at the big picture.

In my personal life, I was not a data keeper. My husband is pre-diabetic and every morning, he pokes his finger and takes a reading of his blood sugar level. Some days he is high and needs to monitor what he eats or maybe he needs to do more physical exercise. Luckily, I don't have pre-diabetes so I never felt the need to take data. However, last Christmas, my husband gave me a present - a bright pink Adidas pullover - and it was too tight. He offered to have it changed, but I saw this as an opportunity to improve my health habits.

At the start of 2017, we had a Wellness and Fitness Challenge at our school for all of our staff. Everyone was placed on a team, and we set our own healthy goals. The team captain was tasked with checking each week to see if we reached our goal, and we had a partner who encouraged us to keep going. It was then that I set two goals for myself: at least 5 days a week, to take 10,000 steps and to have a salad for one of my meals. I started a journal to document my progress. The Wellness and Fitness Challenge ended but I kept going.

Well, recently, my husband and I were going on a trip and I decided to try on the pullover since it would be colder where we were traveling to. It fit! I was tickled pink (literally) to wear it.

I know that keeping data deliberately was what helped me get to my goal. The thing is that my goal wasn't to lose weight; it was to eat healthier and make sure I got in my 10,000+ steps. It helps that we have a wide-spread campus. I love walking around, taking pictures and sharing with the staff and school community. My data was easy to track, and I think there were less than 5 weeks when I didn't meet my goal.

As I reflected on this data-keeping experience (which I intend to continue), I made a few connections to keeping data at school:
  • Data-keeping can be used effectively and efficiently by teachers; it doesn't have to be laborious or difficult.
  • Data-keeping is only useful if we monitor regularly and use the data to make positive changes in our teaching and learning.
  • We should teach our students to keep track of their own data. This can be an important strategy to achieving our personal goals.
  • Goal-setting is easy; monitoring and recording our progress via data-keeping takes commitment. It's so easy to lose sight of our goals when there's no accountability.
  • We can spend so much time tracking and analyzing data, but perhaps more important is the big picture. Why are we keeping and analyzing data? There must be a purpose for our data, to improve what we're doing in the classroom to positively impact student learning. 
While I believe data is important as part of school improvement, I also think we need to be careful about being so data-driven that we lose sight of what's really important: our students. As this quote states:

Finally, I decided to do something I'm not comfortable doing - sharing this photo of myself and my grandson Jayden in my pink Adidas pullover.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

An Epic Fail! Well, Not Really

Last Wednesday was our school-wide evacuation drill, and on Monday evening, one of our teachers sent an email, "Are we sending something out to the parents?" Yikes! I had forgotten about that! Early the next morning, I edited last year's letter, made copies for all the students, cut the papers in half (we were saving paper by putting two letters on one page), then began to deliver them to classrooms with instructions to send it home that day. I had gotten through about 10 classrooms with many more to go when I heard someone chasing after me with, "Mrs. Iwase, it's the wrong date!" What? I took her stack of papers, and sure enough, it was the wrong date! Arrgh! What had I done? I returned to the office, wondering what had happened. I took out all the letters with the wrong date - half of the stack - and realized what I had done, or more accurately, not done. I changed the date on the top letter but had forgotten to change the date on the bottom letter. Basically, I wasted time and paper that day. In the realm of things, it wasn't that much of an epic fail, but every time when I make a careless mistake that ends up wasting time and/or money, I feel a bit guilty especially when I tell teachers that we should be "going green."

In our Leadership Team meeting last week, we started off by talking about time. That is a major barrier when we suggest implementing something different to address student needs. Often, we use the lack of time as an excuse rather than figuring out how to make better use of the time we have. As educators, we are sometimes bombarded by the latest research or the newest app or a program that will make it easier for teachers and will help our students to be more successful. How can we predict what will work and what might be a "waste of time?"

