Senior Signing Day

I was blessed as a teacher at New Tech Academy to have great colleagues.  One of them, Scott Brown, and I stumbled upon YES Prep’s Senior Signing Day.  We were moved and decided to replicate it at our school.  It was an amazing experience for staff and students alike.

Fast forward to today.  Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative has challenged schools around the country to continue to help ALL students reach their potential and pursue knowledge and growth after high school.  Today at New Tech High in Napa, CA, we celebrated our first Senior Signing Day.  We had over 30 students publicly pledge their commitment to the university or branch of the armed forces.


We believe that Senior Signing Day does two things:

  • It celebrates the success and perseverance of 4 years of high school
  • It sets a pathway and goal for underclassmen to strive for

The college application process is one of the most stressful experiences for any one person.  Filled with indecision, nerves, and fear, it can cripple the most successful students.  It also brings tears, joy, and the feeling of emptiness waiting for the acceptance letters.  Today’s Senior Signing Day allowed us to grab that process by the horns and celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2016.  It also created a benchmark for all underclassmen to strive for.  “Where do I start?  What questions do I have?  What do I have to do to get in there? Who do I talk to?” were some of the questions I heard posed after the event.  Now that is a cause worth celebrating.


Note: Please see here for a list of all the students that participated and the schools they have committed to. 


Redefining the Portfolio Experience

Portfolio’s in education are not a new concept.  The same thing can be said about the role of the portfolio here at New Tech High.  For many schools, pulling off a successful digital portfolio program can be a daunting task.  Over the course of time, New Tech High’s had grown to become a place for students to demonstrate proficiency and mastery in our school wide learning outcomes (oral communication, collaboration, etc.).  However, it was clear that something was missing.  For many students, portfolio become a box to check.

In working with students, the New Tech High staff began exploring what the goals of a portfolio were for our school.  We wanted it to be meaningful.  We wanted it to be reflective.  We wanted it to be holistic.  We wanted it to have longevity.


It is with this that I am excited to announce we have official rolled out the NEW version of portfolio at New Tech High.  Now it isn’t anything earth-shattering, but it’s a big shift for us, moving from a static web design to a blog as portfolio model.

Now, there is plenty of research that supports the use of blogs in education and in professional work.  Our portfolio task force (led by Lisa Gottfried and Andrew Biggs) was a group of students that got their hands dirty with the redesign.  They realized that by blogging, our portfolio could be a holistic 4 year journey for students.  The new blog as portfolio will allow students to highlight and reflect upon their work in:

  • Project and culminating event work
  • Developing school wide learning outcomes.
  • School and community service.
  • College classes and the college going process.
  • Internship and work-based learning.
  • Senior Project.
  • Personal passions and more.

Through scheduled blogging time and real time reflections, our portfolio experience will move from a static target to a 4 year journey.  The hope would be that students take a hold of their digital footprint and have a tool that they can truly use post-high school. The “I Can Statements” will help guide the way.


Current Seniors and Juniors that have not passed the old version have the opportunity to finish it or move to the new version.

We haven’t quite landed on an exhibition platform yet.  We envision that Open House or a Portfolio Showcase Night will be utilized in the future so students can share their work with families, friends, and community partners. We are excited to take a step into this new journey with our students.


Effective Communication With Remind

Creating an effective school communication program can be a tricky beast for any school leader to tame. However, it is vital in ensuring that all stakeholders in a school can stay in the know.
At New Technology High School in Napa, CA, effective communication means having a comprehensive and all-encompassing approach to interact with our community. We know that many of our stakeholders (students, staff, parents, etc.) live on different mediums. Pew Research Center indicates that nearly two-thirds of Americans now own a smartphone (April, 2015).

For this reason, it is crucial for us to make sure we utilize a variety of tools, such as Remind, social media, and our website to communicate what is happening at New Tech High so that everyone in our community has a means to access what is happening, smartphone or not.


Need for Communication

In August 2014, the Napa Valley was rocked with a 6.0 earthquake. The quake impacted many of the New Tech High families. As a school, it was vital that we were able to find a way to communicate with our students and parents. Many families were left without electricity and were unsure of what was going to happen next.

It is in moments like this when a comprehensive communication plan comes into play. We were able to calm the community by communicating information about the status of the school, check on the well-being of families, and share resources for those affected. In the face of tragedy, being able to have clear lines of communication was critical. We were able to utilize Remind to communicate with our families quickly and precisely about the status of the school and emergency needs. Sending out alerts and updates allowed are families to be in the know when they needed it most.


