Reflecting on the School Year So Far: My Idea Log

I’ve been writing songs since I was approximately 8 or 9 years old. At that time, I would carry a notebook with me in my guitar case or in my pocket, and if I felt inspired, I would write lyrics or compositional notes (chord progressions/charts/etc.) inside that notebook. I brought that notebook with me to school, to band practice, to basketball games, to family parties… In short, I brought it with me everywhere!

When I got into high school, I got my first cell phone. Instead of using the notebook, I began texting myself lyrics. I would pull up a blank text message, input my own cell phone number, type any lyrics I was drafting at the time, and hit send. This served as an ongoing record or database of lyrics for me. When phones become more advanced, I started using note-taking applications to document lyrics and I would use the phone’s audio/visual technology to record the actual music while I played my guitar or hummed/whistled the melody. As a doctoral student endeavoring through my dissertation, I continued to use cell phone applications such as the Google Drive/Docs and Evernote to document or audio record ideas for exploration or inclusion in my drafts.

Now, in my profession as an educator, I’ve regressed back to using the traditional notebook. I’ve done so for a few reasons. Writing notes using pen and paper (the research I’ve read deals with students using pen and paper to take notes vs. using a computer to take notes during classroom instruction) allows the note taker to retain information better. In addition, I use a highlighter to highlight notes (or aspects of certain notes) that I’ve implemented/accomplished, which allows me to better visualize progress I’ve made over a certain period of time. I call this notebook my “Idea Log.”

Over break, I always take some time to peruse my Idea Log and reflect on the highlighted portions. These highlighted portions help me visualize the things I’ve tried/changed/implemented/achieved/etc. The following is a brief list of ideas I’ve tried or implemented this school year so far (quoted verbatim from my Idea Log):

  • “Utilize a Contact Journal to keep note of who I’ve spoken with and which classrooms I’ve seen. Take notes in the journal and follow through when someone needs support with something.
  • “Make positive phone calls home to the parents of my teachers. Try starting or ending the week with this strategy.”
  • “Create a ‘What Are You Learning Today? A Visit from Dr. E.’ shared document. Share the Google Form/Office 365 One Note with staff members so they can edit the document in real time and share the wonderful things happening in their classrooms that they would like me to see/observe.”
  • “Use Animoto to make monthly videos of the happenings in the school and share through social media channels.”
  • “Find an interesting and timely ‘Article of the Week’ and share through email. Encourage staff to share their own and continue through our journey of professional learning.”

Looking through the Idea Log, I am also reminded of a few other ideas I’d like to try this coming semester.

How do you record your ideas? What have you done or accomplished this year and how do you keep track of your progress?


“My/Your Students” vs. “Our Students.” Harm Caused by a Competition Mindset

Competition… Good or bad in schools? I’m not talking about school athletics, band, or other extracurricular activities. I’m talking about schools competing against each other for better test scores or other standardized measures of success. The verdict may still be out. Some researchers have found positive gains from competition in schools (though the validity of said research is now being questioned). Other researchers suggest that any gains from those studies are so small, they may as well be insignificant. Many conservative education reformers declare that schools and educators operating in a free-market system encourage innovation. Let’s look at the charter school movement. Some charter schools are doing amazing things. Some charter schools do sound very innovative. However, the research is fairly clear… charter schools perform no better than public schools when educating the same students (comparing apples to apples, not apples to oranges). Whatever you believe, in the end, one thing is usually certain… when gauged through the lens of standardized measures such as test scores, attendance percentages, or drop-out ratings, competition usually leads to problems in education.

Don’t get me wrong… I like competition. I’m not very competitive myself. But, I love watching (certain) competitive sports such as baseball, basketball, golf, and the UFC. What is more, I’m obsessed with the Olympics. The Olympics are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to competitive athletics. So, I don’t take issue with all competition. I’m not saying “all” competition is bad.

However, in my experience, when I’ve seen schools compete against each other for better test scores or better levels of student achievement, students and teachers suffer. Some immediately ask, “Why?” or “How can that be?” Because, as research has shown, competition leads to the privatization of professional practice. Competition, in this sense, hinders collaboration and the sharing of ideas among schools. Yes, Albert Shanker’s initial conception of charter schools and the sharing of ideas among all schools sounded promising. Under more ideal circumstances, that model may work. However, realistically speaking, competition has perverted his work.

When I hear about educators who embrace a competitive mindset so much so that it hinders collaboration, that always makes me wonder, “Aren’t we in this together?” “Aren’t these students ‘our’ students?” Rhetorically speaking, if the students in my building or classroom can benefit from something the students are doing in your building or classroom, but you erect barriers to the sharing of that knowledge, you’re hurting the children. What’s even more unfortunate, I see this as a disservice to children all in the name of professional, adult pride.

