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I Call it Accountability

Recently the province of British Columbia has tackled an age-old problem through applying proven behavioural and research techniques to change behaviour.  It is no secret and there is no shortage of research from parents, psychologists, therapists, behaviour strategists and teachers that holding a person accountable for their choices leads to changes in behaviour.

To be accountable means to be responsible or answerable to someone for something. It involves taking responsibility for your own actions and being able to explain them.  

We also know that this accountability becomes even more powerful when we are required to be accountable to the people we care most about in our lives (parents, children, spouses, teachers, friends, relatives).

In school, we use this personal accountability to support children in learning new ways of behaving and to encourage them to make more positive choices.  We require them to “own” their behaviour and to answer to the people who care most about them. We illicit an emotional response which is the most powerful factor in determining future behaviour.  We ask them to remember how they felt when….

As adults we can look back on events in our lives, good and bad, and we always remember how we felt.  This has a lasting effect on future choices.  ie. “I am not going to make that mistake again because I don’t want to feel that way again or have to answer to those people again.”

Being held accountable is THE most powerful way to change behaviour.  So why all the backlash in British Columbia?

Selling alcohol to underage children is the problem behaviour the province wants to change.  Holding the sellers accountable to the people they care most about is the way to change this behaviour.  This is how it works, this is the proven way to change behaviour.

The method the province has chosen to hold people accountable for selling alcohol to underage children is to have them post a sign in their store window for 2 weeks that states, “I SELL ALCOHOL TO UNDERAGE CHILDREN.”  This is the right thing to do.  In no uncertain terms, it holds the seller accountable to the people they care about; in this case their customers.  The two-week timeline is also right.  It allows for people to have another chance, to take the sign down and do better.

Funny thing about it, critics don’t like it.  Critics call it shaming.  Critics don’t believe holding people accountable for their choices is what we need to do.  My assumption with this is, critics don’t want this behaviour changed or critics would know this is the right thing to do.

Are Those Kids Off-Task Again? One Trick to Change Off-Task Behaviour

For many years as I taught grade school then transitioned into school administration we always seemed to talk about on and off task behaviour.  In fact, I can remember people coming into my classroom with a stop watch and timing the amount of on and off task behaviour a student displayed over a half hour period of time.  To this day, when students are off task they often get check marks, they lose privileges or get phone calls home.  It was always about the student, and what was wrong with the students and how we could use coercive and persuasive techniques to increase on-task behaviour.

It hasn’t been until now, that a number of pieces of information, a few different books I have read, and the latest Professional Development I have been involved in did it become apparent to me that on or off task behaviour was not necessarily the fault of the child.  In fact, off task behaviour in most cases falls directly on the shoulders of teachers.  We as teachers cannot make a student be more on task, but we can design tasks that result in an increase in student engagement.  In fact, in most cases, when tasks consists of elements that engage students, guess what?  Students are engaged.

But why should we hold teachers responsible for designing tasks that result in student engagement?  Shouldn’t students be required to complete the work assigned to them?  This visual clearly speaks to the role of the teacher and the requirement for effective teaching.  I realize there are many qualities that meld together to create a “high-performing” teacher but there is definitely no argument that one of the key qualities is the ability to design tasks that result in student engagement.

So just what are tasks that result in high levels of student engagement?  What are the attributes, components of these tasks? To answer these questions, I will include the information the staff at Erin Woods School recently compiled. In a two-hour work session, our staff came together to think, discuss, and synthesize the following information.

Here is the trick to changing off-task behaviour:

Lessons that are designed to engage students do just that!  Listed here are the attributes of tasks that result in differing levels of engagement.

