Aphra Behn: Accessibility and Availability

I listened carefully last week at New Teacher Orientation as Massapequa’s new teachers shared reasons why they chose teaching as their lifework.  Saturated in all of their responses was their inspiration: parents serving as teachers, a favorite teacher who provided a spark for their careers, the opportunity to change the world, etc.  Of course, not one mentioned that he/she wanted to be a millionaire.  I sat there reflecting on my own story.  Yes, I had many relatives who taught, many amazing teachers to aspire to be, and I believe that I have changed many lives. However, my story really begins with Aphra Behn, author of Oroonoko.

Walking into Welles Hall at SUNY Geneseo for my first ever class, English 142: The Picaresque, I remember wondering if taking this English class as part of my English minor would be the right choice.  In fact, I was only taking the course because my sister recommended the professor, Dr. Maria Lima.  This same professor changed my life.  Our first text that semester was Oroonoko.  Of course, I never read anything like it in high school.  Its author, Aphra Behn, is credited as the first female voice to ever get published.  A daring voice.  In her book, Behn explored the themes of slavery, race, and gender.  Unlike others, Behn put the “other” in a sympathetic spotlight and forced her readers to think about the stereotypes that exist in a reader’s mind.  Virginia Woolf wrote that it was Aphra Behn who “earned women the right to speak their minds.”  It was also Aphra Behn that led to my obsession with Black British, Caribbean, and postcolonial literature.  I then knew that teaching English and education would be my lifework.  The walk down to my advisor to change my major from Psychology to English was extremely easy.

As I begin my sixteenth year in education, I can still make connections between my work and the ideas expressed in Behn’s novel and the books that would follow.  This year, there is potential that a woman’s voice may reside in the most powerful seat in this country.  Regardless of your political stance, this must inspire us that we can achieve whatever we want in our lives.  Similar to the presidential seat, education needs to take note that accessibility and availability should exist in everything that we provide for our students.

In September, we will open doors to makerspaces in all elementary libraries.  Spaces that will provide opportunities for all students to code, use tools such as Osmo, ozobots, Dot and Dash, print 3D designs on 3D printers, learn circuitry with Little Bits and Snap Circuits, build Lego and Keva structures, be creative using cardboard and duct tape, and the list goes on.  All students will be part of the makerspace.  No test or set criteria for admission, no assessments, no homework, no lecturing, and nothing traditional.  It is a space that captures what we all believe education should be.  Like Behn’s work, all voices and statuses will be cherished.

If asked today what inspired my decision to teach, I would never have thought that a possible answer could include Aphra Behn.  I always thought the answer was Dr. Maria Lima who prompted me to see the power that literature can have on the way one sees the world.  But, it is just that.  Through making authors like Behn possible for her students to read, she forced me to realize that education has to be accessible and available to all audiences.  I can’t wait to continue this journey!

Authentic Learning from 5th and 7th Graders

“Oh, you want to see how to code Dash?  That is easy.  You just have to code directions and create loops based on centimeters. Just Watch.”

-5th grade student at Cantiague Elementary School

“My teacher asked us to use Weebly to create a website for a book we were reading.  I figured I would just code my own site instead.”

-7th grade student at Mineola Middle School

I am obsessed with learning.  I admit it.  In fact, I have found that some of my best learning experiences have occurred when visiting other spaces since they provided a frame of reference to evaluate my own craft.  Last week, I had the invaluable opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Tony Sinanis in visiting Innovation Day at Cantiague Elementary School, a day after meeting with passionate school leaders in Mineola (Dr. Michael Nagler, Matt Gaven, Andrew Casale, and Mark Licht) in my quest to see Math Space.  The conversations with these leaders certainly pushed my thinking.  Yet, my interactions with fifth and seventh grade students inspired my perspective of what is possible when you provide time for students to learn on the platforms that are comfortable for them.