Using Remind

As the world of communication continues to evolve and grow around us, it is important that schools and school leaders remain flexible and adapt. Remind has been a vital tool in helping us support changing the way we can communicate with staff, students, and parents.

As a school, New Tech High uses Remind in two major capacities: staff communication and school communication. We have a staff class in which I can share resources, important reminders, and action steps. This allows us to always remain clear on what needs to happen and what is most important at the top of our plate.

As far as school-wide communication goes, students and parents can opt-in to an class that we send out event reminders, share what is happening on campus, and much more. Using Remind allows us to get information to stakeholders in the quickest and easiest way: right into their text message inboxes

Effective Communication Must Be Clear

In my first year as a principal, it has been important to constantly view myself as a learner. Frankly, I think this is a must no matter what year it is in your career, which is why this also guides my view as an effective communicator.

It is necessary for a school to have a clear and concise communication plan that all stakeholders value and understand. At this same time, you cannot be committed to a plan that doesn’t work for your school community. You must always be reflecting, gaining empathy, and reiterating your plan to best meet your stakeholders’ needs.

“Driving” the Bus Together

Many times, adult learning at a school can seem fragmented and random.  You start out your year with a goal, but soon enough a new initiative or issue distracts you from collectively moving together on the same bus.  This year, at New Tech High, we choose to utilize the driver diagram protocol to focus our adult learning as a school.  The driver diagram protocol has deep roots in the medical field and public sector for helping derive a shared improvement plan.  As a school, we utilized the protocol to create a shared “bus” that would drive all of our professional learning whether it be system-wide, in PLC’s, or individually.

The Process

Our deeper learning team started the year with really examining what our aim was.  Collectively, we looked at our district goals, our schools mission and vision, previous years focuses, and our WASC action plan.  After pulling all the pieces together, we settled on this as our aim:

“Supporting deeper learning to prepare all students for academic, personal, and professional success.”

We then continued to dissect what primary drivers would systematically move us through the year together as a school.  We were quick to note that we didn’t want to just settle at adult learning.  Our primary drivers needed to be the same focus that we would ask our students to dive deeper into as well.

New Tech High’s collective aim and primary drivers for 2015-2016.

Collective Capacity

After developing the primary drivers, each of our PLC began examining what secondary drivers and change ideas would impact their work.  It was important that each driver was actionable and measurable, so that we could constantly reflect and evaluate on our growth as a school.  We also wanted to make sure that PLC’s had the autonomy to connect secondary drivers and change ideas that were relevant to the work they were focusing on for the year.  Our school utilizes inquiry cycles to drive our learning and the driver diagram protocol supported the bias to action we were trying to create with utilizing these cycles.

Into the Future

We are 3 weeks into the year and the drivers continue to focus and guide our work so that we can collectively drive the bus together.  This protocol allows for enough flexibility and personalization that staff members can take their secondary drivers to whatever depths they like.  This is perfect, because all of our work is aligned to the same primary drivers in hopes to push us towards our aim for all students.  We will continue to reflect and revisit the impact that our change ideas are having on our drivers throughout the year.  What I do know though, is the road is paved for us to get this bus moving into the future of education.


Into The Deep End

Well I have made it!  Officially into my 3rd week as a principal.  This journey has been such an amazing ride.  I am so thankful to have crossed paths with many people that have helped me along the way.  I would not be who I am today without the support of my family, the faith and trust of Liz Bryan, and all of my friends within New Tech Network and at New Tech schools around the country.  Throughout my time in education, I have learned so many valuable lessons that have come to fruition in my first 3 weeks as a school leader.  I’d like to briefly share what things have been my biggest takeaways:

Enthusiasm is Contagious

I am a firm believer in a positive approach.  By no means do I expect all people to think, act, or feel the way I do.  However, I have come to find that enthusiasm is a dangerous weapon.  If harnessed correctly, it can help foster an environment that encourages positive risk-taking, promotes deeper thinking, and most important makes coming to work fun.  The work we do is hard, but so worth it when we are willing to approach it from a lens that lets us use all that stress for good.

Communication is Key

This is not a new concept.  Creating systems that allow for stakeholders to easily access information is important.  But what is more important, is communicating clearly so that information can be enabled into action.  So much time is spent on logistics.  I am a firm believer in Inbox Zero and that concept has even been challenged in these first 3 weeks.  We have really focused on normalizing our communication strands to make sure that each party involved can be the most efficient and effective at what they need to do.  Our logistics team is using Voxer to communicate and it has been fun to continue to explore new ways to get better at communicating as a school.