I do believe, however, that time - or the lack of it - really depends on where we are in our lives. It's easy for me to say, "It's not about having time; it's about making time" or "Time is nonrefundable. Use it with intention." Sure, I agree with these statements, but I remember when I felt like there weren't enough hours in the day to get everything done. As a young working mom, it seemed that I was always rushing and I was always telling (yelling?) at the kids to hurry up so we wouldn't be late to school or practice or a game or some other event. There was cleaning and cooking and laundry and homework that needed to get done. I managed to get through that stage of my life. It wasn't easy, and I learned to prioritize because there never seemed to be enough time for everything.

Now that my sons are grown up and no longer live at home, I have time on my hands - time to read, to go to the gym, to walk my dog, and to relax. School still takes up a significant part of my free time, but now, my schedule is dictated by me. As I look at our teachers rushing off to take care of their kids, I recall the days when my sons were late to practice because I lost track of time.

So what's my message? There will never be enough time in the day to do everything we want so we shouldn't fret about it. In school, rather than worry about "getting through the curriculum," make sure our students have time to be engaged during the lessons so they understand and retain what they learned. Rather than teaching content separately, find ways to integrate subject matter so students can make meaningful connections. Look for ways to work smarter, not harder, and if technology makes our jobs easier, don't be afraid to try something out and see if it works for you. And remember the old saying, "Haste makes waste." It might sound cliche, but it is really true and I have proof - 750 half-sheets of scratch paper!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017


First quarter of SY 2017-2018 has come and gone, and I'm taking this downtime to reflect on all the learning that is going on at our school.
  • Our teachers are exploring how to implement project-based learning through one of their units and what started as a first grade project about wants and needs became a school-wide effort to help out a classroom that was impacted by Hurricane Harvey. (Link to HAW article) During this PBL, third graders helped their first grade buddies to edit and revise their letters to the classroom in Houston, and they made posters together to put around campus to publicize the drive. Fourth graders shared information they learned about hurricanes and flooding as part of their slow and fast processes unit. Students are learning what it feels like to make a difference and to have empathy for others. 
  • All elementary schools in our complex are implementing social-emotional learning through Second Step.  Our teachers are sharing that the time spent on the lessons are making a difference in the classroom, and reminding students about what was learned/discussed has paid dividends. The lessons are broken up into Skills for Learning, Empathy, Emotion Management, and Problem-Solving. In today's world, we all can use a reminder about these important life skills.
  • For the past few years, our students have participated in the Cardboard Challenge. Inspired by the film "Caine's Arcade," our CC has evolved from a "make whatever you want out of cardboard" to a game design process using cardboard. During the last hour of the day last Friday, the whole school came out to share their game or to play other students' games. The game design process is not just for technology; it can be for the kinds of games that come from students' minds with rules, strategies, and originality.  Problem-solving and communication skills were evident throughout the process, and the game designers enticed us to play. Perhaps most important, our students were empowered to create something on their own and they were engaged when playing other students' games. I even heard some of them giving suggestions to the game designer; I was impressed with the students' creativity and their positive comments.  
  • Yesterday, two DKIES teachers and I attended a training with other staff from our complex area. In an earlier blog, "Continuing the #Hour of Code," I shared my concerns about the lack of coding in our schools. After my two-day Altino training and when observing some of our students coding so confidently, I am even more convinced that we need to make time in our school day for these types of activities. All students need to be exposed to coding, and it cannot be just an after school or enrichment activity for a select few. Our Trainer Shane Asselstine asked us to share about the session in 5 words. Here are my 5 words: "Inspiring, committed, challenging, collaborative, FUN!"'s vision is "Every school. Every student. Every opportunity." I agree; now we must implement this vision at DKIES. 
Every year, I am inspired by our teachers who are so willing to try new ideas and our students who  share their excitement about what they are learning. As a principal, there is no greater reward than to see such exemplary teaching and learning going on in our classrooms!

A parent shared this on our FB page after reading the article in the Hawaii Army Weekly:
"This makes my heart sing and my eyes water knowing that these kids, my kid, is learning selflessness and compassion and incorporating it with wants and needs.

This was such a cool game. The student in green drew the creatures on cards. The objective was to blow the ball through the tube to knock down one of the cards. Kids were waiting in line to try it. 

Students waited their turn to play this board game. Who says kids only want to play video games?