Collaboration is not created by the arrangement of desks.

Collaboration is not created by the arrangement of desks.

Collaboration is not created by the arrangement of the desks.

When Doug Reeves made this statement at a Literacy Leadership Symposium I attended recently, I pictured one particular classroom in my mind. One where the desks are arranged in rows, yet I often walk in to find students with heads together in spots around the room, learning together.

Doug said that having classrooms arranged with desks in pods does not necessarily mean that collaboration is happening. Just like having desks arranged in rows does not necessarily mean that collaboration is not happening.

So, how do we create a culture of collaboration in a classroom? In a school?

Collaboration happens when

two or more people share ideas with each other and

build on their ideas and learning

based on what they hear from one another.

The little ideas they started with begin to grow

as they add to each other’s learning,

and before they know it,

their ideas are completely transformed

into something greater than they ever imagined.

Fake collaboration exists. It happens when we push desks together and call it collaboration. It happens when we change the name of our staff meeting to “Staff Collaboration Time” yet the leader still does all of the talking. It happens when one person dominates the conversation and others are not able to share ideas. It happens when we hand kids a worksheet and tell them they can work on it with a partner and call that collaboration.

Yet, real collaboration is alive and well in many schools and many classrooms.

What does it take to really collaborate?

  • Relationships, so there is trust and vulnerability
  • Valuing everyone’s ideas
  • Time together
  • The ability to NOT crawl up on the table with your idea
  • Transparency about the values and biases you bring to the group
  • An action plan for the next steps

Creating the conditions for collaboration takes modeling from the classroom or school leader and it takes a commitment from all group members. It is pretty easy to convince others that we are better together, but it does take some work to define how collaboration really happens. And then, once we create a culture of collaboration, we must constantly improve our work together because if we aren’t improving, we are declining.

Heads together excitedly sharing thoughts and ideas with an end result that surpasses expectations.

That is collaboration.

Want to see Quincy Elementary teachers collaboration in full creative force? Watch THIS

Image source HERE

Author’s note: Attending Adaptive Schools training has helped me reflect on my skills as a group member and as a group leader. Dr. Brandi-Lyn Mendham brought Adaptive Schools into our district and having this training together has set the stage for collaboration like we have never experienced before. To learn more, visit


This is the Worst Day EVER! and Other Exaggerations

This is the Worst Day EVER! and Other Exaggerations

Which problem seems more solvable to you?

I cannot believe that parent. I have NEVER been treated so horribly. This is the worst day ever. What a huge mess!


I can tell that parent was upset. I wonder what triggered that? 

A mentor once told me that using emotion-filled words are not helpful, in fact they are hurtful to problem-solving and relationships. Since hearing that, I have recognized that using emotion-filled words can be a roadblock to problem solving for me.

When we use words like never, worst, horribly, huge, always our problems can seem bigger than they are, they can seem insurmountable. When we focus on the facts of the situation and remove the emotional language, problems seem much more manageable.

Our choice of words has an affect on those around us. We can be a breath of fresh air and energize others, or we can be negative and emotional and bring others down with us. Let’s not deny that bad things happen, or that we can have a bad day. Emotional words exist in our language for a reason. Let’s just not use them often or inappropriately, for our own benefit and for the benefit of others.

Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.                                                                                                        -Dalai Lama


Image source:

My Nashville Half-Marathon: hills, pain, and serendipity

My Nashville Half-Marathon: hills, pain, and serendipity

Hmmm….would I be mad or happy if the race was cancelled due to the thunderstorm?

I remember thinking this the morning of the race, stomach in knots, nervous energy putting a pep in my step and making me giggle. I had never traveled for a race before and I had been anticipating it for months. I knew ultimately I would be disappointed if I wasn’t able to fulfill the goal of conquering the heat and hills of the Nashville Rock N’ Roll Half-Marathon.

Along with the amazing friends I travelled to Nashville with, there were 44,000 other runners that morning of all ages, shapes and sizes. You could see the nervousness in their faces too. The common goals that united us created a sense that we are all in this together.

I was feeling sorry for myself as I was running up a hill on mile two when I came upon a firefighter fully decked out in 30lbs of gear. He was running the full marathon. I thought to myself, if he can do that…if he can run this marathon with the same gear that he wears to enter burning buildings to save lives, I can certainly run these 13.1 miles.

There were many times during the race that I thought I couldn’t do it. Like the time in mile three when we passed by a rack of bikes to rent and I contemplated that if I had my credit card on me, I could just rent one of those bikes and ride to the finish line.

However, the blessing on the course were many, so much so that I had a smile on my face almost the entire race, filled with joy and gratitude because I can run and for all the blessings in my life. Again and again I was inspired by the people I saw around me. 

  • The man pushing a wheelchair so his physically impaired brother could experience a marathon. 
  • The woman holding a sign that said YOU are awesome!, wearing out her voice by saying over and over, “This sign is for you, and you, and you,” pointing to as many runners as she could.
  • The couples running, encouraging and coaching each other along the way.
  • The man with the amputated leg, running on a prosthetic up and down all of those hills. 
  • High fives over and over on the course from spectators cheering us on.
  • The rain held off, and instead we had cool breezes and just moments of sprinkles.

