Learn, Lead, Serve, & Blog

A blog by Dr. Brian Bullis. Committed to serving students through lifelong learning and leading.

What Are You Learning?

My cover has been blown.

I recently received an email from one of our teachers that read:

“Did you notice how strangely silent they were? They were trying to hear how many times you asked what they were learning. They caught on to the fact that you do that when you come in. We had a big discussion about it a while back. I think they were disappointed that you only asked once. Next time, you’ll have to step up your game!!”

I was doing some classroom walk-throughs and I entered this class.  I noticed that something was off, but I could not quite pinpoint it.  This specific classroom is usually rich with noisy, engaged, collaborative learning.  This day it was eerily quiet.

I cannot take the credit, nor can I remember who deserves the credit (shoot me a message if you know!).  The idea is to ask students what they are learning, not what are they doing.  Asking what students are learning gets to the deeper meaning of their engagement and what they hope to gain through their classroom experiences.  

Here is the beautiful thing about students being aware of this approach.  Once students catch on, like this class has done, we now have a classroom of students thinking to themselves, “what am I learning right now?” when I enter the room.  They were likely doing this already in most classrooms due to the great work of our teachers and now we have one more opportunity to engage in this powerful, important, and necessary exercise.

Looking at John Hattie’s Visible Learning Research there are arguably at least four areas with significant effect sizes that this walk-through questioning strategy could relate to and promote when corresponding with the powerful efforts going on inside the classroom:

  • Teacher clarity – 0.75
  • Summarization – 0.73
  • Goal intentions – 0.48
  • Task value – 0.46

My challenge to all teachers and administrators is to extend beyond asking students “what are you doing” and often ask your students “what are you learning.”  You get some great responses and promote important student thinking in the process.

Empowerment, Empathy, and Entertainment, Oh My!

Every week at Caruso Middle School is special, but this past week was truly remarkable.  

Students asked for and were given a voice and they used this empowerment to stage a school sit-in and community town hall meeting to promote school safety.  Students demonstrated empathy and understanding through our inaugural Disabilities Awareness Week. Then our students used their voices, literally, to cap off the week with a performance of Shrek, Jr. The Musical that brought the house down.  


Our students asked for the opportunity to participate in a walk-out to promote school safety.  We said no, but challenged them to collaborate to achieve their same goals in another way  They did not disappoint.

A large group of students organized a sit-in for seventeen minutes on March 14 at 10:00 a.m. to honor the victims of the Parkland school shootings.  Hundreds of students prepared messages to express their sentiments and calls for action. At 10:00 a.m. they quietly proceeded to the hallways around the building and took turns reading their statements and sharing with one another.  

During the same week, students from Caruso and Shepard Middle schools collaborated to facilitate a community town hall meeting – Students Stand for Safety.  The students identified what they wanted to accomplish and divided up into committees to make it happen.  They reached out to local officials and leaders. They generated an agenda. They prepared speeches. They created videos.  They invited the community.

The end product was something special.  Hundreds of students, parents, staff, and community members descended upon Caruso Middle School on the evening of March 14 for an evening event.  Students led from start to finish and used their platform to communicate their concerns, their realities, and their desires for the future. They were able to incorporate local leaders into the evening, including Mayor Harriet Rosenthal, U.S. Representative Brad Schneider, Superintendent Mike Lubelfeld, and many others.


As if the student activism was not enough to productively fill a week, our Caruso Middle School students also participated in our inaugural Disability Awareness week.  Inspired by Caruso parent, Patty O’Machel, our students were able to participate in several fantastic learning opportunities. We kicked the week off with keynote speaker Ahalya Lettenberger, decorated paratriathlete and area high school junior.  She shared with our students the power of perseverance and passion, regardless of the obstacles that may be faced.

Throughout the week each grade level had a different theme.  6th grade students focused on accessibility and technology. They participated in a design challenge in science classes and were joined by prosthetic designer, Kimmy Champion.

7th grade students focused on hidden disabilities.  Their experience included a panel of current Deerfield High School students joining them to speak about their experiences with hidden disabilities.

8th grade students participated in Wheelchair for a Day activities.  Throughout the week students and staff checked out wheelchairs for the day and navigated the building, reflecting on their experiences at the end.  Sport wheelchairs were also integrated into P.E. classes.


How do you cap off such a powerful week?  With a powerhouse performance by our music department.  Led by director Kara Vombrack, Shrek, Jr., The Musical, was a smashing success!  The cast and crew entertained the 6th graders and incoming 5th graders from Wilmot and South Park schools during the day and followed that matinee with three weekend performances.  Months of preparation paid off as the crowds were entertained by the multitude of talent displayed by our student performers.


What a great week to be a Caruso Middle School Bluejay!!  


