Sunday, March 11, 2018

44 Practices That Are "Fixing" Education Today

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This year I turned 44. I am 44 years old and I am proud to say that almost half of my life has been spent in classrooms and schools as an educator. From elementary classroom teacher to assistant principal to principal to assistant superintendent to superintendent, my entire adult life has been spent working with students, other educators and families in schools. What have I realized after all this time? There really is no better job on the planet because the rewards are plentiful, the passion for learning is inspiring and the joy is infectious. Is it all sunshine and roses all of the time? Certainly not. Is it easy and fun all of the time? Definitely not. But, is it the most important work that will have the greatest impact on the future of our planet? YES! Does the joy outweigh the negativity? YES! Working in education is all that and a bag a chips (yes, I know I am dating myself but you get the idea). I love what I do and I am fortunate to have a "job" that rarely feels like work!

Over the last several years I have paused around the time of my birthday to reflect on my experiences in education. Last year I wrote a post about the 43 Things We Need To Stop Doing in Education. While the post was well received and the intent was a positive one, I also realized that it may have impacted some in a negative way because it was critical of the practices that are norms in some places. So, in thinking about this past year, I realized I was quite fortunate to have seen so many amazing practices already unfolding in our schools. During my time as an educator I have seen best practices unfolding in various schools. So, while there is no "silver bullet" in education and I believe the whole ed reform movement is flawed, I have seen how education has evolved over the last 20 years. We are in a much better place than we were a decade ago. Do we still have a lot of work to do? Yes. But if people, such as the U.S. Secretary of Education, actually spent time in classrooms engaging with students and educators, I know the progress in our profession would be visible. What are the things happening in our schools today? Here is a list of at least 44 different positive practices (in no specific order - just the way they flowed out of my head) unfolding in education today that I have seen with my very own eyes...

1) Relationships - educators are becoming more and more focused on the importance of relationships in education. Relationships between students and educators; educators and educators; and the institution and the broader community. Relationships are a game changer and more and more educators are being intentional about nurturing relationships that are rooted in trust and respect!

2) High EQ - we are starting to understand the importance of the "soft skills" both in our profession and beyond! Yes, IQ matters too but I am seeing a greater emphasis in our schools on the social and emotional development of our students and educators.

3) Picture Books - more and more educators outside of elementary schools are realizing and harnessing the power of picture books in the learning process! Picture books aren't just for little kids and I am seeing them included in middle and high school classrooms. The great thing about picture books (aside from the amazing illustrations) is that are an equalizer because all learners can access them and the messages are relevant, powerful and meaningful to our students.

4) Diverse Literature - I love that I am seeing more and more schools expand the syllabus beyond the classics and standards to include fiction pieces that feature more diverse characters including characters of color, female characters and LGBTQ characters just to name a few. Educators understand that there literature needs to provide windows (understand others) and mirrors (see themselves) for our students. These diverse texts also help in our efforts to eradicate existing social constructs and systems that are oppressive!

5) Relevant Literature - Diversity in literature is not enough; Jason Reynolds reminds us that kids need to see their world in books too! Whether in the form of characters or in the setting, our students need to be able to see life unfold in the way they are experiencing it.

6) Student Choice - I am seeing more and more educators give students choice in their learning experiences as a way to empower students. This is HUGE because if our students have some choices in the learning, they will then take more ownership and the learning will become self-directed, which is our goal! Self-directed learning is sustainable learning... it is the learning that matters to the heart and mind!

7) Educator Choice - see #6! I love that I am seeing more 
districts and schools giving educators some choice and control over their own professional learning. The research shows that when professional learning resonates on a personal level (i.e. it is self-directed while anchored in a common goal), it is more likely going to have an impact on students!

8) Leadership - more and more building and district leaders are shifting away from just being managers/administrators; and instead they are leaders who focus on building relationships, removing barriers and promoting learning. Leadership has the greatest singular influence on organizational culture and trajectory!

9) Learners First - more and more educators are modeling being learners first in their daily work. Educators understand that if they want to provide the best education possible for their students then they need to be learning about the latest research and approaches that can inform their practice. Becoming an educator isn't the end of the learning journey; instead, become an educator means the learning accelerates and becomes amplified!

10) We teach kids, not programs - Educators around the globe are pushing back on mandates, high stakes testings and scripted curriculum because they know their primary job is to teach the children before them... not teach a curriculum or program!

11) Assessment Evolution - Educators are making assessment an interactive process with multiple inputs including peer and self assessment. Furthermore, many educators are starting to question the purpose of grades/grading and are seeing assessment as an informative part of the journey and not necessarily the destination. Thank you to Starr Sackstein for blazing a trail in this area!

