Sunday, October 19, 2014

Donkey Kong

Video games… they were my life growing up and I was hooked from a young age. I remember the first summer my father took me to Greece to visit my family. They lived in a tiny village on a mountain top in Northern Greece - there was no hot water and indoor plumbing was a relatively new thing. Most of the men in my family are lumberjacks and the women tend to the farm animals, children and home. I was an 8 year old boy living in New York City who suffered from ADD so you can imagine how traumatic the summer setting was for someone who was used to having access to anything and everything. 

In preparation for the trip, my dad took me to an electronics store to get a little something. Well, that was the first time I ever held a video game in my hands… it was the flip version of Donkey Kong and after playing for about 3 minutes I was HOOKED! I played that video game for hours every single day that summer (my father had enough forethought to buy extra batteries because it had special batteries) and was really good at the game - the challenge, experience and fast pace spoke to the way I was wired.

Upon returning from my trip, I dove head on into the world of video games. I eventually had various game systems and dozens of games that I spent hours playing and trying to master and win. I was definitely engaged and my focus was hyperfocused on this world of video games. Unfortunately, there was no place for that outside of my home and definitely not at school. School was for sitting in rows, reading from a basal, sitting quietly for hours and only speaking when spoken to by an adult. Needless to say, my attentional issues made success in this context extremely difficult. My parents were contacted consistently and my report card reflected someone who was a failure - both in the academic sections and in the personal growth sections. But I knew I wasn’t a failure - it was just that no one took the time to find out what I was interested in; what I was excited about; and what I was passionate about in "real life."

As you can imagine, these experience as a child definitely shaped my philosophy of education. The role my family played in my life. The fact that my family allowed me to immerse myself in my passions and interests (I think it was more about keeping me quiet than fueling my passions but it’s all good). The fact that my schooling experiences, especially at the elementary level, were extremely frustrating, unsuccessful and challenging for me. All this, and a lot more, is at the core of my philosophy about education and specifically about being an educational leader.

These experiences are what motivate me each and every day. I want our children and staff at #Cantiague to have the opposite type of experiences as I had in my formative years. I want to know about the whole child and adult - what do the lives of our children and staff members look like outside of school and how does it shape the experiences in the classrooms. 

This year, building on what we have done in the past, we have embedded many opportunities to get to know our kids and their passions and interests outside of school. We have experimented with #GeniusHour where children have done everything from creating with play-dough to planning for a passion based research project/experience. Many of the children have also had the opportunity to share their passions, interests and loves through the writing workshop experience where they generate heart maps to help spark ideas for personal writing pieces. We have also tried more Bring Your Own Device Days, which the children get really excited about and cannot wait to collaborate and create. Whatever the case, we have tapped into our children’s passions and interests because we want to support the development of the whole child - we refuse to just focus on test scores and the traditional academic areas!  

I don’t have any hard data to show that this shift in instructional focus at #Cantiague has had any sustainable impact on our kids’ learning but what I do know is that many of our kids are happy, excited and invested in coming to school each day. I am stopped on a daily basis by kids who share how excited they are to experience things like #GeniusHour, experimenting with the flipped classroom (watching videos at home) and sharing their voices through the video updates or classroom blogs. Many of our kids love coming to school because they feel like their voice matters and they know we value their perspectives.

Why do I share this piece? Because I think as educators (especially those of us in leadership positions) we need to think about our children - the whole child - not just the one sitting in our classrooms. Not just the academic learner. Not just the test score. We need to know what sparks the interest of each child and we need to tap into those passions and loves to help shape the academic experience. We need to stop doing things because they have always been done that way. We need to stop focusing on teaching and shift the focus to learning. We need to stop focusing on covering the curriculum and getting through the textbook. We need shift the focus to the children, their voices and learning in general.

Let’s find the Donkey Kong video game loving kid in every child and tap into that love and harness it and unleash it in our schools!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Empathy & Trust

The need for trust and empathy is something I understand on a very personal level. Last year, my whole world shifted after I came to terms with my sexuality - realizing that I am gay and saying the words aloud was quite a journey (a challenging one at times). My entire life changed (as did the lives of those most important people in my world) and I didn't want anyone at school to know because I didn't want them to think I was different or that my work would suffer. Of course, everyone around me knew something was going and without me even asking for it, they all showed me a tremendous amount of empathy and they offered me all the trust I needed to eventually share my journey with them. In the end, my ability to successfully navigate the year was built on the trust and empathy that permeated our community. 

Why do I share this very personal experience with the world? Well, after almost 20 years in the world of public education it took a personal journey to understand that we don't need much to create positive learning environments for children; we don't need much to enact sustainable educational reform; and we don't need much to create an educational community where all members feel valued and important. After 20 years of working with children, educators and families, coupled with my own coming out experience, I have come to believe that if we take a little empathy and sprinkle it upon some trust, chances are we are well on our way to success. Success in life; success in work; but most importantly, success within any educational community. This is what we need most in our schools today... empathy and trust. I used to think that my kids needed my sympathy because they led lives that were much more difficult than my own; I also used to think that the only way we would have a productive year in our classroom is if my students respected me. Yes, sympathy can be useful at times and yes, respect goes a long way, but, without empathy and trust, there will be no success. 

