The Maverick Principal — Prime Numbers, Lost Artifacts, and Exploding Kittens

Mark Sonnemann
Nov 2, 2018 · 6 min read

One of the interesting things I get to do, for me at least, is to find ways to build culture and influence learning and behaviour through indirect means. It is an important element to the work of a school administrator because it is difficult (and quite honestly, for most of us impossible) to have direct contact with every student and member of staff everyday, or to personally supervise, manage, or implement plans.

Flexibility and divergent thinking are assets in this role, as is maintaining strong relationships based on trust and respect. Really, I can accomplish very little on my own — I rely on school staff, students, and even parents to be the metaphorical hands and feet that get the work done. I try to spend my time thinking about the ‘hows’ of a situation: How might this be solved? How is it connected to other things? In the last year in my practice, thanks to Tom Barrett, I also think about how the solution might negatively or positively impact other elements of the school. Tom calls this a ‘pre-mortem’ and it has become an important part of my planning and thinking.

Sometimes, it helps to think about a particular challenge on its own — like how, for example we can improve supervision and communication with the office as well as between supervisors during lunch and recess. We have decided to purchase a set of walkie-talkies and a charging station for each hallway and for the office. This way no one has to hunt for one or waste time coming down to the office (and therefore leaving students unsupervised). It also allows the supervisors to contact the office from the yard if a student is hurt, if they require assistance, or if someone needs to be sent in. Staff have also suggested that they could be used on field trips or to stay in touch with student groups who might be working on a project in a different part of the school.

Sometimes several wonderings or challenges that are connected line up nicely, like reducing lates, and attendance sheets coming down to the office too early (and therefore being incorrect because of lates!). Creating a start of day routine that makes sense for everyone and includes enough of a cushion to account for most lates — and more importantly perhaps- that builds in a grace period for families is something that attempts to resolve several similar issues.

But these are easy wins. More often than not even simple problems require complex solutions because the time, or people, or money required to solve them are prohibitive. Another complicating factor is that it is rare to garner consensus around particular solutions — lack of support or follow-through is just as crippling as having a resource deficit.

We all know, as well, that many, maybe even most, challenges are not simple, and that they cannot be solved through any direct means known or available to us. As fallible humans, we are also capable of misjudging things spectacularly or just plain getting it wrong.

When it comes to the problems that I can’t get a handle on directly, I have a tendency to let them percolate. This can be frustrating for some people. Quite often, when someone comes into my office they have both a challenge and a preferred solution in their mind — usually one where I ‘do’ something or ‘order’ something or ‘dictate’ something. I understand the desire to fix something as quickly as possible, and I know that for the people living in or with the challenge, time is of the essence. Taking time can be perceived as a lack of interest or compassion. That isn’t the case in my process, but I understand that reaction.

I keep a pad of paper on my desk, that I write down things I need to remember during the day, phone numbers, reminders from home, things going on during the day, classes or students I need to visit or touch base with. I also write out challenges I am thinking about or ideas I have (I also doodle quite a bit!). What often happens, at least for me, is that seeing these things together leads to possible solutions for seemingly unconnected challenges, and that is a really exciting part of the work I do.

This is where my strange title comes in. Some of the challenges I have been thinking about have had to do with our relative strengths and weaknesses as a school in Math and the need for some enrichment possibilities. Some have been about building a more collaborative, inclusive, and compassionate culture in our intermediate division. Some have been about ways that I can connect with more students in contexts that are less formal. Some have been about supervision challenges with students hiding out in areas of the school to avoid going outside.

Last week, I had an idea that I thought might connect all of these things and allow for growth and improvement. The school is an active one and we have been toying with the idea of intramurals. Our main concern was that it wouldn’t engage enough students or enough of a cross-section of students to be effective. But what about a games club? Board games have changed a lot since I was a kid. There are a lot more choices and a lot more types of games. There is also a growing body of research and thought that says games can be a really effective way of teaching and learning. Junaid Mubeen does a really good job of exploring some of the potential opportunities in this article:

This reminded me of another article I had read by Junaid about a math game that I wanted to introduce to our students. Please check out his article on Prime Climb and its benefits.

This reminded me of the cooperative games I had been introduced to at last year’s Connect Conference. Forbidden Island is a game where collaboration and teamwork are essential, and where everyone either wins or loses together. If you want to know the game’s object and how to play, here is a good 5 minute video that tells you all you need to know:

I wanted one more game. I had covered math and cooperation, but I wanted something fast-paced and fun that also had some strategic elements. After some further research, I came up with Exploding Kittens.

I know that the students will LOVE playing this one!

We wanted these games to be available to classes as well, and to be useful as teaching/learning opportunities when appropriate, so we purchased a class set of each (enough for 30–35 kids to be playing the same game at the same time). Next week, I will start going in to classes and teaching the games to students, starting with the intermediate classes.

The club will run at lunch hour, and with the weather getting colder it will allow students to stay inside, safely, and also do something social that offers the chance for fun and learning. They will deepen their understanding of numbers, practice their math operations, work together towards goals, socialize with me and other staff in a different context, and mix with a large cross-section of students. The club will also allow (in its current format) up to 100 students to be playing at any given time, which is a little more than 3 times the kids we could include in a lunch time sports activity, and it is our hope that it appeals to a much wider variety of students.

If things work as planned, we will look to add (again, in a class set format) another game every couple of months, and we will look to purchase games that contribute to learning or skills or behaviours we would like to build up.

We will see if this indirect and comprehensive approach yields results. It is my hope that the connections and possibilities I have seen are really there. I have the support of the staff, and I have the resources, now all there is to do is to test it out.

I will keep you posted!

Mark Sonnemann

Written by

Dad, Husband, Learner, Catholic Principal. I never stop wondering, questioning, and imagining.

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