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.

Kings Park Brands…and I Lucked Out

My newest obsession is the analysis of the ways in which schools/teachers/administrators/community members sell their brand.  The importance of telling our story has never been as important…as crucial in this era of education!  We can either tell our own story or invite the misinformed outsiders to stake a claim to what they believe happens in our schools.  Every time I get the opportunity to hear Tony Sinanis, @tonysinanis, speak about school branding, I am inspired to document the top notch environment that exists at Berner Middle School in Massapequa.  Each of Tony’s parents at Cantiague Elementary in Jericho is able to see into his/her child’s classroom and capture the fantastic teaching and learning that happens each day.  Through Tony’s lens (and his teachers who have bought into this necessary practice), parents are digitally invited into the building and embraced in what truly has become a school community.  In a recent conversation about effective school branding, a colleague asked me, “But, Ed, is it too much?  Should parents really be able to log on to Twitter and supervise all that goes on?”  Immediately, I wanted to shout, “OF COURSE!”  Halloween made that answer even more definitive for me as I truly became a school parent for the first time.

My son attends day care at New Beginnings in Kings Park which is housed in a former elementary building.  His first Halloween parade was on Friday and since my wife and I both work, we were unable to attend.  However, with Twitter and a committed superintendent, I was able to get a glimpse of the costume march around the property.  After logging into Twitter, I saw Dr. Tim Eagen’s post through the district’s Twitter account (@kpschools), “New Beginnings Parade at San Remo today :)” with a picture of the infants and toddlers proudly sporting their costumes.  See, I knew that Max was going to be a farmer for Halloween.  I knew the specifics of his costume.  Yet, I zoomed in, zoomed out, focused on the right corner, the left corner, etc. to see if I can see my son happily marching.  To perhaps see if he is smiling and enjoying his walk down his red carpet.  How awesome!  How lucky.  Sitting nearly 40 minutes away in my office, I was able to capture the moment of my son’s first parade.  A year ago in Kings Park, I would have been left in the dark.  The impact of committed and digital leadership is simply invaluable.  Branding the district and highlighting the events of a school community should not only be a choice but an expectation of a 21st century school leader.  Thankfully, Kings Park has put our district in the hands of a leader who understands transparency and the benefits of marketing.

The five minutes of trying to find Max on the screen made me reflect.  We no longer have to suffer through the sound of AOL trying to log in, jump through hoops to wait for the available dial tone, or navigate through different sites to get connected.  It is easy.  It is too easy to not use.  Or ignore.  As we progress in this age of digital leadership and digitally saturated instruction, school branding and telling our story shouldn’t even be a question.  Parents want to join us in this journey of educating their children.  They are curious learners and leaders as well.  They deserve it.  For us to not provide this awesome opportunity is careless.  I welcome the future opportunity of potential candidates to show their branding during the interview process.  Put aside those binders!

I think back to that conversation I had a couple weeks ago and realize that too much is never too much.  At some point when they can’t get to the building, our parents and community members will be eager to see why our reputation is so great.  Whether it is seeing their son in his first costume or getting a glimpse of their daughter in front of a green screen, the ability to get connected is priceless.

The Power of Reflection

I received a text message from a friend who wrote, “I found your 2nd year portfolio in the book room, do you want it?”  I immediately responded, “Yes!  Thank you!”  I took a few minutes this morning to quickly review what is in this 2nd year teaching portfolio that helped persuade the administration of West Islip Public Schools that I deserved to be awarded tenure.  I quickly switched my focus and decided to look for answers the following question: What in this portfolio highlights the importance of reflecting on one’s craft?”  The three artifacts noted below prompted my own reflection and will guide my leadership this year.

#1: My first paragraph of my portfolio reads:

“The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.” -Carl Rogers

Every September marks a time for change for teachers and students.  For students, it is a chance to achieve higher grades than in previous years.  For teachers, September is a chance to alter their delivery, practices, and mental models.  Seeing the lines at CVS and smelling the crisp September air immediately forced me to reflect on last year’s success.  In that reflection, I questioned how I could bring my students to a greater level in their open-minded journey to excellence.  I am anxious for this opportunity.