There needs to be trust between educators and families; there needs to be trust between students and teachers; there needs to be trust between administration and staff; there needs to be trust between the community and the faculty; there needs to be trust between the principal and the children; there needs to be trust everywhere within an educational community if we are to meet with any success, implement any innovative changes and create contexts where taking a risk with one's learning (adult or child) is the norm and not the exception. We need to trust that everyone within the organization is dedicated to doing what is in the best interest of children and that we will each carry our "load" towards that goal. We need to trust that when we make decisions that are in the best interest of children, even when they are not easy decisions, we are doing what is right. We need trust in our schools if we are to be successful in a sustainable and meaningful way. It doesn't matter how many test prep workbooks we buy or how many devices we get into the hands of our students or how affluent our community is because without trust, there will be limited success, growth and evolution. It is becoming clearer to me each day that many of the efforts in the world of education reform fail because of the lack of trust. We need trust in our schools!

Of course, trust doesn't come with the clap of your hands or the mere wanting of it. Building trust takes a lot of work. Trust comes from being transparent; trust comes from being collaborative; trust comes from communicating expectations, hopes and vision; trust comes from seeing feedback as an opportunity to enhance your craft (not get defensive); trust comes from conversations about our practice; trust comes from working together to do what is in the best interest of a child; trust comes from the relationships that we foster and nurture in our schools. Trust takes time and effort!  

Trust is just half of the equation though... because without empathy, trust alone will not lead to as much success. We need to show everyone in our schools and communities empathy, even when we think they don't deserve it or when it is incredibly difficult to find the empathy within ourselves. I am not talking about sympathy here - people don't generally benefit from pity but they can benefit from the empathy we exhibit when we try and walk in their shoes. 

The tough thing about empathy is that we don't often know when those around us actually need it most because they are hesitant to share. Sometimes they are embarrassed for others to know they are going through something; sometimes they are unable to verbalize it; sometimes they don't want people to view them as weak or different; and other times they just don't want to talk about it. 

The emotionally disturbed child who tells you she hates you and throws a book across the classroom needs empathy; the little homeless boy who who cries all day and is living in a single room at the local motel with his two siblings and parent needs empathy; the second grader who lost her parent to a terrible illness needs empathy; the new student who just came to the country and doesn't speak a word of English needs empathy; the socially impaired child who is going home to a parent who can't understand him needs empathy; the staff member who is going through a divorce and struggles to figure out child care each day needs empathy; and the list goes on and on for those who need empathy from someone they can trust. 

Whatever the situation or variables, figuring out when someone needs empathy or a trust-worthy supporter can be tough so let's play it safe in our schools and show everyone a little empathy and work diligently to create an environment where trust is part of the foundation. A few months ago I was struggling with coming to terms with my sexuality and successfully navigating an unfamiliar landscape. In the end, if it wasn't for the empathy and trustworthiness of those around me, I may not have been as comfortable as I was in saying, "My name is Tony and I am gay." 

From my perspective, if we take a little empathy and sprinkle it upon some trust, chances are we are well on our way to success within our schools.     

Monday, September 1, 2014

Now I Am An Eleven

Just last year I shared some really important news with the world - I was a nine. That's right - a NINE - not a ten or a fifteen or a twenty - a NINE! I was rated a nine out of twenty - less than half and by someone else's standards, considered barely effective. Rated "barely effective" by someone (or something) who has never seen me work, never watched me navigate my building nor asked people in my community about me as an educator. A nine! 

What am I talking about you ask? Well, last year I wrote all about how the NYS APPR and evaluation model and process had changed and my growth score, according to NYS, was a nine. Now, don't get me wrong, a nine out of twenty isn't terrible and even though it precluded me from receiving an overall highly effective rating, I was named the 2014 NYS Elementary School Principal of the Year so I must have been doing something right. Truthfully, I was fine with the nine and I had moved on... until last week when I found out I am now an ELEVEN! I should be jumping for joy, right? I moved up two points! Now I am closer to being in the middle of the effective range (albeit still closer to barely effective). Now I am more than half (11 out of 20). Now I am double digits. That's right folks, this year I have been rated an 11! Why do you ask? How did NYS come up with this number? What work did I do to be rated an 11? The truth is, I have no idea how my rating was determined but I do know that I will wear my 11 with my pride!