Low Level of Engagement

Medium Level of Engagement

High Level of Engagement

  • Listening
  • Teacher telling
  • Watching the teacher do
  • Copying
  • Individual tasks
  • Memorizing
  • Not challenging – student finishes quickly and easily (low-level thinking)
  • The task is not easily differentiated (except by making less work or more work)
  • All students have the same task (no student choice)
  • Is teacher made (or made by a publisher)
  • Has right or wrong answers
  • Not linked to personal interest


Work sheets – pre-made

Yes/no tasks (one right answer)



Fill in the missing word

Write  a word 5 times

Word Search

  • Combination of two learning modalities (ex: visual and tactile)
  • Looking for information
  • Partner work
  • Students doing
  • Some self or peer assessment
  • Increased use of visuals
  • Combining some personal knowledge to the new information


Mad Minute

Personal Dictionary

KWL Charts

Any searching, finding, looking for answer

Making Words

Work with more than one right answer

  • Linking to prior knowledge
  • Student generated/student created
  • Game-like
  • Meaningful or related to the student’s life or interests
  • Working together with peers
  • Results in a piece of work the student is proud of
  • Challenges the student but is attainable
  • Considers learning styles
  • Allows for student choice – completed work looks different
  • Can be extended or broadened into further learning
  • More than one right answer


Games or challenges

Hands on or multi-modal

Solves real life problems (math, social studies)

Experiments (with a hypothesis and solution)

What this information tells us is task design is the key to on-task, high engagement behaviour from students.  In the end, it is not the student who is at fault.  When those students so many years ago were timed for on or off task behaviour I don’t think we even considered whether or not the task they were being asked to do was appropriate for the learner or had the attributes of a task that often results in engaging behaviour.  As educator Phil Schlechty says, There is a 0% chance that children will learn from work they do not do.”  And we know they will not do boring, un-engaging, un-related, senseless tasks, would you?

What Your Rules Say About You

Rules, rules, rules, everyone knows the key to success in school is to follow the rules.

Unfortunately, this belief persists in many of todays classrooms and schools.  Next time you are in a classroom take a look at the posted rules.  Are they rules such as “no talking while the teacher is talking, stay in your desk during work time, raise your hand if you need help?”  If so, I think these rules say a lot about the teacher, the work environment and the level of meaningful engaging tasks.  They imply that the teacher is the only one who holds the knowledge, the teacher will give you great wisdom and knowledge if only you will listen and the work you undertake will be solitary and designed to measure how well you listen.

Rules for Students Fall 2009-2

Rules for Students Fall 2009-2 (Photo credit: mick62)

Why is it that some classrooms need these types of rules and some do not?  For the teachers that do not post these types of rules what is the difference?  How can they manage without them?

One answer to these questions is to take a look at the type of tasks the student is being asked to undertake.  To analyze the planning and preparation the teacher has given to design tasks which result in high levels of student engagement.

Think of it this way, if a teacher designs tasks that engage the student in meaningful learning will the student be wandering around the classroom disrupting others, off task, doing any of the other million things teachers often complain about?

But just what goes into meaningful learning and task design that results in high levels of student engagement?

I would like to give credit to the amazing staff at Erin Wood School in Calgary AB who worked together yesterday to answer this question.  When analyzing student engagement, and tasks that result in high levels of student engagement we were able to effectively answer the question, “What are the attributes of tasks that result in meaningful learning and high(er) levels of student engagement?”

Tasks resulting in higher levels of student engagement consist of these attributes:

  • Meaningful or related to the student’s life or interests;
  • Working together with peers;
  • Incorporates games;
  • Created by the student (authentic);
  • Result in a piece of work the student is proud of and wants to share;
  • Challenging (but not so challenging it is unattainable);
  • Considers learning styles;
  • Allows for student choice;
  • Can be extended by students;

Tasks resulting in lower levels of student engagement consists of these attributes:

  • Easy and quick to complete (requires low levels of thinking);
  • Is teacher designed (such as a worksheet);
  • Has right or wrong answers;
  • Considers none or all of the attributes of high engaging tasks.

When considering student engagement and the types of tasks students are asked to complete, I wonder if students who are given tasks designed to be highly meaningful and engaging do teachers really need to post rules such as “stay in your desk during work time?”  Do these such rules imply that you have just entered a classroom of low-engaging task design?  In my opinion, teachers who strive to design meaningful tasks that engage students are more likely to post “Work hard and do your best, or Respect yourself and others.” on the walls of their classroom.

Rethinking High Stakes Exams

One has to ponder the question “why,” on many occasions.  A recent “why” has come to me this month as January is the mid-term point of the school year and most high schools are in the midst of exams that mark the end of term one.  “Finals” as they are called run for three weeks.  Three weeks of no classes, and no learning.  When we know better, why do we do this?  Why do we persist in this practice?