12) Education isn’t just about academics - It is so great to hear more conversations in our schools focused on the social and emotional well-being of our kids. In many schools, education isn't only about feeding the mind but it is also about feeding the heart & soul!

13) Real life applications in the area of mathematics - I have watched so many amazing educators over the years incorporate the many real life applications of mathematics! From "games" involving the stock market to exposing kids to the links between art and mathematics, math is moving beyond the page and algorithm and starting to matter to kids!

14) Family engagement - Deeply engaged communities, as a result of transparent schools/districts, are becoming more of the norm as opposed to the exception. We are breaking down the fortress walls and partnering with families to do what is in the best interest of children. The research shows that strong home/school connections have a positive impact on learning. Thank you to my brother Joe Sanfelippo for modeling this so well!

15) Every child WILL learn - I have encountered many passionate educators who have dedicated themselves to providing every child an entry point for learning regardless of their readiness level. The conversation is no longer about kids who can learn; instead the focus is on the fact that kids will learn! It sounds like a subtle difference but it is a significant shift in thinking and culture.

16) More hands-on learning opportunities- I love seeing things like Makerspaces, Genius Hour and Engineering courses in our schools  because that inherently means an increase in hands-on experiences. The more kids do with their own hands, the deeper we could push the learning!

17) Moving beyond test prep & achievement gaps - Some schools are no longer focusing on closing the achievement gap by raising test scores (research shows no sustainable impact there). Instead the focus is shifting on closing the opportunity gap that exists in our society because of implicit bias, culture incompetence and significant segregation in our schools. 

18) Addressing the systemic racism that permeates our schools - Thanks to social media, I see more and more educators engaged in discussions 
about the oppressive social constructs and systems within our schools (we need many more educators involved but I think the conversation is growing). Many educators are pushing the conversation to go deeper and address the root cause (racism) of many of the problems plaguing our educational system. I am seeing more intentional and explicit education about racism, hate and bias and that is giving me hope!

19) Mental health supports are not a luxury- Yes - we have finally reached a point in education where we no longer view social workers or guidance counselors or school psychologists as a luxury. These supports are necessities in our schools because our kids have suffered so much trauma in the world and if we want them to learn how to read, write and do math, then they need to feel emotionally safe and secure first!

20) It's About Readiness Levels - It is amazing to hear about more learning experiences that give every learner an entry point regardless of readiness level. Educators are now often talking about what a child can do and building on those strengths as opposed to focusing on the deficits. I think the more this becomes a norm, the closer we get to truly revolutionizing education!

21) Collaboration between all key stakeholders - Schools throughout the country are looking for opportunities to partner with the broader community to achieve greater levels of success. Whether partnering with parents or with a local business, these partnerships are creating new and amazing opportunities for schools and students.

22) Teacher efficacy - We know (thanks to John Hattie) that teacher efficacy has the greatest impact on student learning. This knowledge is leading more school districts to invest in recruiting the best candidates and then supporting those educators with various structures (professional learning opportunities, positive working conditions, PLCs, etc.) in order to retain them. We must continue to invest in our teachers because they are the key to successful student learning!

23) Solid instruction rooted in the latest research - Again, based on the exchanges I am seeing on social media and my own work experiences, I am noticing more educators and districts making decisions that are research based and reviewing the research before making decisions. Whether it is about homework or instructional techniques, more and more schools are seriously reflecting on what learning looks like and how it happens in meaningful ways based on what the research indicates. This one dovetails with #22 because its not programs or materials that influence the effectiveness of a school, it is the people and their practices!

24) Mitigating those who create fear, chaos & panic -  We have all worked in organizations that include individuals who create fear, chaos and panic in those around them (I like to call it the "Sky Is Falling" effect). Often, those folks are working from a personal agenda that intentionally disrupts the trajectory of the organization. But this is changing too as more schools and districts are committing to a mission and vision anchored in a shared agenda/goals that mitigates those who foster fear and create chaos.

25) Vision - While many schools have committed to a mission statement (who they are today), I am learning about a growing number of schools and districts that have worked diligently to articulate a clear vision of who they want to be in the future and where they want to go. This vision is rooted in what is best for students and educators and that is incredibly inspiring. This vision is also actionable and conversations include regularly assessing the vision and revising it as the journey unfolds.

26) Vertical and horizontal alignment - When I was a student, I remember never feeling like one year or one class connected to the next; it was as if every educator was doing whatever they wanted. Fortunately, that seems to be changing as more educators are having discussions about the importance of vertical and horizontal alignment for students, educators and families. Alignment, which doesn't sacrifice autonomy, is a critical component to ensuring seamless learning experiences for students that build on each other! 