Platforms that were so comfortable that students were willing to take risks, try new ideas, get sucked into their own vision, fail, find ways to rebound, and then start again.  At Cantiague, students in all grade levels were making, tinkering, creating, building, playing, sharing, dancing, laughing, coding, and growing…together.  Near the end of our guided tour, I turned the corner near the library and saw two students working with Dash.  Yes! This was perfect. I needed to learn how to use Dash in order to model it for my library media specialists in planning next year’s makerspaces.  What better way to learn how to use technology than from a student!  I asked a simple question, “Can you show me how to begin coding with Dash?”  See the student’s answer above.  Easy.  Code directions.  Loops.  Centimeters. JUST WATCH.  How awesome.  I was a stranger and these two students were thrilled to model their thinking and share their passion.  I was receiving professional development from fifth graders.  An interesting and powerful idea.  Why not?  Aren’t we on THEIR platform?

Similarly, after seeing the power of Math Space at Mineola, Matt Gaven and Andrew Casale invited me to check in with two students who were coding in the library using KidOYO.  In five minutes, one of the students explained how he used KidOYO, Python, and Bootstrap to code a challenge for students he was mentoring. Students he was MENTORING! Amazing.  He then shared the experience at the top of this blog post where he redefined his own assignment based on what he could do rather than an expectation that was for the mainstream.  Hmm.  Another takeaway and reminder that we need to focus on the learning before we can begin to think about the teaching…or facilitating.

These two visits served as clear reminders that education is changing…fast.  Learning is evolving.  Time for Genius Hour and innovation is growing in demand.  It is now necessary to provide a tabula rasa for students to explore.  Our students are ready.  Hey, they are already there.  Are we?

Are Your Students Good Enough?

“I want you to know that I attribute much of my success to people like you, who shaped my outlook on life.  I remember your class and many of your lessons.  You were tasked with a very large challenge: bringing open mindedness, diversity and differences to a community that was non diverse and all very much similar.  I am forever grateful for the discussions and topics we discussed, particularly in your social issues class.  But above all else: I am MOST grateful for you giving me the opportunity to realize my potential.  If not for you, I may have never had the confidence to believe that I could pass two bar exams (one the first try nonetheless).  You were one of, if not the only educator of mine that believed I was smart enough for honors.  That was the FIRST step to feeling like I was good enough.  Thank you for that.” -Former student from West Islip High School

I.CAN’T.STOP.THINKING.ABOUT.THIS.EMAIL.  The above excerpt was received in an email this week from a former student who found me on Twitter.  The punctuation in my first sentence is intentional.  The email brought tears, joy, inspiration, and thoughts that are driving me to help teachers develop their craft.  I had this student in eleventh grade.  With only two years of high school remaining, I remember seeing her as a true thinker. She was brilliant.  She got it.  In all her years of education, her teachers saw her as a great student in the average Regents class (the school had Regents Prep, Regents, Honors and Advanced Placement).  Deep down, she just wanted to “feel good enough.”  She was far better than good enough.  Why should I have had that power?  Teacher expectations carry so much weight in students’ successes and mindsets.

In studying and learning the power of a growth mindset and the dangers of a fixed mindset, I find it remarkable that we often project a fixed mindset on students on both ends.  We determine the level of education that they should pursue, the level of coursework that they should entertain, and even if they belong in an elite group of students at such an early age.  I was in “Wider Horizons” in elementary school.  What a name–horrific for those who had supposed narrow futures.  Meanwhile, you would be shocked, well maybe not, if you did data analysis on the students who had wider horizons in fourth grade.  My elementary school certainly didn’t precisely predict.  How do we ensure students don’t get to eleventh grade before a teacher sees in them something that would come true later in life?  This former student of mine is an attorney.  Sure, it all worked out in the end.  But, what if she “realized her potential” and received the “first step” earlier on?  This conversation must take place.  Her email has prompted my reflection.  Did I let other students slip by?  Did I focus too heavily on those who exhibited academic extroversion?