Ok, so I am being somewhat facetious but there is a reason for my tone - I think it is ridiculous. This portion of the educator evaluation plan, as it is being used, seems ridiculous to me. The idea of rating teachers using the Value Added Model (which has not been proven to work well) based on growth from one test to the next, which has been different every year, seems to make the process somewhat unreliable from my limited vantage point. Do we train 17 year olds on quiet side streets to get their licenses and then take them to a NASCAR race track to actually pass the road test? No! Why? Because that wouldn't be the best way to assess their skill set; the skill set that they will need to successfully navigate most of the roads and terrain types they will encounter in their driving lives. 

We can also safely say that rating educators on how children perform on ONE test, predominately composed of multiple choice questions, is not the best indicator of whether or not said educators are effective in their daily work to facilitate teaching and learning. And don't even get me started about the fact that we overwhelm children with dozens of multiple choice questions on one day and then determine whether or not they are college and career ready based on how they answered those multiple choice questions. What college or career do you know that wants really great multiple choice test takers? Not many that I know because these multiple choice questions don't necessarily tap into the readiness levels of all learners - they don't give all learners a space to show what they know.

Fortunately, there are many things that we do control in the world of education - things that can directly impact children each day to ensure that they are safe, happy and open to learning. So, in honor of my ELEVEN, here are 11 things that I think we control that can have a positive daily impact on children...

1) Educators need to take the time to establish relationships with the children in their space because effective instruction can be built on functional relationships rooted in trust and respect. There is research that speaks to the impact of positive relationships on student academic performance! 

2) One size fits all instructional approaches and techniques do not work so differentiate in whatever ways possible to give all children access to learning regardless of readiness levels. And I am not going to sit atop my soapbox and tell you what differentiation looks like because I think effective differentiation is one of the most challenging feats to accomplish but please, oh please, for the children who need "enrichment" don't just give them more work! Differentiate in ways that are meaningful to you and your students.

3) Educators should try really hard to love their students and create a safe haven for them because school should be the place where children feel protected, valued and empowered!

4) Failure, for all learners, students and educators alike, should be embraced as an opportunity to learn, grow and enhance your skill set. Don't punish learners who fail - celebrate the learners who are willing to take risks and think outside of the box.

5) Educators should try and give children some time during the week to research, explore or think about the things that bring them joy and tap into their passions (i.e. - Genius Hour)... Passion Based Learning is a thing and it can help take learning to another level in any classroom or school.

6) Make your classroom, school or district a JOYFUL space because when learners are happy, they feel good about themselves and are able to more readily avail themselves to thinking, considering and ultimately learning! As educators, we should share the things that bring us joy because that can influence the tone of our learning spaces in incredible ways. I really believe that if there is no joy at the core of our learning spaces, then no matter how good our teaching is or how much we have prepared, the results will be limited.  

7) Not all children need the same thing, at the same time and that is OK! If one child needs to be rewarded as part of an intense behavior plan then go to it, even if the other children question why they aren't being rewarded. Don't forget, fair isn't always equal. This also reminds me of why things like Zero Tolerance policies don't work... each child; each situation; each variable is different and we must take the time to understand these differences before taking action.  

8) Be thoughtful about homework - don't just give it because it is what has always been done or because all the other teachers on your grade level are giving it. Give homework that is meaningful to children and then, the next day, make sure you, the educator, check it and provide meaningful feedback. If you are not going to check it or offer feedback then don't assign it. There is very little research that shows a positive correlation between homework and student performance in school yet for some reason there are many educators who still pile on the homework... why?? Just be thoughtful because for many of our children and their families after school is their only time to decompress, explore personal interests and reconnect so let's not compromise that time just because that is what we have always done!

9) Give students voice in the educational experience... let them have input in upcoming units of study... let them discuss books they have read... let them generate the rubrics used to assess their work... let them assess themselves... let them decide what activity should come next... let them give you feedback on how you are doing. As educators we should always want to get better and the best feedback will likely come from our students who live us each day!

10) Remember that not every child and family is the same. Just because one family returns everything on time, responds to your emails immediately and volunteers for every event while the other family is always late, doesn't show up and may even forget to send something in for their child's birthday don't pass any judgements -  instead, take the time to learn more. You may even need to invest more in that family who is struggling to juggle everything because you don't know what they have sacrificed to live in your community and attend your school. All the families in our communities are different and the sooner we embrace that reality, the more we can accomplish in our efforts to do what is in the best interest of children!

11) As educators we should never lose sight of what matters most... our students. Everything we do, even when it isn't easy or goes against the popular opinion, should always be in the best interest of children. 

I could certainly add many more items to this list but because I am only an ELEVEN, I think it is appropriate to stop at number eleven. You see, I may not be the best principal in the world and I may not be the most effective educator on the planet (after all, I am only an 11 out of 20) but what I do know is that we, as educators, have the ability to impact our children in incredibly positive ways each and every day based on the decisions we make in our classrooms, schools and districts. So, let's get out there and create awesome learning spaces for our children and forget about the policies and mandates that are trying to reduce us to a number. Take it from me - I am Tony Sinanis and I am an eleven! 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Incomplete Efforts

Today I am honored to turn over my blog to a guest writer - Felix Gil. Felix is an educational leader in New Jersey and a classmate of mine at the University of Pennsylvania where we are entering the final year of our doctoral studies. Felix took this opportunity to share his perspectives on the issues in Fergusson as they relate to our roles as educators and leaders...