27) No cookie cutter - More and more districts are moving away from boxed and scripted curriculum because they know those are not the best way to reach and engage all students!

28) Internships - As I have shifted to a district level position, I am excited to learn about the many schools and districts that embed “internships” into the learning experience for kids, especially in high school. I think this can have such a positive impact on our students because it gives them a sense of what they will experience when they enter the real world. It also allows students to explore a specific profession.

29) Public speaking opportunities - Whether this is in the form of an actual class or an after school club, there are so many schools that encourage public speaking experiences for students. This is such a powerful and meaningful way to learn how to frame & present an argument. This is also critical when considering student agency and self-advocacy!

30) Re-imagining homework - Many districts and schools are revisiting the homework conversation. The research is out there and more districts are considering it as they re-examine their homework beliefs. Whether schools are considering eliminating homework or trying to find ways to make it something kids are excited to do, the discussions are actually happening!

31) Identity - As mentioned earlier, educators are seriously reflecting on the importance of culture and relationships within our schools. I am watching more schools that are working on nurturing that positive culture in their buildings as a way to hook students. We know that culture shapes community and impacts the way people feel. So, if our students feel positively towards school, and feel invested in the culture, they will begin identifying with that community. That sense of identity leads to feeling connected & a sense of belonging, which are critical when we think about the high levels of depression and isolation our kids are experiencing today!

32) Sacred learning time - It is so wonderful to hear about more and more districts that are creating sacred time for professional learning opportunities for educators. From teachers to principals, districts are creating the time and space for everything from book studies (virtual and in-person) to Genius Hour for educators to pursue areas of interest. No matter what the format, the important point is that time for learning is being prioritized!  

33) Classroom Redesign - It is so great to see the many images of flexible learning spaces that have flooded the internet over the last several years. Many schools are moving away from the traditional desks and rows (contrary to what Betsy Devos seems to think) and experimenting with classroom redesign as a way to increase levels of student engagement! 

34) Feedback - More discussions are unfolding around the importance of feedback and the impact it could have on our trajectory. Schools are demystifying the negative stigma around feedback (it is not easy to give or receive it) and are recognizing it as critical to our growth and maximizing it as a way to inform blind spots. Feedback, when done thoughtfully, is helping us learn and grow!

35) Reframe problems as opportunities - This is so simple yet so hard because in our profession we are regularly dealing with problems, which leads to frustration and more challenges. Fortunately, our organizations are pausing and instead of seeing the problems as negative (and often personal) attacks, we are seeing these problems as an opportunity to learn, grow & improve.

36) Kids know what they are learning and why - YES, more educators are taking a moment to let students in on the big secret... "This is what we are learning today and this is why it matters to you." Our kids are taking ownership of the learning when we start each lesson with a quick explanation of why we are learning this specific strategy or skill and how it will impact the students!

37) Making room for downtime - more and more educators are openly talking about the challenges of finding balance between our personal and professional lives. This open dialogue is so important because we are inspiring each other with tips on how to manage it all while being successful in our work and still taking care of ourselves. This balance is also a critical thing to model for our students!

38) Making room for fun in school - yes, school is fun and educators are spreading the fun through blog posts, podcasts and live streams from their classrooms! Whether someone is sharing the Lego Wall in their library or the math game in their classroom, we are seeing how learning can be fun! So, even though there are policies and mandates we have to adhere to, we are making the school day fun for kids... and ourselves! 

39) Making room for field trips - it is so great to hear about the wonderful field trips schools are taking (some virtual) because those learning experiences are a wonderful way to enhance classroom experiences! 

40) Superintendents who don't just push paper - As a new superintendent (who still has so much to learn), I am hearing so much from my colleagues and mentors about the work they are doing to help support leaders, teachers and students. I have learned so much from the superintendents who have dedicated themselves to removing barriers so the educators and students have what they need for optimal learning!

41) Technology Doesn't Equate to Innovation - This conversation is happening more and more each day and I think it will be critical to the future of our schools. Innovation is about the way we think and view problems; it is not about an iPad or Chromebook.  

42) J - There is JOY permeating many of our classrooms and schools!

43) O - There are meaningful learning OPPORTUNITIES unfolding for educators, students and their families!

44) Y - More and more districts and schools are embracing a culture of YES so we can continue to revolutionize the educational landscape! Conversations are going from, "Yes, but..." to "Yes, and... "

Is everything perfect in our schools? No. But are things moving in the right direction? Yes! Have we evolved as a profession? Yes! Thank you to the thousands of educators and schools and classrooms that have inspired this post - it is an honor and privilege to be an educator!