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The World is In Your Hand

I have always felt that I can do a pretty good job at juggling others people’s needs.  However, I have always had an issue at being over-involved.  It is just in my humanly nature, but I am working at building the collective efficacy and capacity of those around me.  With that being said, I am learning more and more how central the role of school leader is to the school ecosystem.  Everyone’s problems are your problems.  What might feel like a small bleep on your radar is someone else’s greatest need and concern.  Their Titanic is sinking and you are just trying check your voicemail for once.  Balancing everyone around you’s world in your hand is a challenging task, but key to keeping the school moving forward.

It’s Still About the Students

I have always believed that adults are the biggest hurdles to student success.  Whether that be home situations, external parties, or even the adults in the school.  In my first 3 weeks, it remains apparent, it’s still about the students.  I have no problem with working on something late at night if it gives me more opportunities to be around students while at school.  If I really want to know what is happening ON my campus, I need to be IN my campus.  We all know this can be challenging, but I feel like even with all of the vultures that can pull at me, I have a pretty good grasp on being a student-centered principal.

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2 weeks down, many more chances to keep learning, growing, and getting better.  It hasn’t been a perfect couple of weeks.  I know I still have lightyears to go, but I can tell you one thing, the buzz of excitement in the New Tech High community is on fire right now and I love it!


“Designing” A New Way to Start the Year

Let me start this post off with being up-front: WE ARE NOT a design thinking school.  In fact, before last Thursday, there were only a couple people (students or staff) in our school that even knew what design thinking was.  New Technology High School has a rich history that is rooted in project-based learning.  However, we really wanted to examine a way we could kick-off our school year the right way.  That is where design thinking came in.  Now, I know we aren’t the first school to utilize design thinking with students or staff, but I do want to share the magic that happened to start our 2015-2016 school year.  It is launching us into a new era of what New Tech High is all about: creating a culture of excellence with a bias to action.

Since moving to Napa, I have been blessed to get plugged into the work that the Stanford and IDEO are doing.  Whether it be through their School Retool pilot or attending a design thinking workshop with one of our facilitator’s this Summer, it has definitely influenced my thinking as a leader.  Last Thursday, in our first professional learning day, we introduced design thinking to our staff through a classroom hack challenge.  We brought students in to create empathy, allowed them to prototype in human scale in their classrooms, and test out each others ideas to get feedback.  This really set us up in a great position to launch the new school year in a brand new way.


There were some clear goals of utilizing design thinking in our kick-off project.  We first decided that including all 415 students in self-selected mixed grade groups was important.  The following goals really drove our work:

  • Build understanding of the design thinking process
  • Create a clear bias to action in our work
  • Deepen the level of collaboration across grade-levels
  • Strengthen student voice and choice
  • Build school culture through an authentic learning experience

The last goal really was a game changer.  Many times schools (myself included) struggle to create authentic experiences to build school culture.  School culture activities take place independently from authentic learning and can sometimes seem fluffy.  If students opt-out, then it creates a new “distraction” to the goal of the culture-building.  By utilizing a design thinking challenge as our orientation, we were able to cultivate a deepened sense of collective efficacy in our school as a whole.  I want to provide a brief overview of what the 3-day challenge looked like:

Day 1:

We started day 1 with what we call an all-school meeting (ASM) to kick-off the school year and challenge.  Students were presented with the question:

  • How might we tackle a problem that effects our community (local, national, global)?

We kept the question as vague as possible to allow teams to really create their own problem definition moving forward.


After the ASM, students explored 10 theme topics: teens, violence, water, human rights, privacy, equity, food waste, immigration, robotics, and change as growth.  All students got to be in one of their top three topic choices.  After getting in their theme groups, students began to examine potential users to build empathy.  They did interviews, created empathy maps, and began self grouping into common problem teams within their theme.  Next, these new teams began crafting a needs statement for their user.  By the end of the day, we had come back together as a school to reflect on the day and examine some new logistical need to knows.

Day 2:

Day 2 started with students getting back in their theme groups.  They revisited and expanded on the empathy map and needs statement they created.  Students focused on brainstorming wild ideas.  We really focused on deferring judgment and challenging assumptions during this process.  No idea was a bad idea.  Before narrowing their idea, we spent some time analyzing our new school-wide learning outcomes and sense-making what “student agency” was.  Along with this, upperclassman spent time supporting freshman and new students through buddy walks, breaking myths, and answering need to knows.