Well, what do we do? We need MakerSpaces.  We need Genius Hour.  We need coding.  We need time to explore and be messy.  We need ALL students to find their confidence.  In that process, their growth mindset will prosper and push out the structures that have captured their passion.  Thinkers always rise to the top.  They exist in all classrooms on all levels.  Let’s give them all a voice.

Reading: A TA’s Life’s Work

“Show me a family of readers, and I will show you

the people who move the world.”

-Napoleon Bonaparte

I am often impressed by the work of the teacher assistant within the school community. He/she works extremely hard, is often underpaid, and goes about his/her work in a quiet yet successful manner. Although I always thank them for their hard work, I never thought it would be a teacher assistant who would help validate my work and leadership. But it happened!

It was the week following NerdCampLI, an unconference dedicated to book geeks led by the passionate literacy diva (she will hopefully be fine with me calling her that), JoEllen McCarthy (@joellenmccarthy), and I was still on a nerdy high from the conversations and presentations that took place the previous Saturday. On my way out of the Massapequa High School library, a teacher assistant stopped me, “Oh, Ed! It is great to see you. Give me a hug! I keep meaning to contact you. Did you choose Fish in a Tree for Berner’s book initiative?” Honestly, based on her tone, I thought she was going to tell me that I made a poor choice! Although, how could anyone not love Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s work!?!?! Considering I just met Lynda at NerdCampLI and was raving about her, I spiritedly answered, “Yes! Isn’t it amazing? We all need a Mr. Daniels in our lives.” The teacher assistant responded, “It was unbelievable. I really enjoyed it. You know I am familiar with many authors.” For this teacher assistant, Hunt’s book provided evidence of her importance working with students with special needs. After explaining how books have changed the way she sees the world, her job, and her relationships, the conversation took a different route.

With tears in her eyes, she spoke about Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Jacqueline Woodson and their presence at her son’s girlfriend’s wake. Unfortunately, her son was dating the daughter of two well known authors when she recently passed away. She spoke about Jacqueline Woodson’s speech at the services, her book Brown Girl Dreaming and its wealth in all communities, the power of an author’s words, and the impact that Hunt/Woodson/Paulsen/Palacio and others have had on her as a reader…as a person. Wow! I was speaking to a reader. A geek. A nerd. And I never knew it. I then shared with her, “I didn’t know you were a reader. I love it.” She seemed annoyed at that comment (in a good way). She didn’t want her admiration for written text to be a secret.

Although I had to leave, I wish I had hours to spend with her to hear about her experiences. Listen to her perspective of the same books that I read. She deserved it, and I wanted that opportunity as well. It would recognize her work and pay tribute to what I hoped to accomplish through literature. I now realize that the community of readers that I thought existed was even bigger. In fact, Berner Middle School’s One School-One Book Initiative extended the invite to all members of the community. They have all accepted. The student. The teacher. The secretary. The custodian. The administrator. The TA. What validation! An #eduwin for me and for Massapequa.

I wonder who else out there is waiting for the next Fish in a Tree, Brown Girl Dreaming, or Wonder to speak to their life’s work. How would an author’s words connect people personally and professionally? And, who will help me “move this world.”

From Server to Leader to Learner…a sprinkle of each.

“Hi.  My name is Jen, and I will be your server today.  I am new here so please be patient with me.”  It was the Labor Day BBQ at The Greens in Melville (my mother’s complex) and everyone seemed to show up to get their last bite (well, many last bites) before summer was unofficially over.  With a packed restaurant of hungry residents who wanted their $21 worth and a fairly new staff due to a change in ownership, the place was mayhem.  Yet, this server’s words struck a chord with me as I was about to start a new school year with Mindset as the district’s theme.