I believe the US should adopt a common set of standards, and general recommendations for when those standards should be met in the course of a student’s K-12 career.  Clarity of instructional goals supports improved instruction, as such I believe adoption of the Common Core can improve educational outcomes.  However, it can’t be standards alone that is expected to improve how much our students learn. I support the standards, but I do not believe they are the solution many hope.  They will not be a balm for what ails public education in areas of concentrated poverty and – in many settings – racial isolation.  I argue that that – poverty and racial isolation - is the root cause of the all too referenced “crisis” in American schools.  Here I echo thinkers like Diane Ravitch, who has powerfully argued aspects of this point.

None of the most noted educational reforms proposed and executed since “A Nation at Risk” was authored in 1983, including that very report, has meaningfully addressed poverty and racial isolation.  Until we as a nation tackle this concern I fear we will continue our sad march, with occasional respites as we celebrate a small success here or there.  I think it’s high time that as a profession we debate the issue of poverty and racial isolation, and as profession begin to advocate for systemic reforms that extend beyond the classroom, rather than passively accepting the reform du jour. 

If we accept the simple reforms without speaking the truth, its so easy for politicians to blame us for the “failure” of our schools when they are courting votes and need a wedge issue.  Moreover, we will be contributing to a system of that has done and continues to do real and lasting damage to whole swaths of our country; a system that oppresses the poor and many racial minorities.  I would argue that the police in Ferguson, MO, are part of that system.  Are schools part of the system too?

Eventually we may understand what actually led to the recent shooting in Ferguson, a shooting that as we all know has given rise to demonstrations and, unfortunately, violent action.  However, the emotions unleashed by this shooting respond to generational grievances and practices that still disadvantage many minorities and specifically, in the case of Ferguson, blacks.  These are practices that are systemic, cruel, and are ultimately a form of violence.  Overzealous policing is part of that system.  Courts that routinely sentence minorities more harshly than whites for the same crime are part of that system.  The dismantling of affirmative action programs, even though we know discrimination exists is part of that system.  

By accepting weak-willed, incomplete efforts, like the Common Core (#CCSS), as the “solution” to educations’ problems, without speaking the truth, I fear that as educators we may unintentionally be part of the system as well.  It does not matter if as an educator you are in a public or independent school, urban, suburban, or rural district, rich or poor – as educators we have a responsibility to raise our voice.  

Let’s do it!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

#SAVMP: Our Perspectives

Over the last year I had the honor of participating in the #SAVMP, which stands for School Administrator Virtual Mentoring Program. As part of this experience, I was lucky enough to paired with John Fritzky and Andrew Sharos - I learned so much from them! As a wrap up to that experience, we wrote a three part blog post where we each answered a question about #SAVMP...

1. Why did I sign up for #SAVMP?

Andrew: When I first heard about #SAVMP, I knew it was a great opportunity for me to learn and grow as a school leader. I was interested in connecting with people from outside my PLN and outside my district. I did not know what to expect when we first started but I knew that I had absolutely nothing to lose by signing up. 

John: I saw a post on Twitter from George Couros about developing a mentorship program for new administrators.  At the time I was finishing up my Educational Leadership program and wanted to continue to learn from others, I knew this would be a great way to continue my learning.

Tony: I was entering my ninth year as an elementary level building administrator and for the first time in my career, I genuinely felt like I might have something to offer a new or aspiring educational leader. The possibility of mentoring someone was of interest to me because as an educator I feel it is my responsibility to support and encourage those new to the field - to possibly help them avoid some of the landmines I hit during the early stages of my career and meet with greater levels of success. Also, it was clear to me that being paired with people through a mentoring program meant that I would do a lot of learning myself and that is always a priority for me. The appeal of #SAVMP was that it was using Twitter as the platform for the mentoring experience and that definitely spoke to my interests and made me feel like it would be much more manageable.  

2. How did #SAVMP help you learn and grow as an administrator?

Andrew: I am one of those people who claim, “I have never won anything in my life”... until now. I won the lottery by getting Tony Sinanis as my mentor. He immediately reached out to me through twitter and we began learning together right away. He gave me feedback on my blog posts and encouraged me to stretch my thinking as a school leader. I think more than anything, #SAVMP exposed me to a different type of school leader than I have observed in my career. There’s power in learning from someone across the country who works with a different population. There’s agency in a process that encourages sharing of ideas and leadership styles. My interaction with my mentor provided all of that, and more. As I began to interview for different administrative jobs, I scheduled Google Hangouts and phone calls with my mentor. Tony was an amazing asset to have in my corner- always coaching me on the logistics of answering questions but also giving me the confidence I needed to be successful. 