So, what would you add to the list? 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

13 Keys To Nurturing A Readerly Life

My son, Paul, recently turned 13. Yes, I am the parent of a teenager and while I don't love getting older, I do love watching the young man my son has grown into over the last 13 years. One of the things that has always impressed me most about Paul is his ability to read and his love of books. Growing up I was quite the opposite. I only read the passages in our basal reader in elementary school and then in middle and high school I only read the books that were assigned to me for class. I rarely, if ever, read for pleasure. In fact, I recall talking about how much I hated reading because it always felt like a task, chore or just too much work. 

On the other hand, my son could literally spend hours after school or on a Saturday morning reading books. He loved reading picture books when he was little and then got hooked on different series including the My Weird School series, Magic Treehouse and then the Percy Jackson series. We literally had thousands of books in our house because he wanted to be prepared for his next book. As Paul's personal interests evolved, so did his book choices. When he got into Star Wars and Marvel, he wanted books with facts about the different characters. No matter what the interest, there was always an accompanying book, until things changed. Once Paul got into upper elementary school and then middle school, his interest in reading began to shift. Gone were the days where he wanted to read for hours and get lost in a book. Instead, he started to only read for school assignments and meeting the minimum expectations, either in the form of minutes or page numbers to complete a reading log, was the goal. Granted, he was a growing boy and other competing interests began to form - video games, sports and socializing with friends just to name a few. Reading took a backseat and unless it was for a school assignment, it was no longer a priority.

Unfortunately, I don't think Paul's journey as a reader is unique to him. I have heard countless stories about kids who used to love to read for fun but once reading became about a data point or reading log, the love began to fade. This narrative around reading, along with the research that reading in schools is just about test scores, is what sparked this post. From my perspective reading and thinking are almost synonymous and so nurturing readers must be a priority in education. In honor of Paul's 13th birthday, I would like to suggest the following 13 keys to nurturing a readerly life in our students/children:

1) Model the power of reading for children so they can see it as an opportunity to get immersed in a whole new world. Reading can serve as an escape from everything else in the world and sometimes that is really necessary. As educators, we can model and share what reading means to us and how it allows us to get lost in a different world! To that end, as the educators (or adults or parents) we must make it a point to share our readerly life with kids; share what we are reading, what we have recently read and how that experience felt for us. 

2) Share with students that reading is an experience not an assignment. Reading is truly an immersive experience that allows us to see life through a different lens or in a different setting or with meaningful information that informs our perspectives. Reading leaves an impression on us and changes the way we think.

3) Give students choice in what they are reading. The older Paul gets, the less his book choices are his and the more they are predetermined by his school. While I do understand the value of experiencing a shared text with classmates (book clubs, class novels, etc.), there must also be sacred time for students to read books that are of interest to them.

4) Carve out time, every single day, for independent reading in class. Our students need to see that we value reading and that we specifically value their independent reading time to engage with texts of their choice. Richard Allington reminds us that one way to grow as a reader is by reading as much as possible! The more we read, the better we get as readers. 

5) Reading books gives our students the windows and mirrors they need in the world! We need to be mindful of the books we integrate into our classroom libraries so our students can engage in texts that allow them to see themselves (the mirrors) or to see others (the windows). Literature can be a powerful way to build an understanding and appreciation for how others experience the world. For this reason, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our students have access to books that allow them to see the world through a different lens. 

6) Reading is thinking and learning! I have been trained to understand that reading is basically synonymous with thinking. When we are immersed in a text, our minds are always working to process the text by making connections, making inferences and wondering about what might come next. This is the power of reading because it helps us grow our thinking muscles and thinking is what leads to learning and learning is what leads to innovation and that is what changes the world!

7) Share with students the joy of reading just for the purposes of feeling that joy! Reading could be a joyous (even if the contents of the book aren't necessarily joyful) event that doesn't always have an assignment or task associated with it. Let's model for kids that they can read just to read for the joy of it!

8) Make time for read alouds as a way to share a story and enjoy a break from all the other academics. No matter how old the students, a read aloud can be a wonderful way to engage with a text and expose students to different authors and genres. Yes, there could be discussions that unfold around the read aloud book but don't make it all about accountable talk or assessment; allow the read aloud to be a shared experience that helps us escape from everything else.

9) Read alouds don't just have to happen in school! Encourage families to engage in read alouds at home with their children. A shared story can be so powerful for a family to experience so let's encourage our students' families to keep reading aloud at home too! But remember, this shouldn't be about an assignment or a grade; instead, this should be about a joyful experience we encourage our students to share with the ones they love.