The music lifted me. Around mile nine, right after I saw the man with a prosthetic leg running down a hill, I turned a corner and heard the most beautiful music. A band was playing a Christian song, on a stage in front of a church. Their beautiful voices could be heard for a mile, and the number of supporters holding signs and singing with all their hearts filled my own heart. My eyes filled with tears as I looked up to the clouds and expressed my thanks.

I passed the mile 12 marker and enjoyed a brief downhill stint before we turned the corner and saw the course go up and up and up. My body was aching, but I laughed at those last hills and thought, “Well, you are going to have to earn this finish. It is not going to be handed to you.”

The last band on the course was playing Stairway to Heaven as we rounded the corner to the stretch before the finish line. I appreciated the irony of that song with the runners around me. It was a beautiful way to finish a race full of apprehension, fear, pain, joy, gratitude, peace, and laughter.

This race was a great reminder to me that we get what we look for in life, don’t we? When I looked for nervousness, pain, and fear, that is what I saw and felt. When I looked for joy, gratitude, and laughter, that is what I saw and felt. 

At one point in the race we ran by a store called Serendipity. I stopped briefly to take a picture. That morning I certainly experienced serendipity…I stumbled (literally at times) upon the fortunes of learning, laughing, and celebrating alongside incredible people.

Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run

There’s still time to change the road you’re on.

-Stairway to Heaven

Why My Blog is Named After John Cusack

Why My Blog is Named After John Cusack

“When love feels like magic, it is called destiny; when destiny has a sense of humor, it is serendipity.” -from Serendipity, a 2001 John Cusack movie

Who doesn’t love John Cusack? Why not name my blog after him? I fell in love with the idea of serendipity after watching his 2001 movie called, ironically, Serendipity. I was in love with John Cusack way before that movie came out (think Say Anything).

I taught a class to 7th and 8th graders called Serendipity, I named my blog Serendipity in Education, and I strive to live life looking for serendipity. Here are five reasons why:

1. Serendipity is looking for the good in all things

Even the things that don’t seem to be very good at all. For example, in one of my first blog posts, I described how during a two hour drive to my hometown to see my mom, who was dying, I found myself feeling very grateful for traveling by car rather than horse and buggy on that rainy day. Sometimes it can be quite a stretch to find the good, but if I look hard enough, I can always find things to be grateful for.

2. Serendipity is good luck disguised as bad luck

The other week I read a book called Zen Shorts by Jon J. Muth to a fifth grade class. We loved all three of the short stories with powerful lessons, and one of them resonated with serendipity. The panda describes several situations where people had bad luck, but in the end the “bad luck” kept a young man from being drafted into war.

Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as: luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things that are not looked for. Serendipity is finding the good even when it is disguised as bad luck.

3. Serendipity is looking at life from a humorous angle

This one can be drawn right from the way serendipity is described for the movie, “destiny with a sense of humor”. I do believe that things happen for a reason, a bigger purpose than we are sometimes aware of. I love looking for the humor, the irony, the hidden lessons in the things that happen. I do not poke fun at other people (although my sister may contradict that statement), rather I laugh at myself or the situation. Finding the humor helps lighten the mood and then helps us look at solutions with a more positive approach.

4. Serendipity is an approach to life that doesn’t replace hard work

I believe in luck…as in we make or find our own good luck. I think Thomas Jefferson said it best, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” All good things take work. Serendipity is more about how you approach life, with a desire to find the good and smile and laugh while you do.

5. Serendipity is found by immersing ourselves in life

The origin of the word serendipity comes from a Persian tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip”. In this story, three princes try to impress their father by traveling as everyday people rather than as nobles. During their travels, they saw the hardships that people went through but also saw the good that was in that everyday difficult world. This reminds me to walk the walk, roll up my sleeves and do the work alongside others, and to really listen to understand.

The tag line for my blog is: Stumbling upon the fortunes of learning, laughing and celebrating alongside incredible colleagues, students and parents. 

I believe that the “fortunes” are always right in front of us, and it is our job to find them, to learn from them, and to share them.

Do you believe in serendipity? More importantly, do you love John Cusack as much as I do?


The Value of Being Silly

The Value of Being Silly

The other day I was conducting mock interviews with student teachers at a local college. The last young lady I interviewed said something that surprised me.

Me:  What are the three most important things for me to know about you?

Young lady:  … The second thing for you to know about me is that I am silly. 

I have to admit, I can’t recall much of what the other candidates told me in response to this question, but I do remember her response. She gave me some examples, like she is the leader of her college’s Quidditch organization. I instantly related to her because I too am silly.

We spent Easter with my dad and his wife. During the course of one of our conversations, I showed him my app and a few of the videos I created. He responded with something like, “Why would you ever make something like this? Do you show this to people? Do they know you are a principal?” You would think that I was recreating Miley Cyrus videos.