To narrow their idea down to start prototyping, we watched a video from Nordstrom’s Innovation lab about rapid prototyping.  This really kicked our groups off into action.  Along the way, students participated in a few creative expression activities to help build culture within the context of the challenge.  This was amazing to watch.  We didn’t need to stop the project to build a stronger connection between our students.



Before I talk about prototyping, I must say we are blessed to have such a supportive school community.  Families donated a wealth of supplies to help encourage that bias to action.  To end the afternoon, student teams focused on designing their first iteration of their prototype for the solution to their problem.  At this point, we essentially had 10 themes, and about 100 different problems being solved!

Day 3:

To build energy for the final day, our ASB lead student’s on a school-wide scavenger hunt.  The focus on the hunt was to find out more about who we are as a school.  Each clue had a discussion question that groups had to answer before getting the clue right.


After this, we jumped right back into prototyping.  Students used user feedback protocols to get ideas for improving their prototypes.  This was one of the hardest tasks for our upperclassman.  I found many older students were okay with being content with their first iteration.  The staff did an amazing job at challenging each group to re-iterate, re-iterate, re-iterate; building the capacity of our students to utilize feedback to make positive changes to their idea.


Before lunch, each of the ten theme groups presented their ideas to each other.  In these groups, they would decide on one team to send forward to pitch their prototype to the entire student body.  It was awesome to see our students share their learning and continue to take feedback on their ideas.

After lunch, we gathered as a whole school to hear the 10 theme finalists pitch their prototypes to their peers.  We had students represent all 4 grades, all ethnic backgrounds, and all comfort levels of public speaking.  Our finalist ideas covered the entire spectrum of the challenge.  Here are a few of the prototypes:

  • A web-service to connect immigrants with potential employers in our community
  • A fortune cookie series to promote online “cookies” safety
  • An app for transgender teens to find safe transport
  • A robot family member to support a changing workforce
  • An app that allows teens to limit their social media access
  • A scientific tool to help farmers regulate water use based on barometric weather


All of the prototypes were 100% driven by the students interest and developed through the design thinking process.  The awesome thing is that every single group will have the ability to move their prototype forward.  The winning group will get extra support (coaching, seed grant, and trip to Stanford), but every student will have an avenue to continue to develop their idea.


Regular classes start Thursday at New Tech High.  But I can tell you, our Design Thinking Challenge to kick-off the year built culture, deepened learning, and created a buzz around what it means to be a Penguin at New Tech High!

Here is to a great year!


Gangtsa Rap is My Educational Philosophy

Music has a definitive influence on social interaction.  One of the most prominent forms of social interaction is school.  In this relationship, there have been many profiles of how hip-hop can influence education.  Two cases that stand out are Sam Seidel’s work in Hip Hop Genius and Marc Lamont Hill and Emery Petchauer’s Schooling Hip-Hop.  Both books take a deeper look at the context in which hip-hop principles can strengthen academic curricular implementation.

I can openly say rap and hip-hop have had a dramatic influence on who I am. I enjoy the music, it is a hot discussion topic amongst my friends, and musical knowledge has grown through it.  I am biased.  I love the reflection and implementation of Kendrick Lamar’s work by Brian Mooney.  However, I want to take it one step further.  I truly believe that adopting the “gangsta” rapper mentality is one that can guide educators to deeper learning.  I am not saying these mindsets are unique to hardcore rappers, but that when examine what characteristics define them can provide a framework for educators to deepen their practices and philosophy.  Let’s look at 3 gangsta rapper mindsets and 3 case studies:

Persistence – Coolio

Having a growth mindset is powerful.  Carol Dweck’s work challenges the way we approach improvement.  Part of this challenge is persistence.  People with a growth mindset see failure and setbacks as an indication that they should continue developing their skills rather than a signal that indicates, “This is something I’m not good at.”  Coolio is a great example of persistence.  Many people don’t know Coolio’s full story; they associate him with his carefree attitude and trademark hairstyle.  However, Artis Ivey, Jr.’s roller-coaster story provides a solid framework for educators to grow their own practices.  Born in the rough neighborhood of Compton, Coolio fell into gang life very early on.  He was a very promising young student, but his violent unstable persona would land him in jail at age of 17.  Coolio’s persistence would shine through as he extended his education at Compton Community College and his interest in rap and performing took off.  However, the stranglehold that his violent up-bringing had would cause continued struggles.  While trying to make his breakthrough, a crack cocaine addition derailed his ability to be successful in the music industry.  Instead of letting this stop him in his tracks, he entered rehab and even took a job as a firefighter to help relieve the desire to go back down the wrong path.  By 1994, Coolio had overcome growing up in a gang environment, serving time in jail, and a drug addiction to release his debut album.  What if he would have succumb to any of these hurdles?