John:  By taking on a mentor who is completely outside of my own school, district, and state I knew it would allow me a chance to look at education, and leadership through a completely different lens.  When I was partnered with Tony Sinanis, I knew I was extremely fortunate.  Tony reached out to me and immediately began to develop a relationship with me that went beyond the world of Twitter.  Tony invited me to his school to see how his school functions and what a typical day looks like for him.   I was immediately blown away.  It is easy for someone to state what they believe on Twitter or in a blog post, but it another thing completely to turn those beliefs into reality.  That is what Tony Sinanis has done at Cantiague Elementary school in Jericho, New York.  We spent the entire day in classrooms and I was treated like a celebrity by the student just because I knew Mr. Sinanis.  The students at his school absolutely love him because Tony sees them as children, not test scores.  He knows EVERY student’s name and can talk to them about their individual interests.  I left Cantiague knowing I had a great of work to do to build these types of relationships at my own school.  However, I was comforted by the fact that I had seen a great school in action and if Tony could do it, so could I.  Throughout the year I would throw questions at Tony about how he would handle different situations and no matter how busy he was, he was always able to get back to me and give me a piece of advice.  

Tony: From my vantage point, it is clear that I learned so much more from Andrew and John than they did from me. Their enthusiasm, passion and willingness to take risks in their current roles was an incredible inspiration for me. They provided me opportunities to dialogue about leadership, the current landscape of public education, pedagogy and a bunch of other topics that I am incredibly passionate about and love discussing. Through our conversations and exchanges - whether through email, Voxer, text, in person, through a GHO, I was able to deliberate with them and broaden my point of view and perspectives, which helped me become a better leader and educator. I have done a lot of research about the idea of social learning and the power of learning through social interactions with other like-minded people and the #SAVMP became just that for me - I was learning something through every interaction I had with John and Andrew and was fortunate to be associated with them. Being that I technically had the title of mentor in this relationship, the highlights for me were the successes that Andrew and John experienced this year - John successfully completing his first year as a building administrator; Andrew securing his first administrative position; John pushing me to participate in national podcasts with our kids; and Andrew becoming a father. These are just some of the highlights and in the end, it is an honor to be associated with these incredible educators who have become friends and mentors for me.   

3. What will the #SAVMP program mean for you going forward?

Andrew: I am so thankful to Amber and George for helping me connect to some great leaders in our field. I would love to continue on as a #SAVMP mentor or mentee to continue learning and blogging. I was not able to answer all of the blog topics every week so I am excited to double back to some of them in the future. I would also like to start a mini-admin mentoring program in my own school district using #SAVMP as a model. 

John:  I am grateful for the opportunity Amber Teamann and George Couros provided me with, to connect and learn from Tony.  I feel as though we have developed a stronger relationship than I could have ever expected when I started this program.  Moving forward I feel like I am just as lucky to be connected with Andrew.  I was lucky to have Tony as a mentor and hear his words of wisdom, but having Andrew to learn with will be an added bonus that I did not foresee when I started #SAVMP.   I can’t wait to schedule an #Edcamp where the three of us can get together face to face for the first time.  

Tony: There is no doubt that going forward the #SAVMP experience has left an indelible mark on me - both personally and professionally. First off, a special thank you to George Couros and Amber Teamann for facilitating this experience because once again, they helped push me out of my comfort zone and gave me access to experiences that helped me learn and grow. Second of all, I now have access to two awesome educators from different parts of the country who I can rely on for support, perspective and ideas and that is definitely a critical part of the PLN. Finally, participating in #SAVMP has given me two new friends who make my world a better place - I cannot wait until the next time I get to collaborate with John and Andrew! ROCK ON!

Check out Andrew's AWESOME Blog Here!

Check out John's AMAZING Blog Here

Monday, August 11, 2014

#EdCamp: What's The Point?

I recently had the pleasure of attending my third #EdCamp experience - #EdCampLdr, which took place at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philly (thanks to my friend and mentor Joe Mazza for organizing this awesome learning event). All in all, it was an awesome day because I had the opportunity to reconnect with friends, connect in person for the first time with a bunch of awesome educators from my PLN and be actively involved in the whole #EdCamp experience from the morning set up to the SMACKDOWN at the end of the day that I co-facilitated with my friend (and co-author) Joe. 

I also had the chance to lead three different sessions during the day - one on #StudentVoice with Jimmy Casas, Brad Gustafson and Joe Sanfelippo; another on Branding with Joe; and a final "panel discussion" with Joe, Tom Whitby, Spike Cook and Brad Currie, who are all authors from the Corwin Connected Educators Series (Joe and I co-authored the book on branding in the series) focused on the topics covered in our books. 