Stop the Shootings – I Don’t Want Us To Be Next

I am a public school principal, a father, and the husband of a school teacher.  I don’t want my students to be next.  I don’t want my children to be next.  I don’t want my teachers to be next.  I don’t want my wife to be next.  I don’t want to be next.  I don’t want you to be next.

As we are nearly a week removed from another horrific school shooting my wife had the idea of hosting a postcard writing party at our home to generate messages to send to our elected officials.  As we prepared for this event it provided an important opportunity for me to pause and collect my own thoughts as a principal, father, and spouse.  

As a defense mechanism, we often become numb to the atrocities of Parkland, Las Vegas, Sandy Hook, etc..  Numbness begets complacency, complacency begets inaction, inaction begets history repeating itself again and again.  It is time to break this cycle.


I am not anti-gun.  I am a history major and I understand the intent of the Second Amendment which states “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  I know from my many school law classes that “shall” means “must” and that word carries significant weight while leaving little to interpretation.

I also know that our twenty-seven Amendments to the Constitution acknowledge that our country progresses over time and corrects its course as We the People evolve and our nation grows.  We have used these Amendments to abolish slavery (13th), to provide women the right to vote (19th), and to put term limits on our presidents (22nd).  Amendments have also come and gone, such as prohibition which was introduced with the Eighteenth Amendment and was soon after expunged with the Twenty-First Amendment.  We have the capacity and precedent to change.

Our Second Amendment was established in a time when our weaponry was in its relative infancy (as a point of reference is this video enactment of an office shooting using a weapon from when the Second Amendment was written).  I will make the bold assertion that our founding fathers could not have envisioned the level of destruction these arms could create today, paired with the mental health crises that we now face.  They were visionaries, but they were not time travelers.  

I am not naive and I understand that measures to further define and limit our rights under the Second Amendment will not eliminate violence and shootings in our schools or violence and shootings across our nation.  In my time as a teacher and school administrator I have searched lockers for guns with reasonable suspicion (thankfully never found one), I have pulled knives off of students at school, I have endured student suicide at the hand of a gun, and I have had a former student found guilty of murder.  However, a ban on assault rifles, an increased rigor for gun ownership, and a greater focus on mental health would be gargantuan steps in the right direction and could serve to reduce the casualties associated with these actions.  

It is not a question of gun control or mental health or thoughts and prayers.  It is a three-pronged approach in which the advancement of the first two will diminish the need for the third.  

We cannot continue to sit back and watch the carnage continue.  Reach out to your elected officials or find another way to act.  I don’t want my students to be next.  I don’t want my children to be next.  I don’t want my teachers to be next.  I don’t want my wife to be next.  I don’t want to be next.  I don’t want you to be next.


What do my postcards say?  

Our world has nearly 200 constitutions.  Only three include a right to bear arms (Mexico, Guatemala, and U.S.).  Only the U.S. does not have restrictive conditions on this right.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


To get a gun in Japan:

Attend all-day class, pass written test, pass shooting range class, pass mental and drug test, file test with police, pass rigorous background check, own shotgun.  Provide police with location of gun and ammo at home which must be locked and stored separately.  Police inspect gun once per year.  Retake class and exam every three years.  

Japan had 6 gun deaths in 2014, the U.S. had 33,599.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


Why is the right to own an AR-15 more important than our students’ right to feel safe and be safe?  

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


The Constitution is a living document that has been amended 27 times in our history.  

An amendment to the right to bear arms must be number 28.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


The right to keep and bear arms was predicated on the intent of using them for self-defense.  Assault rifles carry the name ‘assault’ which is a physical attack, not self-defense.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


5 Things That Are More Complicated Than Buying a Gun in Florida:

  1. Cold medicine
  2. Marriage license
  3. Fertilizer
  4. Anti-diarrhea medication
  5. Medical marijuana

How is this ok?  

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


I am a public school principal, a father, and the husband of a school teacher.  I don’t want my students to be next.  I don’t want my children to be next.  I don’t want my teachers to be next.  I don’t want my wife to be next.  I don’t want to be next.

Ban assault rifles.  Increase rigor for gun ownership.  Promote mental health.


Image retrieved from: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/democrats-call-for-gun-control-in-wake-of-florida-shooting-as-ryan-backs-owners-rights-2018-02-15

Video retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LORVfnFtcH0

Caruso Middle School Honored

On November 6 and 7 in Washington D.C., Charles J. Caruso Middle School was officially honored with the 2017 National Blue Ribbon School designation.  Mrs. Suzanne Molloy, veteran Caruso teacher and instructional coach, joined me to represent CMS for this special award.  We were also joined by Kipling Elementary and Drs. Lubelfeld and McConnell.