Coolio’s story is a great model for persistence and resilience.  As educators, many times we face pitfalls that cause us to question keep pushing forward.  Whether it be toxic cultures, struggling students, or state mandates, many times we feel that the journey is not worthy of the destination.  Coolio’s persistence in not letting his surrounding environment or downfalls stop his progression towards his goals was vital to his success in the music industry.  As educators, we can learn a lot about applying this same mentality to our situations.

Vulnerability – Tupac Shakur

Arguably one of the most influential rappers of all-time, Tupac was never one to shy away from his true feelings.  Tupac presented such a vulnerability in his words, that it made it hard not to listen to him. He wrote, “In the event of my demise, can’t breathe no more, hope I die for a principle, something I lived for.”  Shakur spoke very candidly about life and death.  After filming Juice in 1992, he had a very candid interaction with producer Neil Moritz. “Ten years from now,” said Moritz, “you’re going to be a big star.” “Ten years from now,” Tupac replied, “I’m not going to be alive.”

We all know the tragic ending to this story.  But by examining Shakur’s mode of operation, educators can learn a lot about vulnerability.  Many times educators feel they must have all of the answers.  The pressure of evaluations and standardized test cause many educators to put up walls or leave them guarded.  Tupac was a rapper that wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, but he did with a conviction and honesty that left him vulnerable.  If Tupac was an educator, I would imagine him as someone who would challenge his students, but spend enough time building relationships and opening up to them that they would be vulnerable to take risks too.

As educator’s, many times, we are conditioned to believe that we must have all of the answers.  Tupac’s story and honesty in his work provides a solid framework for applying vulnerability to our work.  He spoke what he believed was the truth and this same message rang through in his music.  To truly open up our minds and our student’s minds, being vulnerable to successes and failures is vital to embracing a mindset of growth in schools.

Philosophical – Nasir Jones

If you have not ever watched, Time is Illmaticyou don’t know what you are missing.  The 2014 biopic profiles the growth and making of Nas’ 1994 debut album.  It profiles the social conditions that Nas experienced growing up in Queensbridge and influenced the development of his musical career.  If you have never listened to Nas’ early work, then you might not know why he embodies a true philosophical approach to bringing a rawness forward.  His prolific writing has confronted issues of poverty, race relations, and the struggle to survive on the streets.  His music provides an intellectual perspective and depth to it than many times can get overlooked by the catchy beats the words are set to.  The influence that his work has on the growth and development of the urban outlook on life has a similar breadth as that of the prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment in Voltaire, Rousseau, and Locke.  Let’s take a deeper look at some of the work from Nas’ It Was Written.  In “If I Would the World”, Nas sings, “Imagine smoking weed in the streets without cops harassin.  Imagine going to court with no trial.  Lifestyle cruising blue Bahama waters, no welfare supporters more conscious of the way we raise our daughters.  Days are shorter, nights are colder. Feeling like life is over, these snakes strike like a cobra.”  This same veracity can be seen throughout Nas’ career.  At no point is he afraid to tackle a topic that was not prevalent in the community he was raised in.  The rawness and philosophical approach he takes is second to none.

As an educator, what does it mean to be philosophical?  I believe that it means to be rooted in a deep nature of knowledge and existence.  Many times, we forget where we actually are.  Who are kids actually are.  Nas never forget what it was like growing up in Queensbridge and was not hesitant to tackle the issues that faced the community around him.  Many times in education, we try to apply band-aids (1:1 tech, etc.) without truly tackling what our students need most: a true sense of their own reality and existence and a way to challenge it.  Educators can apply this same philosophical approach that Nas did in order to open the door.

Persistence, vulnerability, and a philosophical nature are three mindsets that have defined many “gangsta” rapper’s stories that need to be present in educators in order to deepen the work we are doing in schools.  I am not saying that it is not there, I just think that we can learn more from hip-hop than just connecting or students with the art.  By applying these characteristics in the way these 3 rappers did, we can go far further in strengthen the context in which authentic learning happens.