Yes, it was a wonderful day and at the end of the day, I was left thinking about how it could be better, how it could be different and an overall question about the point of #EdCamps. I was fortunate enough to attend this event with a friend who is not very connected (yes, he knows where to find "The Twitter" but doesn't really use it) and was experiencing his first ever #EdCamp. It was awesome to hear his take on the whole experience at the end of the day... 

 - WOW there were so many passionate educators taking time out of their summer vacations to travel from thousands of miles away to be here...    

- This whole experience seems to be one of the best examples I have ever seen about the power and importance of self-directed learning...

- The organic way this whole day unfolded blew me away - although a lot went into organizing the event there was no certainty about how it would unfold and yet it was a success...

- There were so many passionate educators in the room who were willing to share anything and everything without question or hesitation...

- Every PD experience should contain features of the #EdCamp model - we need this in our schools and districts now...

- I learned a lot and I am hoping to be able to implement some stuff at school when the year starts...

- The only thing I am wondering about is the heavy emphasis on technology and sometimes I think the technology tool or tip became the focus as opposed to the conversation or overarching topic... is that always the way?

There it was... the pin that popped my balloon! He put into words exactly what I was thinking about when the whole event was over - are #EdCamps just about sharing tech tips and tools? Has the experience become about technology? If so, I am concerned because we are doing exactly the opposite of what many members of my PLN tweet about... "It is not about the device or tech tool - it is about what we do with it to enhance learning for everyone in the community!" But wait because we might have been doing that exact thing - focusing on the newest and coolest tech tools instead of thinking about the learning and teaching unfolding in our schools and how those could be enhanced. I was left thinking... what's the point of #EdCamp?

After a few days of reflection and discussion during which I also reached out to Kristen Swanson, one of the founders of the whole #EdCamp movement, I was able to consider the #EdCamp experience from multiple lenses and came to some decisions about the point of #EdCamp. Although there was a relatively "heavy" tech focus at #EdCampLdr that wasn't what most people will remember from that day - it is definitely not what I will remember that day. What I remember is that I was in a room with hundreds of like-minded, passionate and enthusiastic educators who excitedly self-organized to share, connect and enhance their craft. I remember the exchanges, discussions and conversations. The conversations generally revolved around learning and teaching; around thinking and inquiry; around innovation and a different way of doing things; around passions and interests. 

You see, a week later I can better understand the point. The point of #EdCamp, in my humble and limited opinion, is an important one - it is an opportunity to take control of our professional and personal development and dive deeper into the ideas and topics that interest us and support our passion for all things education. #EdCamp is ours - those of us who embrace self-directed learning opportunities control the #EdCamp experience. The point of #EdCamp is to be in a space with other passionate educators who are in the business of enhancing their skills in the hopes of impacting students and the entire learning community in a positive way. 

#EdCamp is about learning and as educators isn't that always the point?  

Sunday, August 3, 2014


Dear Fellow Educators,

As I sit down to begin officially preparing for the upcoming school year, there are a lot of ideas and questions floating around in my head (there is way too much going on up there). How will the school year go? Will our community, especially our kids, be happy? Will the master schedule get done? Will I need to hire that last minute teacher? You know the questions as I am sure some variation of one or all have been permeating your mind too. Aside from all the questions there have also been some important thoughts and reflections. 

What I have been reminded of recently is that change, evolution and growth are important things – both in the personal and professional arenas. I have also come to understand that my personal development (such as mastering the whole laundry thing or experimenting with cooking) impacts my professional development as well and that is an important thing. Growth is growth; evolution is evolution; and change is change regardless of where it is happening because it shapes us in all areas of our lives and in the end, we control the power to grow, evolve and change, which can help us avoid the dreaded RUT (thank you BJC for forcing me to reflect on this point)!

As we all know, it is incredibly easy to get stuck in a rut and miss the opportunity to learn something new, experience something unique or try something different. Sometimes we just get comfortable or complacent; sometimes we are just tired and don’t want something “new” in our worlds; sometimes we are overwhelmed and stability is the only thing keeping us from going over the edge; sometimes we aren’t comfortable with the prospect of failure; and sometimes we just don’t know where to begin. Whatever the situation, context or variables, a rut is something most of us have experienced at least once and getting out of a rut can be a challenge. Well, worry no more because I am here to share a little secret with you… we have the keys to avoiding a rut within our collective grasps each and every day within the walls of our schools.  As educators, especially at the elementary level where all my experience rests, we have hundreds of opportunities each day to avoid the rut because we are surrounded by kids! We are in the company of excited, engaged and passionate little human beings who want to learn, do, share, think, work through failure and try new things each day! That’s right my friends… our kids are the keys to avoiding the rut; our kids are the best inspiration; and our kids can be some of the most awesome teachers and role models if we give them the space. Our kids are the opposite of a rut because they want to learn something new; they want to experience something unique and they want to try something different! 