How prestigious is this honor?  As Jason Botel, Acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education pointed out, it is more difficult to earn this status than it is for a college athlete in almost any sport to turn professional.  Far less than 1% of schools across the nation are recognized each year.  It is not a perfect analogy, but it does communicate how special this honor is for a school community.

What comes next?  To continue our relentless pursuit to the meet the academic and social-emotional learning needs of all of our students.  We are humbled by this honor but we do not rest on our laurels.  At most, a school can only receive this recognition once every five years, however, we aim to be blue ribbon-worthy each and every year!  Thank you to all of our staff members, parents, students, and community members for promoting educational excellence at Charles J. Caruso Middle School!

We Believe We Can Cause Learning

There is a new number one in town – teacher collective efficacy.  According to John Hattie, in his most recent iteration of his massive meta-analyses synthesis, this category has a whopping effect size of 1.57 and tops the list of over 250 influences.   

What does teacher collective efficacy mean?  It means we believe we can cause learning.  It means a team of teachers believes that they add value through their actions by working together effectively.  More officially it means, “collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities.” (Tschannen-Moran & Barr, 2004, p. 190)This idea seems simple at the surface level.  If you ask almost any teacher or team of teachers,  they would tell you that they make a positive impact on student learning.  But what about when the door closes?  What does a teacher tell themselves?  What does a team truly believe?  If the answer remains the same then a team is on the path to true teacher collective efficacy….and the learners reap the rewards.

Note that this is not a discussion about whether or not our students can attain achievement through our collective teacher efficacy.  Our job is to add value, add growth.  Many students have attained achievement standards for a grade level before they even walk into our classrooms on the first day while other students can get there not long after.  Other students may need more than one year’s time to reach grade level 


Identifying and replicating teacher teams with high collective efficacy is compounded by the fact that they are often humble in identifying themselves.  Ask a master teacher or team why they think their kids did so well.  The answers will include hard-working students, great parents, helpful resources, etc.  The question Hattie poses is “how often do teachers say the kids did well because of them?”  Answer: not often.  Teachers will increase their impact by owning their successes.  Educational leaders can also serve a role in curbing this humility and attributing success to teachers.  Let’s scale up these successes and promote the growth of an even larger number of teacher teams.

This area of research and many of the other top items in Hattie’s research are dominated by teacher expertise.  Hattie argues, rightfully so, that school systems do not do enough to prioritize this reality and put the spotlight on the teachers with the right expertise.  The reality is that we cannot choose the students we have, but we can select and/or develop the best teachers and teacher teams.  As teachers, we can aspire to maximize our time and functionality in professional learning communities and professional development and growth experiences.  As school leaders, we need to have the courage to identify teachers of expertise and build a coalition around them.

National Blue Ribbon Award Winner!

We are so excited to be recognized today as a National Blue Ribbon School Award recipient for 2017!  Below is our parent communication regarding this special honor.  Go CMS!!!  Also, a big thank you to our Blue Ribbon application authors:

Dear Caruso Families:

I’m excited to announce that your child attends a 2017 National Blue Ribbon School!  

It is with great pride that I share with you that in a ceremony today, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will name Charles J. Caruso Middle School a National Blue Ribbon School. If you are interested, you may watch the live stream of the announcement on the Department of Education’s youtube page – https://www2.ed.gov/programs/nclbbrs/index.html.  The announcement will occur this afternoon at 1pm EST (noon our time).

We were first nominated by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to be considered for this national award. The ISBE’s nomination of Caruso as an “exemplary high performing school”  was based on measures of our student achievement. Next, we submitted an incredibly detailed application to the U.S. Department of Education that provided information about Caruso’s climate and culture, instruction and curriculum, assessments, professional development, leadership, and parent and community support.

Of the nearly 4,500 public schools in Illinois, we are 1 of 16 public schools to receive this prestigious honor in 2017. This is the second time Caruso Middle School has received this award; the first time was 33 years ago in 1984 when the school was called Wilmot Junior High.

I would like to thank the staff who served on the application team. It was an arduous process, and their hard work to tell the story of our school and our students was outstanding. Caruso Middle School would not have earned this award without their leadership.  Team members included:

  • Adriane Reisman
  • Anna Riddle
  • Barb Mastin
  • Carrie Schrader
  • Casey Wolfer
  • Dana Spies
  • Jana Wagner
  • Jenna Weiner
  • Jenn Gold
  • Jessica Jaksich
  • Julie Witczak
  • Kirk Humphreys
  • Matt Milazzo
  • Sarah Hogan
  • Sharron Richardson
  • Suzanne Molloy
  • Taryn Lehman
  • Tracy Markin

In November, Suzanne Molloy will join me in Washington D.C. to accept this award on behalf of our entire school community.