 

Reflection.  Growth Mindset.  RELATIONSHIP BUILDING!  Despite her inexperience, our server realized that she would develop her craft with the patience of her customers and managers.  Patience which she expected.  It made me reflect on my practice as an instructional leader.  Our practice.  How patient are we with the development of new staff?  How long is too long for a “newbie” to get it? Should they fake it or should they ask for help? If they ask for help, is it a sign of weakness or strength? If they ask for help and struggle at the beginning, can they recover?  I suspect these questions run through the heads of many leaders who reflect on their leadership.  I thought about these through most of the lunch.  I evaluated and measured this server’s skills.  She was fantastic.  In fact, if she didn’t tell us she were new, I would have thought she were a veteran.  But, it was her mindset that was impressive.  It was her reflection and ability to recognize her need for more experience that spoke to me.  All wrapped up…the relationship she was able to foster with her customers was genuine.  Leaving the Greens that day, I thought about the new role I was given this year.  How would I build genuine relationships and mutual patience?  I found my answer during a Sprinkle.

 

I don’t know how I went from a 22 year old English teacher living in a waterfront rental house with two friends to having a Sprinkle, but hey, I will be a father of two come December.  It has been an interesting year getting ready for the baby’s arrival and leading two new departments…instructional technology and library media.  The two should certainly be married so I love this new role.  But, “I am new here so please be patient…” Learning the life of the library media specialist, especially at the elementary level since it was really new, has been awesome.  I always thought the library could be-should be-has to be the hub of a school since research, technology, trust, a secure corner for a student, and a safe space for a reader all live there.  Seamlessly at the same time.  I knew I had a lot to learn from my colleagues.  I knew I had to build relationships.  And reflect.  And grow…with them.  With a technology lens, there would be a library remix of sorts this year with me as their leader.  Three months into this relationship, I knew I was ready to hold a Yay or Nay session with them (PC version of the EdCamp classic) so we could expose our perspectives on hot button issues.  I couldn’t wait for the discussion.  I was excited to present my Haiku Deck with five library-centered topics.  Just as I was set to go, I get ushered into another room where cakes, pink tablecloths with matching cups/rattles/utensils, picture books, a Keurig, gifts for Max (my son), “Olivia,” and one to share with my wife all saturated the room.  A Sprinkle.  The Yay or Nay would wait.  Relationships took the stage again.  Camaraderie.  It is our business. Thankfully.

 

What Does Learning Look Like…on a Saturday?

While driving to Howitt Middle School on Saturday, March 28th, my phone kept beeping that sound that delightfully reminds me of my passion for learning…the Twitter notification.  Trying not to tweet and drive (it was tough that morning), I glanced down at my phone whenever possible to check out the anticipation for CELI15 led by Dr. Bill Brennan.  It was my Christmas morning for professional development.  I couldn’t wait to get there and open the present of learning.  Check out the room where I would lead a conversation on growth mindset and instructional technology with three amazing colleagues and friends.  Eat a bagel (of course) and gulp down some coffee.  Get my Chromebook ready so I could tweet to the conference’s hashtag.  Find a spot in the cafeteria for the nearly twenty Massapequa colleagues who were joining me on this learning venture.  Meet up with educators and friends from former districts.  Check in with my EdCampLI all-stars.  Engage in a conversation with the student who welcomed me.  And focus on the dynamics of learning.  Just learning.

Seeing the smiles, hearing the laughter, and witnessing the hugs/kisses/handshakes/awkward hellos, I reflected on two questions: What does it mean to be a learner in 2015?  What does a learner really look like?