The ironic part is we know better.  We know that high stakes, final exams that provide no opportunity for feedback or further learning are not representative of a student’s knowledge or understanding, and do nothing to further a student’s knowledge or understanding which is arguably the point of school.

Students taking a test at the University of Vi...

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An argument that is often launched for those who believe in and rely on final exams often goes something like this… “How will I know what they have learned, if I don’t give them an exam?  How will they prove that they have learned anything at all?”  To those, I offer up the following response:

  1.  Formative Evaluation – In his book Visible Learning by John Hattie, the effects of formative Evaluation were found to have a d = .90 or standard deviation of .90.  Hattie describes this effect size as, “…a 1.0 standard deviation increase is typically associated with advancing student children’s achievement by two to three years, improving the rate of learning by 50%…” (pp 7 of Visible Learning).  Thus, formative evaluation strategies in the classroom would not only give teachers information about what a student knows, but work to increase a student’s rate of learning by almost 50%.
  2. Self-reported Grades d=1.44 where Cohen argues, “…an effect size of d=1.0 should be regarded as a large, blatantly obvious, and grossly perceptible difference…” (pp 8 Visible Learning).  Hattie found that even without tests, “…high school students have a reasonably accurate understanding of their level of achievement… This should questions the necessity of so many tests when students appear to already have much of the information the tests supposedly provide…” (pp 44 Visible Learning).
  3. Feedback (d=.73).  “When teachers seek, or at least are open to feedback from students as to what a student knows, what they understand….then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful.” (pp 173 Visible Learning)

When assuming the reason for a final exam is to find out what students know or best case what students have learned, my question back to a teacher would be “Why don’t you already know?”  I believe that if effective teaching and learning practices such as formative evaluation, self-reported grades and feedback are consistently and appropriately utilized by teachers, a final exam would simply provide them with a weak, irrelevant example of what they already know.

Hattie, John, Visible Learning A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, Routledge, 2009.

Are You In the Club?

Students of Nan Hua High School gathering in t...

Image via Wikipedia

As I continue to understand the work of  J. DOUGLAS WILLMS, SHARON FRIESEN, AND PENNY MILTON in their 2009 report What Did You Do in School Today? I am understanding more specifically the notion of Social Engagement.  For quite some time now, when we talked about engagement, we were all referring to academic or intellectual engagement.  Social Engagement; defined as “meaningful participation in the life of the school” in a lot of ways is the first requirement needed to influence the success of academic and intellectual engagement. 

The outcomes of social engagement defined as having: “Friendships, social networks, sense of belonging, self-confidence, and often enjoyment of school'” I believe are the key factors, the initial purposes and our first point of school.  It’s always interesting that we mostly know “what” to do in schools.  The trick is to know how!  How do we support students in developing friendships, building social networks, developing a sense of belonging, developing self-confidence and enjoying school?  Great questions!

I think we have been working quite specifically and purposefully on the outcomes of Social engagement.  We participate in the Alberta Government Accountability Pillar to measure our growth and success.  I will probably forget a few things here, but here are some of the things we do:

  • Self-confidence:  set goals, work on them and review them.  Differentiation to support all students in being successful.  Understand learner profiles to properly support.  Develop report card comments that are strength based, rather than deficit based.  Use restitution, rather than punishment, whenever possible.
  • Friendships and social networks: keep some friends together in classes, encourage a variety of learning opportunities including small group and partner time, specific friendship groups/clubs focussed on social skills development during class time and at lunch, 27 minute unstructured play time at lunch, cross-grade activities in the school, buddy classes, “fun” noon-time clubs.
  • Sense of Belonging: monthly school assemblies, school tee-shirts, clubs, teams, student helpers, classroom meetings (morning meetings), Touchstone for specific students, culturally diverse celebrations and learning.
  • Enjoyment of school: know your student!  Have fun!  School wide activities such as pajama day, sports day, assemblies, new initiatives such as drum fit, recognition of personal successes.

Perhaps if I think longer, I could add to the list.  But, more importantly, what can you add to the list?

For more on the complete What Did You Do In School Today report by the Canadian Education Association click here

So What is Visible Learning Anyway?