It is risky to be silly isn’t it? I think that is why some people think I have so much confidence, because I am willing to be silly in front of others. Alas, I suffer from the same self-doubt and imposter syndrome as many do, but I appreciate being silly too much to keep it under wraps. The risk lies in potential judgement–what will people think if I am silly like this? I do care about what people think, I just don’t care enough to let it stop me from doing the things I value. 

I am a teacher to my core, so I always feel the need to share what I value with others so that maybe it could benefit them like it benefits me. I share my silliness through social media like, Instagram and Voxer. I am also silly in real-life as much as I can be, with my sons, husband, friends, and family. I am silly with my students and colleagues at school. To me, a day without silliness is a day wasted. It brings a light-hearted fun and positive energy into life that fuels my creativity and helps me find joy in the simplest of things. A haircut, for example: Haircut video (15 seconds)

I also think that is one of the reasons why my principalship at Quincy Elementary has been such a natural fit. Case in point, from our Staff VS Fifth Graders Bball Game on 3/31/16:


What do we teach our students and our own children through role-modeling silliness? I believe that we teach them to not take life so seriously, to not sweat the small stuff, to invite joy and fun into our lives as much as possible, to be generous with our fun by sharing it with others, and to have fun WITH others rather than AT the expense of others. The list could go on and on.

So please tell me, do you value being silly? How do your share your silliness? Do you let potential judgements by others influence your silliness? Does silliness have a place on Twitter for educators? I follow Dean Shareski @shareski (who is a silliness role-model) and a tweet he sent out a few weeks ago has me thinking–are we too one-dimensional on Twitter?

(See more Quincy fun and silliness, and character building: Something BIG at Quincy 4min)

A Principal’s Spring Break Message to Staff

A Principal’s Spring Break Message to Staff

August 2014, three teachers stood in the rotunda of Quincy Elementary , holding a sign that said, “Congratulations! Welcome to the Q…”.

It was surreal, I was not sure what to think. I was so excited, but this was a big deal. Moving my family, changing jobs after 14 years at one school, uprooting our lives. I couldn’t say yes quite yet because I needed to talk the position and reality of the move over with my husband. But in that moment, my heart screamed yes!

Many of us have experienced the sudden whirlwind of relocating. Like you, we had to sell our house, buy a new house, settle the kids into new schools, say good-bye, pack and unpack and everything in between. Through the chaos, through the ups and downs, there were times I was homesick for the life we left behind, but I never had a second thought about the decision I made to become the principal of Quincy Elementary.

The staff is crazy, so I fit right in. Not in the crazy like looney kind of way, the crazy like, “Woah, you think we can really pull that off? Okay, let’s do it,” kind of way. They are dreamers and doers and hard-workers. They love each other and they love our students. They want to provide an outstanding learning experience for our students. 

They are stubborn, they are critical thinkers, they ask lots of questions.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

They smile and do goofy things, and laugh, and cry together. 

The bottom line is that they give their ALL for our students and for each other.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Thank you Quincy staff for choosing me. I feel blessed beyond measure. I work hard every day to live up to be the principal that you deserve. My palms sweat before every staff collaboration because you deserve your time to be well spent on things that matter to you and to your students. I want to be a ray of sunshine in your life, and a facilitator of continuous growth. I want to ask questions that make you think in a way you never have. When you come up with great ideas, I want to help you make them happen.

Thank you for allowing me to be on this journey with you. Have a restful and peaceful Spring Break! You deserve it!

Let’s Be Candid, Important Work Is NOT Always Pretty

Let’s Be Candid, Important Work Is NOT Always Pretty

This morning I listened to a thought-provoking podcast on BAM Radio Network with Ben Gilpin (@benjamingilpin) and Brad Gustafson (@GustafsonBrad). They interviewed Starr Sackstein (@mssackstein) about a blog post she wrote encouraging teachers to speak candidly.

You can listen to the podcast HERE

I have been thinking about this podcast all day–all the way back to days earlier in my career when my motto was, “Shut up Allyson” in order to avoid conflict. Today, as an elementary principal, I value candor from the teachers I am fortunate enough to work with.

My philosophy is that I work FOR the teachers, and unless they tell me what they are thinking, I cannot serve them well. Setting ego aside, I have to be willing to modify or even dismiss my ideas when we decide together that they won’t work. Collaboratively we come up with amazing things that would never be possible alone.

When relationship-building is embedded into the culture, it is assumed that we will follow the golden rule and not disagree just to be disagreeable. We recognize each other’s strengths while continuously reflecting and collaborating. We NEED to be challenging the way we do things when we are talking about something as important as student learning. We can do that in a way that feels like professional discourse, not arguments.

As with any relationships, there are bumps in the road and occasionally feelings are hurt. If the culture is there, those bumps can be talked through and worked out pretty easily when addressed right away. Important work is not always pretty, it doesn’t always feel good. We will fail many more times than we succeed. But–if we have each other’s backs in an honest way, we feel like we can do anything.

Thank you Starr, for your willingness to stick your neck out there and encourage teacher voice! As always Ben and Brad, you entertain and inform every time!