Laura K Spencer, Ed.D.

The Power of the Master Schedule

A learning organization is a place “where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”

The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, by scientist and organizational-theory expert Peter Senge

My daughter just started her Junior year of high school. As with most high schools across the nation, she had to wait to get her schedule until the day before school started. It’s a highly anticipated moment – which teachers did I get? Will my friends be in classes with me? What’s usually not questioned is what classes are assigned. That’s because, by this stage of the high school career, classes are chosen in the Spring, signed off by student, parent, and counselor, and therefore expected to be a reality in August.

So I’m sure you can imagine her surprise when two of her selected AP classes were not on her schedule. And as luck would have it, these are the courses which had assigned summer homework. So not only is she without the courses she expected, but she invested hours of summer vacation doing the work needed for these missing classes.

Instead of excitement, she walked into school day one with anxiety and disappointment. But more importantly, she was invested in coming up with a solution. Can you imagine how her level of investment would be markedly more than the guidance counselor? Or the Principal? Or me? This need, this problem, is personal to her, and therefore, she is motivated to figure it out.

The New Power

The question I have is, why don’t we provide ways for students to become part of the process of building the day to day of school? In New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World–and How to Make It Work for You by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans, Timms and Heimans share ways in which organizations can embrace new power. Unlike old power, which is guarded and owned by a few, new power embraces the wisdom of the collective by distributing power in a participatory fashion. 

How could this apply to high school schedules? Think about how massive the master schedule is at a traditional, urban school. So many students, so many classes, and so many possible pain points. How might we provide a participatory experience so that students could facilitate the creation of their schedule? How might the inclusion of this missing voice work towards shifting the culture of a campus from adult to student centered? How much more invested would students be in the school experience if they helped to shape it?


Senge believes that, “When young people develop basic leadership and collaborative learning skills, they can be a formidable force for change.” So how about we give them that chance? A little transparency and some extra voices can’t hurt!

Update: No luck on fixing her schedule. She went from three to one AP class, which will drop her class ranking because of the weighted GPA structure. We’re looking at college courses so she can get the subject knowledge she wanted.

I am a Recovering Super Chicken.


“Hi, my name is Laura and I’m a recovering Super Chicken…”

“Hi Laura…” the room of ordinary chickens respond acceptingly…

(Trust me, it all makes sense within a minute or so of watching the video!)

Huffernan suggests, “For years, we’ve thought that leaders were heroic soloists who were expected, all by themselves, to solve complex problems. Now, we need to redefine leadership as an activity in which conditions are created in which everyone can do their most courageous thinking together.”

I’d even go so far as to say that this isn’t just about leadership, but about teaching and learning as well, with both staff and students. We are better when we learn with each other, from each other, supported by each other.

Sharing the Power of Vulnerability

Something to reflect on as we welcome students and their families into our classrooms, our schools, our lives.

“Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’ That’s our job. Show me a generation of kids raised like that, and we’ll end the problems, I think, that we see today…

Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, ‘I’m enough’ … then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”

Pickle Hives and Design Thinking

“Babe, I was eating a pickle and it made my feet break out in hives!”

Not quite the greeting I was looking for after an exhausting 14 hour day of work, evening teaching, and traffic, but that’s what welcomed me at home. And sure enough there were giant welts all over his feet.

“Pickles did not give you hives. That’s crazy. You sure you didn’t get bit by an army of baby spiders or something?”

And so it began… the back and forth over the cause, and solution, for the sudden hives.

But I’ll get back to that story in a minute. Because this post is actually about problems. And HMW (How Might We) questions. And goals.

Our leadership team has been digging into culture, and the purpose of school, for a couple years now. Last year was the official first year of our five year plan to transform from a 20th century model of knowledge delivery and compliance to an extraordinary school experience that values the student and his/her inner genius. It was a year filled with first attempts, discoveries, and questions. All of those brought learnings and wonders and even more questions. And through those experiences, we developed a common vision and understanding of the WHY of our five year plan.