So, as we prepare for the 2014/15 school year (our seventh together), let’s look beyond our evaluations (we know we are more than just numbers and ratings), our standardized test scores (we know our kids are much more than these singular data points), the Common Core State Standards (they are just the floor and we are always reaching for the ceiling) and worksheets (yes, please, let’s try and reduce the number of worksheets this year) and let’s focus on learning from our kids – a.k.a. The Rut Avoiders – and creating a safe haven for them, and us, to take risks and avail ourselves to learning something new, experiencing something unique or trying something different

So, what can you do differently this year to avoid the rut? There are hundreds of things but here are some suggestions that have worked for me...

1) Embrace social media and use it as a space to learn without the constraints of physical barriers!

2) Begin branding your space - ask yourself the following questions... What do I believe in? What do I stand for?

3) Encourage your students or staff start a blog and gain access to a world-wide audience!

4) Take your newsletter into the 21st Century and turn it into a blog, smore or weebly - have fun!!

5) Differentiate PD for your staff and encourage teachers to share their expertise and passion with each other!

6) Embed a SMACKDOWN into some portion of each of your Faculty Meetings - thank you Lisa Meade for that awesome idea!

7) Encourage your staff or students to share 30 second Shout Outs where they spotlight something awesome about a peer whether verbally, through an email or even a blog post - thank you Amber Teamann for that amazing idea!

8) Take your office or classroom and get rid of the desk and make yourself more visible and mobile - proximity and presence impact learning! Thank you Melinda Miller for that one!

9) Spend five minutes listening to a kid - not the kid that always talks to you - the quiet one who avoids your gaze! Those 5 minutes are critical to laying the foundation for a healthy and sustainable relationship!

10) Share your passions and interests with your students and colleagues - these become infectious to those around you!

The list can go on and on (please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments section below) but you get the idea... tap into your surroundings to avoid the dreaded RUT!!


Tony Sinanis

Lead Learner 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

PLN Redefines PD

There it is... The PLN = PD... And for those of you who don't know what the letters stand for here it is... the Personal Learning Network equals Professional Development! My words of wisdom... My profound moment for the day. Done!

Ok... so this may not be too profound and not so wise because most of you reading this probably realized this idea a while ago but this was crystalized for me over the last couple of days while at the National Association of Elementary School Principals (#NAESP14) Conference in Nashville. NAESP '14 was my first presentation at a national conference - needless to say, I was beyond excited and totally nervous. I was fortunate to be invited to speak on the Power of Branding and the importance of telling your school story (check out the resources from that presentation here). Don't get me wrong - I have presented on this topic before but never on a national level. Furthermore, the presentations I had done in the past were never really that "fun" for me (let alone the attendees) and I never felt like I hit the "sweet" spot were the overall experience was not only powerful but that people left the room inspired to try something new. That all changed over the last couple of days.

So, we all know the feeling of being at a conference with members of your PLN - I recently read a great post by my dear friend Amber Teamann on this very topic after going to ISTE a couple of weeks ago - but this experience was really different for me at NAESP. Yes, it was AMAZING to hang out, connect, share, learn from and just laugh with some of my favorite people on the planet - Todd Whitaker, Peter DeWitt, Melinda Miller, Joe Mazza, Erin Simpson, Jeff Zoul, Jenny Nauman, Vicki Day, Eric Bernstein, Dan Butler, Kathy Melton and Don Jacobs just to name a few - but I felt the power of my PLN on a whole other level during the morning of my presentation!

You see, my presentation was happening at 8am on a Saturday morning. I was pretty convinced that it was going to be relatively empty because who the heck wants to be at an 8am session on a Saturday, which also happened to be the last day of the conference? I was guessing that some of my friends would show up to support me but the truth is, I wasn't really looking forward to the session. That's right people - I wasn't really looking forward to my own session.

Well, that all changed after members of my PLN started entering the room. Suddenly I started to get kind of excited about the possibilities because, after all, I felt like I had prepared a pretty slammin' presentation. With that being said, I didn't let myself get too excited because there weren't too many people in the room at around 7:50am. Before I knew it though, the room started to fill up and I was getting pretty psyched and I knew it was going to be different. Whenever the levels of enthusiasm start overflowing, I like to have music on so I decided that I would play some for the audience before the presentation kicked off. And if you know me at all, I am not talking about music you hear in an elevator - I am talking about loud music that makes me smile and want to sing along (don't worry, I didn't sing). So, I played songs like Happy, Problem and even pulled out an oldie but goodie... Jump Around by House of Pain. That's right - Jump Around! And you know what? Someone actually started jumping around on their way into the room and people were throwing their hands up and singing along to the song. It was AWESOME! The whole feel and tone in the room had changed and people were engaged, laughing, talking and smiling - I was definitely feeding off the positive energy in the room and was pumped about the presentation.