  • The students who gave up their Saturdays to open doors, work the registration table, escort participants to the various rooms, and make us feel at home?  I can see their excitement–almost as if they knew our learning would impact their educations.  Their futures.  We are their heroes and they are our inspiration.
  • Dr. Bill Brennan who worked tirelessly to put together another amazing free conference to impact leadership and learning on Long Island?  His passion saturated the building and will have an everlasting effect on teaching and learning across the island.
  • Dr. Joan Ripley, assistant superintendent from Farmingdale, who took the time to welcome and introduce herself to participants over lunch?
  • JoEllen McCarthy whose book love and passion for reading and writing always seems to push our thinking?
  • The Gatelys and the EdCampLI planning team wearing stickers with a QR code linked to a Google form so educators could sign up for EdCampLI in October to continue the conversation of connected learning?
  • The custodial staff keeping the building in shape while getting the chance to listen in on conversations on pedagogy?
  • The group of Massapequa teacher assistants, teachers (and spouses), building and district leaders who truly enjoyed learning together?  I witnessed their excitement through their questions, their own presentations, and of course, their tweets.Lunch
  • Tom Whitby in his Hawaiian shirt inspiring the audience to question the power of being connected?
  • The #nyedchat geniuses who engaged those in attendance and those online in a discussion of best practices?
  • Tony Sinanis who always finds a way to get the conversation started?
  • The participant who got on Twitter for the first time and felt very connected…with only two followers?
  • Bonnie McClelland whose dedication pushes kindergarten students to learn at the highest level?
  • The hundreds of other teachers, administrators, parents, school board members, student teachers, students, and support staff who all learned on the same playing field?

CELI15 reminded me of the power of learning and connecting in an effort to ensure students in all spaces become champions of their own paths.  The learner was all of us.  No race.  No social class.  No gender.  No orientation.  No first language.  No title.  No score.  On a snowy Saturday in March.

Changing the Conversation in our Heads

During a recent professional development focusing on the power of hope, grit, and growth mindset, Kevin Sheehan prompted our entire staff to think about the moments that shifted the “conversations in our heads.”  He asked us to consider how certain people impacted our careers and our futures.  He challenged us to document these moments and share with those who had the courage to make us rethink our own mental models.  I am dedicating this blog post to the person who changed the “conversation in my head” while a student at SUNY Geneseo.

In late August of 1997, I met with my freshman advisor from the psychology department (my chosen major) to choose my classes for the fall semester.  My sister, a junior at Geneseo, forced me to take a course titled English 142: Picaresque.  She claimed that although I planned to be a psychology major, I would find the professor, Dr. Maria Lima, to be engaging and life-changing.  She was absolutely right.  Not only did Maria Lima inspire a heightened love for literature, she forced me to think outside of my comfort zone.  I quickly fell in love with literature that empowered characters who found themselves on the outside of the mainstream.  I became obsessed with post-colonial literature with a main love for Caribbean writers.  I adored Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Sam Selvon, and others who begged me to reflect on privilege and the impact of experience.  Although this genre, which was so foreign to my experience as a high school student on Long Island, captured my attention, it truly was Maria Lima’s absolute passion that intrigued me.  Her energy.  Her honesty with closed minded students.  Her drilling of our hegemonic ideologies.  Her precise power to make us undergo a process of unlearning.

Intersession of my freshman year. I remember walking into the Sturges building to find my psychology advisor, Dr. Terrence Bassett, to inform him that I no longer could consider a major in psychology.  The teaching of reading and writing would saturate my life.  I knew the answer to the question that burned inside me throughout the entire semester learning under Dr. Maria Lima.  I was a future English teacher.  My life would be dedicated to teaching and learning.  My walk into Sturges that day is still clear as day in mind.  It was my turning point.  The point when I  realized that someday, maybe, I could be Maria Lima.  That someday I could use an author’s words to inspire curiosity and conviction.  The opportunity to prompt a student, a reader, to see himself and his future in a text.

Four years later, just before graduation, I walked into Maria’s office to try to put her impact into words.  I needed to tell her that my teaching would follow her guide.  I needed to tell her that teachers do change lives.  I wanted to express to her that because of her, like the characters that she shared with me, I found my home.  Before five words escaped my mouth, I couldn’t contain my tears.  She knew what she had done for me.  She knew I appreciated her.  She knew I was the character in my own text.  She looked at me and stated with her smile, “Ed, you are going to be a fine teacher.  You don’t need me any more.”

Thank you, Maria Lima. Your impact continues to write my story.