While setting the stage for this school year with the superintendent and assistant superintendent, we realized that, in order for the leadership team to dig deeper into the WHAT and the HOW of the plan, the 20th century model of setting goals and yearlong action plans in August wasn’t going to work. That model is based on the premise that the person setting the goals knows the path that needs to be taken, has an understanding of how to reach the destination, and can do so by an arbitrary deadline. Instead, our goal setting process needed to support our learning journey.

After reflecting on the vision of our plan, the purpose of setting goals, and the monumental work that lay ahead of us, we realized this year’s goals needed to center around identifying, understanding, and addressing a problem that was impeding the district vision.

So together, our leadership team identified problems. Some were instructional in nature, while others identified outdated or cumbersome systems and structures that stifled innovative actions.

Once everyone articulated a problem connected to their site and/or department, time was spent developing a HMW statement to begin understanding the problem more deeply. We shared our articulations with each other for feedback, pushback, and refinement.

And then some of us started identifying a problem with our problems.

Turns out, our HMWs had personal hunches embedded within them which was inadvertently skewing them into solution questions instead of problem probing questions. Here’s an example*:

Problem: Lack of student engagement during writing instruction.

HMW: How might teachers provide students with personalized topic choices so as to increase student engagement during writing instruction?

See the hunch?  How do we know personalization is the key to increase the engagement of these identified students? We don’t. It’s a hunch. And that hunch can take us down a road of creating solutions to the wrong problem. Because in reality, personalized topic choices are a potential solution. They could show up on a post-it while ideating. But they shouldn’t have a home in our question.

Once we realized our preconceived solutions sneaking into the problem statement, we pushed more on the problem and the HMW and a second version emerged:

Problem: The Principal has observed a lack of student engagement during writing instruction for a group of 4th grade students.

HMW:How might 4th grade teachers create engaging learning opportunities within the teaching of writing so as to increase students’ active involvement in the writing process?

Now we’re getting somewhere. This question requires empathy-building with the end-user, aka 4th grade students, so as to figure out what may be causing their disengagement. Boredom? Too hard? Too easy? Language barriers? Personal issues? Something else? This version is not based on a hunch, but on a desire to understand and respond accordingly.

This goal-setting approach models a learning-centered culture. One not built on hunches. But on a design thinking mindset, which is pretty darn exciting!


As for John, we learned, after doing some good ol’ Google research, there actually IS such a thing as pickle hives, although it’s technically an allergy to a preservative used in some pickling methods. So maybe his hunch was correct after all. And maybe I should have stayed in the problem space with him a bit instead of jumping to my own conclusion.

(Although I have to say, I think an army of baby spiders is a much cooler end to his story than 2 Benadryls and some calamine lotion…)

*Not a real problem shared during our collaboration, but used here to illustrate what I was trying to say.

You know what’d make me happy? If you shared the link to this post with two friends. I’d be super happy if one of those two subscribed to my posts. Learning together is way more fun than learning on my own.

I was at a Women in Educational Leadership the other day, and one of the sessions presented by a local superintendent was on culture. She shared four essentials for creating a positive culture. They are:

  • Energize and Encourage People
  • Foster Connected Relationships and Teams
  • Provide Opportunities for People to Do Their Best Work
  • Empower and Enable People to Learn and Grow

After she shared the categories, she had us walk around the room and get ideas from others as to ways in which to provide those essentials. That time to talk about our ideas, elaborate on them and create new ones together created our own positive culture. In those few moments with each other we were truly listening, engaging with each other and building a sense of connection.

It’s what’s missing on Twitter. Lately, Twitter seems to be filled with dime store platitudes lacking any depth. If I could get a dime for every time someone says relationships are the key… the key to student engagement, the key to school culture, the key to learning gaps… without explaining just how to develop those relationships, I could pay off my student loans!

So I’m sharing my notes from our walkabout and challenging everyone to add an item. Let’s not just talk relationships and culture. Let’s talk about the work we are/should/can do to create positive cultures that truly promote relationships.

Four Essentials for Creating a Positive Culture

Notes from my walkabout. Template provided by Supt Candace Singh


Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano – Teacher Habits Blog

Marzano deserves our anger. But at this point, what he really deserves is to be ignored.
— Read on

Sometimes it’s best just to share the words of others without adding any commentary. Enjoy the read.