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In looking at my chosen quote and the first paragraph of this portfolio, I realize that students and teachers understand the importance of a new school year.  The possibilities are endless.  Change is inevitable.  Yet, I wonder how much of this thinking is targeted?  Is there an evaluation of previous goals and future ones?  Is this reflection conscious? I sit here on the Sunday following the first week of school and think about the timeliness of finding this portfolio.  It is only September 7th, we can model the art of reflection for our students. Bring them back to their accomplishments from last year.  Were they good enough?  Did they live up to our individual expectations?  What are specific goals for this year?  The future?

As an instructional leader, I reflected this summer on my leadership and my goals for this year will certainly guide my staff to even greater success.  As I noted in my second year of teaching, I am anxious for that opportunity.

#2: A letter to the parents of my baseball players

I wrote in this congratulatory letter that I believed their “sons’ priorities should be in this order: family, school, and baseball.  My philosophy of coaching will guarantee the best possible future for the West Islip High School baseball program.  My job as the freshman coach is to get the players ready for the varsity level.”  

My message in those brief statements highlight our job as educators.  It is incumbent upon us to prepare students for the next level.  Their next level.  I believe in the state’s goal that we need to make our students college AND career ready.  And we do.  Preparing our students for the important steps in life is what needs to saturate our craft.  When we focus on the future, our present seems to find success.  I still search for ways in which  the rushed testing program fits into this recipe.  My baseball team was undefeated that year.  Two years later, the varsity team won the Suffolk County Championship.  There are ingredients to success.  Setting priorities, reflecting, and seeing the future are three keys to becoming the best.  

#3 The handwritten note

I added a section to this portfolio titled, “Evaluations/Observation Reports/Professional Notes,” and in it, I put artifacts that had an impression on me as a new teacher.  My favorite is the handwritten note from the assistant superintendent from West Islip, Lou Zocchia.  He wrote, “I just completed reading your teacher observation dealing with The Great Gatsby.  It was a lesson that intrigued me.  Your style is exemplary-great work.  Thanks for all your dedication to West Islip.” – Lou

Wow!  Reflecting on this note brought me back to that day.  Finding this handwritten note in my mailbox from the assistant superintendent validated my hard work, my fierce passion, and the importance of reflection.  Not only did he read an observation written by the Director of English, but he was moved by it and felt the need to let me know of his appreciation.  I love how it wasn’t typed- it was too genuine to be.  This short note forced me to reflect.  Do my teachers know how much I appreciate them beyond writing nice sentiments in their observations?  Do they really know how much I value them?  This year, I am going to add this piece to my growing leadership.  Handwritten notes.  Perhaps one day a teacher will reflect back on his/her portfolio and come across it.  It will force the art of reflection and make another’s craft that much better.

To Use or Not to Use: There is No Question

In reading my educator friends’ Facebook posts this week with the arrival of the first day of school, I came across the following statement from a friend who teaches in a highly successful school district (according state exam data):

“Amazing teacher moment on the first day: When handing out index cards to get student information, students no longer know their home/parents’ numbers because they have them saved in their cellphones.  I think that will be my first homework assignment.  I don’t care what subject I teach, that’s unacceptable!”

The following thought immediately popped into my mind after reading this comment: It is 2014, why are you still handing out index cards?  The students are probably looking at her wondering why they are writing their information on cards when something called Google exists.  

So, I had to comment on her post.  I wrote, “Lol.  I think the index cards are so old school.  Create a Google form and have the kids fill in their info from their cell phones.”  After a few comments from other friends basically stating that students should be on our platform not the reverse (ugh! time to provide comfortable paths for the students), my friend with the index cards responded to me, “They’re not allowed to have them in class.”  I sighed.  Bewildered.  What a paradox! Successful on state exams but not allowed to use their own technology and be “college and career ready.”