10) Incorporate book talks as a daily norm in your classroom or school. One of the best ways to hook a potential reader is by sharing the story of a book that you have recently read and the impact it had on you (or students can share with their peers). Just think about the power of a movie trailer - when all the right highlights are featured, the audience is hooked and cannot wait to see the movie. The same can be done with books! Create a time and space where individuals (adults and students) can share the books they are excited about and watch how the book talks raise the interest levels of other students and the books start flying off the shelves!

11) Leverage digital platforms as a way to share the reading journeys of our students. Maybe they can make a video book trailer or create a digital picture book version of their favorite chapter book. Whatever the platform, we should consider accessing digital platforms as a way to help our students amplify their readerly life! 

12) Reading should be fun and when we make it fun for kids, we increase the likelihood that they will continue to read on their own time. Just think about it - when we experience something as fun or joyful, our brain responds positively and we are more apt to engage in that activity again and again. So, let's make reading fun for our kids so when they think about what they could do during their free time they don't just consider social media or video games but instead chose to read!

13) Reading is not a data point! I am tired of hearing about test scores where our children are lagging behind the children of other countries. I am also tired of hearing about how students are better readers in some states according to recent test scores. Well, what any good educator knows is that high test scores do not mean there are necessarily strong readers in those spaces; instead, often times, high test scores means we have prepared children to pass a test. But the truth is that none of these tests are actual reading tests. Reading is not a data point. Yes, some tests may assess reading skills (understanding unfamiliar vocabulary, determining the main idea or making an inference) but from my experiences they don't accurately assess reading. So, let's stop conflating reading with test scores and instead focus on what matters most - nurturing a readerly life in our students!

Are you ready to join me on this journey to nurture a readerly life in our students?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Education Is Personal

Over the last several years I have had the opportunity to travel the country and speak about everything from educational leadership to culture to the importance of telling your school/district story. The opportunity to work with teachers and administrators from around the country is consistently a source of inspiration for me because I learn so much from the many passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated educators I encounter. Invariably, the conversations always get personal as people share stories about everything from what inspired them to become an educator to what sustains them to do this important work on a daily basis. My personal experiences definitely impact who I am as an educator; my experiences as a father; my experiences as a son; my experiences as a sibling; and my experiences as a partner all affect the way I approach my daily work as an educator. 

After several conferences and workshops I decided to include the following picture in my presentations so the audience could better understand me and the people who shape my work as an educator... 

This picture is generally the opening slide in my presentations so I can introduce the audience to my personal "tribe" - my son, Paul, and my partner, Felix - the people who sustain me on a daily basis. Paul and Felix impact the way I think and feel and when I am making decisions as an educator, my experiences as a father and partner certainly inform those decisions. Including this picture also served a very selfish purpose - I get to take my guys with me whenever I travel and I love talking about them for a couple of minutes.

I never realized the impact this picture might have on my audience. About a year ago I was doing a keynote in the Midwest and after I finished my presentation several people came up to me to thank me for the experience, which is always incredibly humbling. While speaking with this small group, I noticed one gentleman standing to the side. Once I was alone, he stepped over to me and thanked me for including the picture of my family in the presentation. He shared that he rarely talked about his husband in professional contexts because he worried about how people would react because he always assumed he was the only one - the only gay educator in the room. He went on to share that while my presentation on digital leadership was great, it was the first workshop he attended where he knew he wasn't the only gay educator in the room and that changed the whole experience for him. He talked about how he felt comfortable and empowered because he wasn't the only one; and this connection allowed him to engage in the learning in a totally different way than he had ever engaged in the past.

What this educator didn't understand was how much his story impacted me. While including a picture of Paul and Felix was more for me than it was for the audience or the presentation, on that day I came to understand the potential impact it could have on those around me. Sharing this picture, and its story, allowed me to connect on a personal level with my audience; sharing this picture served as a window for some members of the audience and a mirror for others; and sharing this picture was an opportunity to build relationships with people I may never have otherwise had a connection. 

I have presented a few times since then and have received DMs, emails and private FB messages from educators who had some connection to the LGBTQ community thanking me for incorporating my personal story as part of the presentation. These messages have inspired me on so many levels and remind me about the importance of relationships in education. You see, we could have the most robust math program or the most amazing Makerspace or the best professional development but if we don't have positive and healthy relationships with those around us, those "things" won't have a sustained impact on learning in our classrooms, schools or districts. It all comes back to relationships - relationships between teachers and students; relationships between educators; relationships between teachers and administrators; relationships between the community and staff; relationships between students and administrators; and relationships between students. The research is there - see John Hattie's meta analysis - relationships impact learning and achievement in effective learning organizations. No matter what happens we can never lose sight of the fact that education is personal!  