I read something from George Cuoros the other day. Along with some educators and cognitive neuroscientists, I question his work regarding the “innovator’s mindset” and his obsession with innovation. However, in this case, I thought he was right on the money. In one of his posts, he posed an interesting duality: Classroom Teacher vs. School Teacher. Cuoros states that, the “classroom teachers know their content amazingly well and are great with their current group of students. But, once they step outside of their classroom, the students they do not teach are ‘not their problem.’ ‘School teachers’ on the other hand, can do all of those things that classroom teachers do within their own classrooms and subject matter, but when they walk out of their room, every child in the school is their child.” In education, it would behoove us all to understand that these children are “our” children… The students at this school are not “their” children. The students at my school are not “my” children. They are all “our” children. We must constantly be thinking about what we can do to best serve all of “our” children. I’m going to take Cuoros’ duality a step further by arguing that competition enforces the classroom teacher mindset, rather than the school teacher mindset. Let’s remove competitive barriers and see ourselves as “school teachers.”


The Journal of Small Wins

Woah… What a whirlwind of a week. It’s been pretty crazy. The first week after summer break is always considerably hectic for educators. Besides the general misperception that we’re simply getting our schools in order for the first day, we’re actually doing so much more.  We’re cleaning, planning, organizing, coordinating, moving, meeting, preparing, analyzing, managing, and a plethora of other verbs you can think of. Often times, we engage in these actions all in one day!

That being said, I’ve found it beneficial to physically document successes throughout the day. I call this my “Journal of Small Wins.” It helps remind me that I am having an impact. In fact, research suggests that this practice helps us stay motivated and productive. Of course, there are other things I’d like to be doing/accomplishing. For instance, I’d like to focus more on student and teacher learning. However, at this point, I feel inundated with managerial tasks and putting out fires. Yet, this journal really helps me visualize and recall my whirlwind days so that I can truly reflect on my impact (and areas of my leadership in need of improvement).

As an educator, how do you reflect on your professional practice in light of all of your other responsibilities? Do you have any techniques/strategies that help you analyze your impact?


Dear Representative Jeanne Ives: We Need to Talk

I apologize for the delay in blog posts. It’s been a while since I’ve written. I’ve been busy this summer! However, I could not ignore an opportunity to write a post focused on Jeanne Ives and her deleterious comments regarding teachers, unions, and the teacher pension system in Illinois.

Her comments have circulated social media for few weeks now (Facebook Link; Youtube Link). I find the following quote most troubling: “I’ll get out my checkbook and I’ll send a property tax bill to my county to pay for bloated administrative salaries in public schools… in public schools where on average, in the state of Illinois, less than half of the students are ready for college… Just over 1/3 are even reading or doing math at grade level… Maybe I should send them more money…”

Undoubtedly, she’s passionate. You can hear it in her voice. I appreciate that. Yet, imagine if she were more passionate about clarity. Before I begin to poke holes in the validity of her claim, I’ll first share the following troubling statistic/fact (allowing me to situate my response): Schools with less than 10% of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds score as well as or better than the highest achieving nations (Finland, Shanghai, etc.) in the world. In fact, if one were to analyze a data set showing level of achievement and percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds, one would see an inverse correlation between the two. Therefore, as the percentage of students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds increases, the level of achievement decreases. In no way am I saying that poor students cannot achieve. Quite the opposite, in fact, considering I dedicate my life to showing that they can. I’m simply sharing this information to highlight the importance of not conflating separate issues in education. Are there overpaid administrators in education? Possibly. Yet, it’s important to understand that one issue does not exist as a result of the other. Put plainly, student academic underachievement is not a result of (possible) bloated administrative salaries. When considering student academic achievement (or lack thereof), there are far too many concurrent variables at play (poverty, student/family mobility, etc.) to make a claim that one of those variables is significantly more profound than all the others. One may see her conflation (as I do) as a complete misinterpretation of issues facing educators today. Thus, it would behoove her (and the many politicians like her) to leave education to those who have the knowledge and ability to bring about the necessary changes.

Recently, Jeanne also blasted a teacher on twitter, claiming that “support of unions = chaos in schools.” As you can see in the picture accompanying this post, I responded with a comment to get her thinking and to encourage her to explain to me how unions contribute to chaos in schools, considering that chaos is prevalent in a considerable amount of non-unionized, failing charter schools (I’m still waiting for her to get back to me…). In addition, I always think it’s wise to consider how successful districts or world nations deal with prevalent education issues. For example, Finland works closely with its teacher union in order to best serve its students. Granted, as an administrator, I’ve had many difficult conversations with teachers’ unions and union representatives. However, like Finland, I believe that in order to raise achievement for all students, it’s considerably more propitious to work with unions as opposed to lumping them all together into one picture/broad stroke and developing evil machinations to bring about union demise. Jeanne’s comments really brought me back. Teacher/union blasting was so 2014. I think Diane Ravtich should send her signed copies of her most recent work.