So What is Visible Learning Anyway? Thoughts and Understandings From a School Principal

As with most fall meetings, this fall started off with direction setting meetings, visions, missions and re-establishing what we are about.  It was during these meetings that the notion of Visible Learning, as described by John Hattie came across my radar.  What was this Visible Learning?

So, I ordered the book Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement and cracked it open when it came. Wow, the book is not what I was expecting and not like I have ever seen before.  I find it is not a book you can read cover to cover, it is more like a reference book.  I gleamed information out of it and let it set until today when I participated in the Visible Learning webinar through The Leadership and Learning Center, facilitated by Douglas Reeves.

Visible Learning is now beginning to take shape in my mind, I am beginning to understand new information and think about applying it in my own context.

Lightbulb moment: Changes in teacher practice effect changes in student learning (Douglas Reeves).  Okay, maybe not a lightbulb moment but a critical thought none-the-less.  Even today, as we were working through some behaviour issues with elementary aged students, could it be that if the teacher changes the approach and the practice, perhaps the students behaviour would change as well?  Let’s focus on the teaching (and I mean teaching, not teacher), rather than on the behaviours.

English: A teacher teaching something in Da Ji...As stated by Douglas Reeves: Linking specific teaching strategies with specific student results is Visible Learning.  As mentioned in the example above, would there be a way to incorporate specific teaching strategies and measure specific results? I think so.  The key at our school is that I think we are very good at identifying what is wrong and what we need to be different.  I think we know what the preferred state would be.  I think we have many resources and teaching strategies (perhaps too many) but I DON’T think we know how to measure the effectiveness of specific strategies.

In regards to the teaching strategies, our goal has been to focus on those high impact strategies.  I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new John Hattie book Visible Learning for Teachers to ensure our understanding and implementation of high impact strategies.  As a side note, feedback (d=.72 effect size) is a high impact strategy I previously blogged about (see Feedback or Feedforward).

As mentioned in The Walk-About we have our observations in place – in other words, teachers are observing teachers each day.  We now need to make those observations systematic, objective, and precise (Douglas Reeves).  We need to observe for high impact strategies and the effect they are having on student achievement.  We need to gather specific data about specific practices.

Our goals with Visible Learning are:

1.  To raise awareness.  ex:”This is what feedback and engagement look like in our school and in your classroom.”

2.  To set targets. ex:”Now that we have this information, what are we going to do with it?”

3.  Practice. ex: “Last month my feedback to students consisted primarily of ______ and this month it consists of_____”

4.  Measure the effects of our practice.  “This teaching practice, resulted in this improvement (or not)!

5.  Keep what works, get rid of the rest!

Perhaps through Visible Learning, our understanding of what quality teaching really is will become more specific, objective and precise resulting in a greater understanding of knowing why we are doing what we are doing in the art form called teaching.

Just Because I Said It, Doesn’t Mean They Learned It

This year, as I begin to understand and implement the notion of Instructional Leadership into my practice the saying, “Just because I said it, doesn’t mean they learned it.” seems to becoming more and more meaningful.  I find that with my staff, I am a great teller.  I tell people all sorts of things everyday.  However, in order to truly IMPROVE, and make noticeable gains with SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT, teacher practice has to shift.  Teachers have to learn and grow; if they need to learn, one of my main roles is to teach them, not just tell them.

Student teachers practice teaching kindergarte...

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In study after study, the evidence is clear.  Dr. Rick DuFour could not say it in more simple terms:

“Two different comprehensive syntheses of research on the factors impacting student learning have come to the same conclusion: the most important variable in the achievement of students is the quality of instruction they receive on a daily basis (Marzano, 2003; Hattie, 2009). To ensure students learn at higher levels, simply improve teaching.

Simply improve teaching sounds simple enough.  The two questions I am currently pondering are, “What is my role in improving teacher practice?; and, “How do I improve teacher practice?”