This situation is indicative what is questionable about our system. Success on a three day exam gets positive press, accolades from those informed and uninformed, and rewarded titles that are here one year and gone the next.  Yet, students are not allowed to use their mobile devices/Smartphones/computers in their pockets.  Where is the value in that?  Aren’t we supposed to prepare students for the next level?  Model for them what digital responsibility looks like?  Allow them to make positive decisions?  Or, should we keep standing over them while curbing their use of their current understanding and reality? Or better yet, think it is enough to provide them apps that they MUST use because navigating away to the world wide web could be dangerous.

Technology saturates my school.  Students are given chromebooks, motivated to use GAFE whenever possible, teachers are infusing technology into their daily instruction, students are on their cell phones submitting answers to polls and surveys, using green screen applications to film Shakespearean plays at the Globe theater, participating in The Diary of Anne Frank film festival, and the list goes on and on.  The majority of this work is done on those evil cell phones.  I thank Bob Schilling and Jenny Steigerwald for their trust and knowledge! This simple Facebook post reminds me about true teaching and learning and how that is assessed.  We can be given any state score imaginable.  In the end, our students will be the movers and shakers of the future.  Trust your students, for their knowledge is more networked and responsible than we even know.   

 

Chiken: Come and Get It!

I remember sitting in an American culture course at Geneseo and the professor asking, “What in Geneseo best represents Americana?” The class of aspiring educators quickly brainstormed the token Main Street bagel shop, the church bell that rings at noon, and the obvious American flag that hangs in the center of town. A girl from New York City whispered, “I think the flashing o in motel with the faulty light bulb represents what I believe to be Americana.” Brilliant. Intuitive. Naïve. I now know the best answer to that question. The sign that bears a misspelled word or missing apostrophe has become what best characterizes mainstream America. How sad.

Last year, while sitting in my office, I heard the text notification on my phone ring. After opening the text message from my assistant principal friend, I noticed a picture of a sign that he took on the way to work: “Chiken Cutlets. 1.99 lb.” The initials “KKK” were written in graffiti on top of the cheap chiken cutlets. I sighed after immediately seeing the spelling mistake and then began to analyze this sign. How could a business owner not proofread a sign he was going to put on Route 231 for thousands of potential customers to see? Why spend so much energy in ensuring chiken and cutlets were in different spray painted fonts? And, of course, why would someone feel compelled to graffiti “KKK” to a sign offering cheap chiken cutlets? There is something definitely wrong here. Feeling as if he should help the business owner fix the problems on the sign in order to attract customers, my friend reached out to the owner. Driving down Route 231 the next morning, the sign was fixed…partially. “KKK” was spray painted white but the chiken cutlets were still 1.99 per pound. As an English nerd, I showed my colleague the picture of the sign to which she replied, “The price is right—but I couldn’t buy them because of the egregious spelling!” I beg to differ. Is the price right? What should chiken cost?

As a teacher of English, I used to challenge my students to create a notebook to track all of the errors on signs throughout the school building. It was their real life examination of grammar and usage since I never believed in “old school” grammar instruction. Their notebooks were saturated after a week. All year they were going to the bathroom in the mens bathroom (no apostrophe). The homecoming poster told them that they (whoever that was) would see them they’re. Don’t forget the dance since its on Friday night. Countless errors witnessed by students, teachers, leaders, parents, and staff members. I thought if we “saw something we should say something” as mandated reporters. Why do we become quiet when we witness something that is obviously incorrect?

Throughout the years, I have realized that we are more about what we read than what we eat. In exploring literature on leadership and the amazing blogs written by local educators such as Don Gately, Tony Sinanis, Dan McCabe, and Dennis Schug, I continue to realize that true leadership is the ability to ensure that best practice is present in classrooms, in the hallway, on buses, online, etc. Best practice doesn’t allow for mistakes to be seen year after year by generations of students who may begin to believe that bathroom signs do not need apostrophes. With this in mind, I challenge all teachers and leaders to find those mistakes before September. Seek out what needs to be updated in our school buildings for the students’ sake. Our students need to know that chiken cutlets shouldn’t cost a penny and ignorance is expensive.