She also made comments about the “state’s pension problem.” This will be short and sweet. If I’m not mistaken, politicians have voted to borrow against teacher pensions for decades. These politicians have never paid back the loan. I’m no financial expert. However, it’s rare in life to get a loan and never have to pay it back (sarcasm). The pension system was never designed to serve as an interest free loan for politicians to use as they see fit.

Of course, it’s truly unfortunate when people who have widespread access to such a large array of people don’t think before they spread misinformation. At the same time, her comments truly demonstrate her lack of understanding. Not that politicians need to be experts in all fields. However, a working knowledge regarding some of the basics would certainly help.


Human Cognition and Implications for the Constructivist Classroom

In light of Brain Awareness Week (March 13-19), I thought I would write about the brain!

With the development and increased usage of the FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), I find myself reading more and more findings regarding human cognition and neuroscience. It has also become a major interest of mine. That being said, while analyzing study findings, I find myself in a state of excitement, discovery, and uncertainty. The more I learn about human cognition, the more I question current best practices, educational trends, teaching strategies and approaches, etc.

In the context of direct instructional guidance as it relates to human cognition, learning is defined as a change in long-term memory. Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark (2006) posit:

The aim of all instruction is to alter long-term memory. If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. Any instructional recommendation that does not or cannot specify what has been changed in long-term memory, or that does not increase the efficiency with which relevant information is stored in or retrieved from long-term memory, is likely to be ineffective. (p. 77)

Based on my readings and knowledge regarding human cognition (which is admittedly limited), I find that these cognitive researchers often sound very definitive when talking about learning. However, for me, questions continually abound regarding their claims or evidence. For instance, can Kirschner et al. safely conclude that absolutely no learning has occurred if nothing has changed in long-term memory? Again, for me, that sounds very definitive.

Kirschner et al. further posit that controlled experiments almost always demonstrate that when students are dealing with novel information, they should be explicitly shown what to do and how to do it (sounds somewhat like lots of hand-holding). If they are not, students may experience an excessive cognitive load that is detrimental to learning.

As an avid and vocal proponent of project-based learning, I always get a little nervous while reading and analyzing cognitive studies that decry constructivism or constructivist teaching approaches. I’m not denying the results of these cognition studies or the plethora of literature reviews concerning human cognition that suggest that direct instructional approaches are more effective and more efficient.

However, with well-designed and well-planned project-based learning, students are provided with a real-world problem and (often) a pathway or guidelines to follow in order to solve the problem (therefore, possibly alleviating the “problem-solving search” that has been shown to deplete working memory). Well-designed PBL is highly structured and organized by skilled teachers. Students are guided through the journey as they endeavor to meet project deadlines, secure resources for their projects, practice and prepare for presentations in front of authentic audiences, and receive and reflect on critical feedback. When done well, and when students are truly engaged in these endeavors, though it may not be considered a “direct instructional approach” or “direct instructional guidance,” PBL can have profound learning impacts on students, right? I’ve seen it happen. Or, is what I’ve seen simply increased levels of engagement and excitement regarding learning activities? Is what I’ve seen simply students engaging in meaningless activities that look good, but will not transfer to long-term memory alterations? Cognitive studies often rock educational foundations. As such, these are turbulent times for me as I grapple with this information.

Human Cognition and the Case for Early Childhood Education.

Also, as we become more informed about human cognition, I can’t help but think about its implications for early childhood education. Based on what I’ve read and what researchers have found, a substantial amount of information stored in long-term memory is essential for continued and future successful learning. If this is the case, I don’t see why early-childhood education is not mandated (I’m sure most people will resort to the argument that there’s not enough funding for it). I live/work in Illinois. Students don’t have to go to school until they’re 6-7 years old (first grade). In underserved communities, it’s highly likely that if students are not attending school during those foundational years, they are not building experiences necessary to form and fill long-term memory. By the time some students come to us at 5 or 6 or 7 year olds, they may have missed a copious amount of opportunities to build their long-term memory.


What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you! Feel free to follow/share/leave a comment!



What is the purpose of education? What approaches to teaching result in the most learning? What types of teacher evaluation systems truly benefit the teacher, and subsequently, the school community? What are the tried and true safety protocols that maximize the safety of the school community? What type of educational programming will ensure the inculcation of 21st century learning skills? Is there a classroom management system that best suits an entire school building or community? With a packed curricular schedule, what’s the best way to ensure social emotional learning is occurring in the classroom/school? These highly debatable questions can’t be tackled with one, clear, definitive answer. To me, that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to talk about them.

I’m J.R. Entsminger. I serve as an educational administrator in Chicago Heights, Illinois. Before serving as an administrator, I was a junior high reading/Language Arts teacher.


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I love talking and learning about education. Read my posts, comment if you have suggestions/answers/ideas, and let’s dialogue about how to best serve our most precious assets: children.