What is My Role in Improving Teacher Practice

Short and sweet, this IS my role.  If I am about being a principal who makes the school the best school I can, who makes it a place where all children learn everyday, and who is determined and focussed on school improvement, then improving teaching practice gets down to the heart of the matter.  I could focus on the by-product of ineffective teaching practice such as low test scores, high suspension rates, unhappy students, unhappy parents etc, but this would not solve the base problem.  I am 100% convinced that strong, effective teachers utilizing strong, effective teaching practices all the time, everyday result in steady school improvement.  Steady school improvement results in a reduction of under performing students, a reduction in acts of violence and opposition, and a reduction in unhappy parents and students.  So now that I am convinced, how do I do this?  How do I improve teacher practice?

How Do I Improve Teacher Practice?

Well, first of all, let me say I am working on figuring this out.  I am by no means an expert in “how” but I have figured out a few things!

1.  Weekly Professional Development (PD). With the increased use of our Staff Intranet/E-Bulletin Board, for the past 2 years we have been posting all item information, and announcements.  This allows us to have very few items on our weekly staff meeting agenda thus freeing us up for PD time.  We are currently running 30-45 minutes per week of teacher PD where all teachers are working together.

2.  PD Design. Here is where I rely on Robert Marzano and The Art and Science of Teaching.  For example: In past years, before report card writing started, we would have a staff meeting where I would review the expectations of report card writing, how to write comments, the rules for putting in certain marks etc.  Then teachers would go off, on their own and write their report cards.  When finished, they would turn them into the admin team for review.  Often when teachers would turn their reports in they would say things like “I hope these are right.”  This got me thinking…

Cover of "The Art and Science of Teaching...

Cover via Amazon

This year, our pre-report card writing was PD – it had lesson design!  Teachers worked together in table groups to identify important information needed in report cards.  They worked together to decide upon the order of this important information.  Then I passed out my guide “How to Write Report Card Comments.”  We compared what they had figured out and what I had figured out.  Then we practiced writing some report card comments on actual students.  Together we created a rubric so they could assess their own work and the work of their colleagues.  They asked themselves, “Does this work meet the criteria we developed for the rubric?”  The results of this work were amazing!  Teachers interacted with new knowledge then applied their new knowledge.  Learning success!!

3.  Professional Learning Communities.  Previously I wrote a post on PLC‘s Professional Learning Communities This post will give you some information on our PLC journey.  The most exciting thing we are doing this year with PLC’s is our PLC observations.  I believe that watching a person teach, then analyzing and debriefing observations, then setting goals for their own teacher practice will in and of itself result in improved teaching practice.  I have plans to also add in The Walk-About to our PLC Observations.

4.  Find and encourage PD outside of the school.  Yeah for Webinars!  What a great way to get information to people from their own laptops.  My role is to be the scavenger and finder of great PD opportunities outside of the school either face to face or Webinar.  My role is to also support teachers in managing time and in some cases finances to access quality PD.

5.  Questions and Questioning.  One of my main “need to-dos” this year is to ask more questions.  When working with teachers, debriefing in meetings,or  analyzing practice I find that asking questions designed to support teachers in synthesizing new information results in a whole different type of understanding.  See Feedback vs Feedforward for more thoughts on this.

One of the most fortunate events that has occurred for me is that our Area Director also believes in Principal PD and Improving the Practice of Principals.  This has led to some of the best PD I have been apart of in my career.  Each month, a large group of Principals meets together to get smarter!  With this, I am hoping to continue and develop my understandings of Effective Instructional Leadership.  I am very interested in finding out how other Principals are working with their staff on the notions of “Simply Improve Teaching,”Just Because I Said It, Doesn’t Mean They Learned It,” and “Instructional Leadership.”

Leadership Lessons… Ten Ideas to Take From 2011 into 2012

As 2011 draws to a close, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on what I have learned about leadership and being a Principal.  There were many things learned, however, there are key things learned that I want to remember and apply to 2012.  Not in any particular order, here is my top list of being a great leader and great Principal.

1.  Communication is King, Communication is Key


Image by P Shanks via Flickr

I can’t say it enough, in enough different ways; that is my motto.  If there is something I really really want people to know, I need to say it often, in many different ways and in many different formats.  Same goes for me, if there is something you really really want me to know, tell me often, tell me in person, and by email.  There are non-effective forms of communication in schools with the top 2 being Over the PA System, and At An Assembly.  I find if you make announcements or give important messages in these 2 ways, perhaps 10% of the people will actually hear and understand.  Then there is the long range of ways of communicating until you get to the most effective; being one on one or with a small group of people face to face, with them taking notes.  If they don’t take notes, a follow-up email is necessary.  I also think it is important to remember, just because I said it, doesn’t mean they learned it (or even heard it for that matter!).