Fortunately, the 2 hours that followed went pretty well. I was able to follow the outline I prepared; I created opportunities for people to share at their tables and exchange idea; I was able to spotlight a few tools/resources that people could use to tell their stories in their own schools; I was able to have my friend and co-author, Joe Sanfelippo, join us from his home in WI for about 15 minutes (we used a Google Hangout) and he shared his perspectives as a superintendent; and I was able to end it by sharing a link/QR code to a google doc that featured resources that could be useful when thinking about branding your school. Overall, it was a pretty decent presentation and I think the people had a good time and actually learned something. Was it perfect? No! Were there things I wanted to do differently? YES! But, all things considered, I think it went well and it was clearly different than any other presentation I had done before. Why you ask? Because of my PLN!

Remember the idea that the PLN = PD? Well, that is what happened for me that morning. The presence of various members of my PLN in the room gave me a level of confidence and excitement that had been lacking before. They brought a certain energy and enthusiasm (and silliness cause they always make me laugh) to the room that shifted my frame of mind and boosted my confidence. They helped me access a whole other skill set during the presentation that made it go much better than it would have gone had they not been in the room. They reminded me of the importance of interactions and conversations and how those impact learning so I did as much of that as possible during the presentation. They reminded me to speak with confidence because I was an "expert" on the presentation topic. They reminded me to inject just enough humor (not too self-effacing) to keep the tone positive and fun in the room. And that is just the tip of the iceberg but the bottom line is that the PLN impacted the experience and helped me be better. 

Even though members of my PLN were technically in the room to be learning from me, I was learning from them. They were helping me developing my presentation skill set. They were helping me access and bolster my self-confidence. They were reminding me about effective presentation techniques - no one wants a "SIT and GET" experience! They were giving me the best Personal/Professional Development I had received in a while. You see, the PLN helped me realize that the definition of PD must be broadened. No longer can we think about PD in very concrete terms - it is not about a document or packet that you get at a conference and take back to your school and stick on a shelf. PD is about both personal and professional development. For example, that morning I learned that I need to access my self-confidence during a presentation because it will impact everyone in the room and the experience. Although this is a "personal" thing, it is an area I needed development in and it will not only impact me on a personal level but will also shape future professional experiences. My PLN, made up of some of the most amazing people who I respect and learn from each day, became my PD and started redefining the parameters of PD. I am no longer looking at PD as PROFESSIONAL development - I am seriously looking at the blurred lines between PERSONAL and PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT thanks to my amazing PLN! 

So, if you haven't done it yet, get connected and build your PLN because you will suddenly have access to the BEST FREE and PERSONALIZED PD in the world!  


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Really, We Wrote a Book

If you told me a year ago that at this point I would have co-authored a book with Joe Sanfelippo on the importance of school branding and telling your school story, I would have two reactions... I would have laughed out loud (LOL) and I would have asked, "Who the heck is Joe Sanfelippo?" Seriously... who is this Joe guy? Just kidding... everyone knows that he is the #GoCricket guy!

Truth is, although Joe was a member of my PLN at the time, I wouldn't have considered him a member of my inner circle at that time. We periodically exchanged tweets and participated in the same chats every so often but we never really connected beyond those 140 characters. Then, out of the blue, he sent me a message on Twitter and we exchanged phone numbers and started talking. He was preparing for a trip out east last fall (he and his family came to NY) and was planning on attending #EdCampNJ, which I was going to attend too. Through this connection and the few interactions that followed, we were ready to collaborate on something new and exciting - we decided to do a session together at #EdCampNJ on Telling Your School Story/Branding Your School. 

That is when everything changed - Joe went from a random member of my "outer PLN" (there is a future piece coming about how the PLN is stratified based on my research) to someone who has become like a brother from another mother! Joe is a colleague who I respect tremendously and learn from each day. As a result of that session in Jersey, we connected with the moderators from #edtechchat (Thank you Tom, Sharon and crew) and they gave us the platform to build on this session and on the next day continue the conversation through a well attended Twitter chat. We were suddenly giving voice to the Power Of Branding across the country and educators from every corner of the nation were talking about branding and the importance of telling the school story. People were buzzing about telling their story before someone else tells it for them and thus, the power of branding was born!

Now, how did this connection and experience turn into a book you ask? Well, the awesome, amazing and brilliant Peter DeWitt had the idea for a series of books (he is working with Corwin) based on the experiences of Connected Educators and he wanted us to be part of that series. Needless to say, we were shocked, honored and excited to be included in this group! We said YES without even reading a contract or considering the expectations and demands of writing a book or even really thinking about what we would write in the actual book... we just said YES! Well, a google doc, a few text messages, phone calls and months later, our book was done! Check out the cover...

So, if you are an educator you NEED to consider your brand... whether you are in the classroom or running or school or leading a district, you NEED to consider your brand! What do you stand for? What do you believe in? Does the brand promise you are making to the community match the brand experience? If you are not sure or have not considered these questions the time is NOW!! Read our book (you can click HERE to pre-order your copy) and get ready to BRAND YOUR SPACE and TELL YOUR STORY!!