I also want to thank you, our Caruso families, for your key role in this honor.  You represent a long line of Caruso families that makes high quality education and engaging learning environments a priority.  We would not be a Blue Ribbon school if we didn’t have such caring and committed families.  Thank you for sharing your time, talents, and values with us to make Caruso Middle School one of the best in nation!



Top Ten Recognition! Lake County Attendance Week

We are excited to share that Caruso Middle School was recognized as a top ten school in Lake County for their annual Attendance Week!  Our attendance the week of September 11th was 97%.  Thank you to all of our families for promoting excellent attendance this week and throughout the year!!

Did you know that being absent more than two times a quarter can lead to chronic absenteeism?  Here is some further information from attendanceworks.org on how families can support excellent attendance!

Our CMS Facility Updates!

Now that the school year is in full swing we have also put the exclamation points on some great new building projects at CMS!  The summer always flies by and it is remarkable what our school board and buildings and grounds team can orchestrate in these few short weeks.

With the phenomenal support of our PTO and the Caruso school community, we have made major upgrades to our fitness room.  The PTO purchased high-quality cardio machines for our students.  The school and district contributed new flooring and video projectors to make this room an even greater resource for our PE classes and extracurriculars.

The school district has led the impressive renovation of our locker rooms.  The improvements include new lockers with built-in locks, the addition of changing stalls, updated water fountains, new storage spaces, new flooring, and updated staff offices.


In cooperation with the buildings and grounds department, Caruso Middle School has added new office furniture, carpeting, and paint to provide much-needed improvements to this space.


The school district and technology department has replaced our aging Promethean Boards with new high-resolution projectors and marker boards in our classrooms.  Among their features, these boards easily sync and airplay with our teacher-issued iPads for teacher and student use.

Additional features include new planters at the front of the building (teachers not included), new accessible sidewalk and ramped curb, and increased door security for the building.


We remain incredibly thankful and appreciative to educate in a community where such a high premium is placed on facilities and resources that postively impact student learning.

The SBL Journey Continues – Model Scholars

[This blog is the last part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

The stakes have been raised when it comes to honor roll recognition in our District 109 middle schools.

As principal, I am often conflicted when it comes to honor roll.  We always need to be careful of motivating students extrinsically as the behavior can be superficial.  One can easily counter that argument with the importance of a system which celebrates behaviors that we value, such as significant achievement in relation to academics and habits of success.  

Our standards-based learning committee made the decision to roll out two levels of honor roll in our new system – Model Scholar and Distinguished Model Scholar.

Model Scholar is awarded each semester to students who have demonstrated all “3s” (or “consistently demonstrates”) on their habits of success.  

Attaining Model Scholar status is no easy task as most students have eight classes, all of which report out on the same four habits of success standards.  That equals thirty-two marks that need to consistently demonstrate that they:

  • Respect others’ rights, feelings, and property
  • Follow directions
  • Complete assignments with attention to quality and punctuality
  • Exhibit effort, commitment, and perseverance

If a student turns in a “2” or a “1” on any of these thirty-two marks it precludes them from receiving honor roll recognition.

What I adore about the Model Scholar criteria is that we, for the first time in this way, are celebrating students who are doing all that we expect of them as students even if they cannot attain all of our high academic standards.  This should absolutely be celebrated and these behaviors will translate into invaluable life skills as they move forward.


Distinguished Model Scholar is awarded each semester to students who have met the criteria for Model Scholar and also have a letter grade of “A” in each of their courses for that semester.  Meeting these high standards certainly merits the descriptor of “distinguished” for a student who attains them any specific term.

If honor roll is something that is valued in a family it is important to remember that it all starts with a stellar performance on our habits of success criteria.  

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.


The SBL Journey Continues – Personalized Comments

[This blog is part of a series that begins with this recent post about our SBL journey.]

The primary function of a report card is to serve as a communication device.  

Personalized comments on the report cards are one small, but important piece of this process.  We have specific expectations when it comes to the comments section of our report cards and we want these expectations to contribute to the communication occurring throughout the rest of the term.

Our semester report cards at the end of second and fourth quarter contain course summaries and personalized comments.  These personalized comments should include at least a couple of sentences that highlight a strength and an area for growth for each student.  The goal is to make these personalized comments unique to each student and provide meaningful feedback as they continue to grow.  Meanwhile, the course summary comments are similar or identical for all job-alike teachers at both middle schools and do not have any personalization (these are the only comments shared on first and third quarter progress reports).

Reports cards and progress reports should not stand alone in conveying information about the learning and growth of each student.  We want individualized communication to take place in multiple ways throughout the year so the teacher, student, and family can effectively partner together to promote student growth.   

As we continue to learn and grow together on our SBL journey please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any staff member at Caruso Middle School to ask questions or provide feedback.

« Older posts
Skip to toolbar