2.  Just Because I Said it, Doesn’t Mean They Learned It

I find that I often tell people “how” to do things… how to write report card comments, how to conduct parent meetings, how to work with a student, how to organize a classroom…. and the list goes on.  However, just because I said it, doesn’t mean they learned it.  In fact, doesn’t mean they learned it, heard it, get it, understand it, believe it!  I find if I want people to learn something new, I have to teach it!  (wow, amazing concept for an educator). Tried and true teaching strategies work for adults too.  Don’t just tell an adult how to ride a bike, teach them.  Show them, help them, support them, let them try it, encourage them, listen to them, answer questions, applaud, cheer and celebrate!

3.  Back it Up

Not your hard drive, your words!  I find that backing up my ideas, thoughts, and initiatives with current, quality research found in reputable literature is the way to go.  I am fond of saying “This isn’t Lori’s thing, or Lori’s way,” this is because we know this is best practice and it is proven good and right for students.  This is based on research and backed by data, the way we do it in our school is specific to our content, but what we do is tried and true.

4.  Let Others Do

I often have teachers and staff approach me and say “Can I do this?”  If the “this” is in any way reasonable and safe it’s always worth a try.  Remember riding the bike?  How will they learn if they don’t try?  My job in this is to talk it through; make sure it is the best try (don’t hop on a bike that is too big or too small or has a bent rim and wonder what you did wrong) and then support the outcome, whatever it may be.  A word to the cautious: “Can I do this,” is quite different from “Can WE do this.”  See #1 – communication.  Then sort out the WE.

5.  Listen

There are people in my school who are experts at what they do.  The book-keeper, administrative secretary, custodian, tech specialist, all know things that I do not know.  Appreciate them. Appreciate their knowledge and expertise.  Let them help!

6.  Be Aware

Be aware, be where the people are.  I find that many things in a day can pass me by if I don’t leave the office.  Just walking around the school, walking outside of the school, walking into classrooms brings an awareness of the goings on, the successes, and the challenges.  How can I improve on things if I don’t know what needs improving on?  Having people tell me is one thing, seeing things for myself is a whole new “Ooooohhhhhh.”

7.  Follow Up

Following up on things I say or things I ask is a necessary way to add meaning to what I do.  For example, if I ask teachers to read a chapter in a book or watch a webinar and I never go back to it, ask about it, talk about it, then really it wasn’t that important in the first place.  I find that what you focus on shows people what is important, and what is important is what improves.  Unless I follow-up, really I am just making weak suggestions.

8.  Change Your Mind

It is an exhilarating feeling to know you can change your mind at any moment.  Usually not on a whim, but when you learn or realize something new that would be more productive or effective.  You know the old saying, “Doing something over and over the same way and expecting different results is ….(you fill in the blank).”  Don’t do things over and over the same way unless you can’t think of a different way, or its working exceptionally well.  Over the years, with all the mind changes, we have developed into a team that is flexible, progressive and growing.  Trying things in a different way on a different day is the example of growing and changing.

9.  Be Gracious, Be Kind

There is no reason I can think of to be anything other than gracious and kind with all of the different people you meet and work with.  People like to be thanked, people like to be treated in kind, courteous ways.  People who are treated this way are productive, happy people.  And, the word gets out…. before you know it people will WANT to come and work with you!

My moms class picture. Martintown Public School circa 1950. My mom is middle row far left.

10.  Have a Sense of Humor

Life is stressful, work is stressful but it is true that everything goes a lot easier when you can laugh at yourself and laugh about things.  From a person that has the ability to let people get under her skin, not owning, not exasperating, lightening up helps get a person through any day.  Luckily I work in a school and I am blessed to be able to talk to, enjoy, laugh with all of the little people who come through the door of the school everyday.  In the end, they don’t really care about the budget, or the regulations, they just live in the moment.

A Final Note: Live in the moment, enjoy the children, if you don’t like the choices you made today, you are in luck!  You can wake up tomorrow and make different ones!  What choices will you make today?

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