Sunday, September 3, 2017

5 Practices To Support Life Ready Learners

Standards... The Beginning of Standardization

Over the last decade there has been much discussion about standards and the impact they have on education. Initially, for me, it was all about the NYS learning standards, specifically in the areas of ELA and Mathematics, which also informed the standardized testing that shaped the learning in Grades 3 - 8. The conversation then went national with the unveiling of the Common Core State Standards for Learning. Again the focus was on ELA and Mathematics but these standards had even greater implications because not only were they linked to high stakes standardized testing but now the tests our kids were subjected to (ridiculously challenging tests that resulted in way too much learning time being lost) became part of the evaluation process for our educators. This is where the problems really began and the Common Core standards quickly became the Darth Vader of education because they had a death grip on our practices! That's right the same standards that were supposed to be saving education were in fact cutting off the air because our educators were forced to address the standards (some of which are developmentally inappropriate) in their daily learning experiences in the hopes that our students would master them and perform well on the standardized assessments that would be used to assess the educators. That, my friends, is a death grip. It feels like there is no escape and there is only one solution... standardizing our practices or submitting to the death grip. 

That's right... we went from educational standards, which had the potential to impact positive change in education if they were done correctly, to standardizing education. In the end, the victims were our students, our educators, our families, our support staff, our Boards of Education and anyone else with a vested interest in our schools. Many schools were hyper focused on meeting standards for fear they would lose state funding, they would receive a low rating or, even worse, be closed down. The standardization didn't stop there. The Common Core Standards also brought with them a standardized end goal for all of our students by normalizing the idea of college and career ready. So, not only were the standards standardizing what we did in our schools, and how we assessed our kids, but they were basically standardizing the profile of our graduates (I realize this didn't happen in every school but it happened in many). "College and career ready" became the "it" phrase in education for a long time. I cannot tell you how much I've heard that phrase over the last decade - from informal conversations to workshops to Twitter chats to school vision statements - everyone was determined to ensure that all students were college and career ready. But what exactly does that mean? What careers are we preparing our kids for when we standardize education? What about the careers that are still taking shape? What about the kids who are choosing a gap year or forgoing college all together? What about life?

LIFE READY: The Birth Of a New Goal & Standard

I recently began the next phase of my professional journey when I was appointed as the superintendent in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. As part of my work, I developed an entry plan that helped me learn as much about Hastings as possible by interviewing various key stake holders in the community. The process is still unfolding but thus far I have heard from parents, Board of Education members, district administrators, staff members, community members and some students. During these many conversations (there have been over 40 thus far) there was one recurring theme... supporting our students by educating the whole child so they could be ready anything they encountered. The discussions went way beyond test scores, transcripts and college and career ready. In fact, while chatting with one of our teachers, she brought up the question about who our Hastings kids would be after they graduated 12th grade - how much of their identity would be shaped by their learning experiences in our schools and how would they use those to inform their next steps? That is when it came to me - we want our kids to be LIFE READY (this informed my opening day remarks in Hastings and you can check it out here)! We know that each learner is different and that trying to standardize the learning or the outcome is not sustainable. Instead, if we focus on empowering our students through meaningful learning experiences that go beyond the academics and nurture the ability to think critically, be reflective through high levels of self-awareness while also respecting and appreciating others we might just be preparing learners who are ready for life no matter what their college or career choices might include.

5 Practices To Support Life Ready Learners

In order to support and nurture life ready learners and make that the new norm I recommend the following 5 practices, which I have embraced. To be clear, I am suggesting that life ready not only be the goal for our students but that we model these practices as the adults. Here we go...

1) Life Ready is about Relationships! I have said this time and time again but building positive, healthy & respectful relationships must be our primary focus in education. When people feel connected, respected and valued the level of engagement changes and learning thrives. In order to make healthy relationships the norm, we must model that in our behavior through the relationships with kids, colleagues, families and the broader community. And when it comes to our kids, we need to explicitly teach them about how to develop and nurture healthy relationships. We can teach them about everything from the brain research as it relates to relationships and the research around social learning theory, which speaks to the effects of relationships on learning. Relationships matter!

2) Life Ready is about Being Learners First! Relationships and learning go hand-in-hand because relationships impact learning. We know that learning is a social construct and learning generally occurs as a result of experiences with other people. And in the end, learning permanently changes us. If we can understand and embrace this definition of learning we will be able to broaden how we enact learning in our schools and classrooms. Learning is also about being able to critically consume information and understand its impact on a broader scale than just our classrooms. Again, we must model being learners first for our students, colleagues and families. If education is about learning then the educators must be the lead learners within our schools and classrooms. And when it comes to our kids, we need to share our learning with them so they can see us as the models for being learners first. Additionally, we can teach our kids about the concept of learning and how it unfolds in an effort to empower them to track and drive their own learning. Being learners first is how we will change the world! 

3) Life Ready is about Nurturing & Embracing Curiosity, Creativity, Risk Taking and Failing in our Schools! In thinking about this idea I kept coming back to this idea... Curiosity is what piques our interest; risk taking is what inspires our learning; failing is what helps us iterate and creativity is what changes our world! This how our world changes; this is innovation (thank you George Couros for informing my perspective on innovation) - curious people who pursue something and then take risks (and likely failing repeatedly) to creatively address/solve a problem or issue. This is how we could structure learning our schools - solving problems through curiosity, creativity and collaborative efforts (again, the importance of relationships). And when it comes to our kids, we need to model this for them and make it the norm from the day they walk into pre-school. Their lives before school is all about curiosity, creativity, risk taking and failing in an effort to learn. Whether they are learning to walk, talk or ride a bike, it happens because they need to change their world on some level (communicating or traveling) and they will keep trying until they do. We need to build on this natural curiosity in schools, which means a total redo on how we define learning, homework and assessment and shift from a focus on the destination to instead a focus on the journey. 

4) Life Ready is about Having High Levels of Self-awareness and The World Around Us! This practice is critical because it involves both understanding of self and understandings of others. Aside from learning, there are many other social constructs that impact us each day and some of them, such as racism, are destructive and prohibit us, as a nation, from achieving our next and better iteration of self. In order to deconstruct and rebuild social constructs such as racism, we must begin by developing high levels of self-awareness while also understanding people and groups who have consistently been "othered" or marginalized. If we are going to change the narrative in our society we must focus on the power of education, empathy and inclusivity (another reason why relationships are important). And when it comes to our kids, we must explicitly teach them about concepts such as racism, hatred, bigotry and biases so we can inform their perspectives to prepare them to deconstruct long-standing social constructs. This important work starts with us as the educators and we must model high levels of self-awareness and speak openly about how we are changing the narrative. 

5) Life Ready is about Finding The Joy In Our Learning! When we find our joy we also rediscover our happiness and happiness leads to endorphins being released in the body. These endorphins change our experiences in positive ways and they allow us to take our learning to a whole other level. Yes, joy is critical to our work in education for both our educators and our students. Relationships, curiosity, learning and changing should all be sources of joy in our classrooms and schools. And when it comes to our kids, we should teach them the brain research around joy/happiness and the impact of endorphins on learning. We could also empower our students to pursue their passions and interests through sacred times like Genius Hour. As the educators, we should also have the time to pursue our own passions and interests as they relate to our personal and professional development. Finding and protecting our joy will make the world a better place in the journey towards creating our LIFE READY IDENTITY!

In The End... 

We aren't just looking for the next Ivy League grad or Fortune 500 CEO because we know our kids will be prepared to achieve those goals through sound instruction. We are looking for the global citizens who are going to rewrite the narrative through their actions; Who are going to change the world; Who are going to deconstruct and rebuild the social constructs that impede us from moving forward as a society. Racism, biases, hate, and marginalization can only be eradicated through high levels of self-awareness and an understanding and appreciation for the world around us. We are going to make the world a better place because of the explicit and intentional learning that will unfold in our schools. We are going to work together to define what it means to be LIFE READY! 
That is our charge. 
That is our goal. 
That is our future!   

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Looking At Learning Differently

At the start of the summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative book writing retreat with 10 other authors. The project, otherwise known as #EdWriteNow, was organized by my good friends and professional colleagues, Jeff Zoul and Joe Mazza. Jeff and Joe approached Routledge Educational Publishing with the idea of having educators from across the country get together to write a book for a cause. What happened after that is history!

While the thought of participating in this retreat just days after starting a new job gave me some anxiety, in the end, I knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity. This was about participating in a project that would contribute new ideas to the educational landscape. This was about engaging in reflective practice with professional friends as we fleshed out ideas, opinions and beliefs. This was about changing the way we think about practices we encounter and engage in each and every day within our profession. This was about writing a book where all the proceeds would go to the Will To Live Foundation. This was about making a difference with a group of people who I respect and have learned so much from over the years. To get more information about the project, check out Jeff's blog post from last week that frames the experience and spotlights the work he did in the first chapter where he reflected on changing the way we look at change!

For my contribution to the project, I was tasked with changing the way we look at learning. While I had studied the notion of social learning theory as part of my dissertation study, I hadn't really thought about the way I defined learning in school. Yes, I often think and talk about what learning could and should look like in our classrooms but I hadn't pushed myself deeper to think about how I defined learning. What is learning? How does learning happen? Who is involved in learning? And how can we determine that something was actually learned? These were just some of the questions that I wrestled with as I considered the construct of my chapter. 

This was a whole new realm for me because while I consider myself a learner first and educator second, I never wrote about learning in a way that connected to my daily practice and went beyond the surface. I began my writing journey by trying to flesh out a definition for learning that resonated with me and spoke to my experiences as a learner. The quote above speaks to my understanding that learning is a social construct that affects permanent change in an individual based on their experiences. The following is an excerpt from my book where I offer my answer to the question what is learning? You can check it out here... 

"... What is Learning?

Defining learning is like asking someone to define the concept of love - it is a somewhat abstract notion that we have all experienced, we can all probably talk about the feelings associated with it, and we might be able to describe what it looks like but, actually defining it is a whole other story. Fortunately, there have been dozens of psychologists, sociologists and researchers over time who have taken on the task of defining learning. While there are many variations of the definition, here a couple of examples that capture the essence of learning as it is defined in most spaces:

“Learning has been defined functionally as changes in behavior that result from experience or mechanistically as changes in the organism that result from experience.” De Houwer, Barnes-Holmes, Moors, 2013

“Learning is about any experience for a person that leads to permanent capacity change and not necessarily biological in nature or related to age.” Illeris, 1999

The common threads are immediately visible - learning is about a change in behaviors; learning is about experiences and subsequent changes; and learning does not happen in a silo or as a result of someone’s biological makeup. Learning is a process or journey that a person embarks on that then impacts their thinking, actions or opinions moving forward. Learning is about a permanent change in a person. Learning is about being informed and doing things differently because of what was learned. Learning is about social interactions. Learning is about thinking and then thinking differently. Learning is about living and changing over time. 

Learning is not a straightforward process that simply revolves around information provided by others. Learning is not passive or easy. In fact, learning is a lot of work - a lot of hard work that pushes educators to a point of discomfort. Alison Eyring, CEO of Organisational Solutions, recently developed a powerful analogy between learning and an oyster when she said, “The challenge of learning by experience is like sand in the oyster; it’s irritating and uncomfortable at the time, but you can end up with a beautiful pearl.” What an amazing analogy - learning isn’t mindless or uncomplicated or momentary; instead learning is a time consuming journey that will likely be irritating and uncomfortable, both literally and figuratively, because the end result will be change. Whether a change in behavior or a change in thinking, learning will lead to change and change can be unsettling and difficult for people. But, learning can also yield beautiful results, much like when the pearl emerges from the oyster, because learning can provide people with opportunities that, while inconceivable at the start of the journey, are pregnant with possibility. Learning, when allowed to unfold in a meaningful way, can help people change, evolve, and develop into a better version of self.      

Eyring went on to connect the notions of learning and development because ultimately learning is about someone’s ability to develop and grow. The research about development speaks to the fact that 70% of people’s development comes when they have certain experiences that present a challenge, like reviving a failing project/student/lesson, implementing new procedures, structures or processes, handling a challenging parent/educator or stepping into a more comprehensive role. What about the remaining 30%? Well, 20% of development is support provided by educational leaders or colleagues, and the last 10% of development is actually formal, structured learning. This is it - this is what learning looks like in life. Learning is development and it is a lot of work that requires the learner to be actively engaged and have ownership over experience. Learning can be annoying, beautiful, messy, without answers and life changing all at the same time if we create the conditions to let our students and educators actually learn."

While this is just an excerpt from my chapter, it captures the central message - what learning is and how can we reimagine the way it looks in our schools. The change journey continues in chapter 3 of the book written by my new friend Kayla Delzer who offers her powerful perspective on changing the way we look at relationships in schools! Check out her blog here because she will be sharing her experience in the coming days. 

In the end, I know that the #EdWriteNow writing retreat was a meaningful learning experience for me because it is one that changed me forever. Not only did it help me better understand the structures that should be in place to nurture collaborative learning experiences but it pushed me to flesh out my thinking around learning (and I made a bunch of new friends who I respect and appreciate). I was uncomfortable throughout the retreat because I wasn't sure of my destination but when I allowed myself to appreciate the journey, I quickly realized that is where the learning was happening. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Power of Hope and Education

As an educator who values the power of the PLN and all that I have learned from professional colleagues and personal friends from around the world (my PLN is the first place I go to learn), I wanted to share the following email that I sent to our entire community today. The contents of the email were in response to the events in Charlottesville. This was an opportunity for me to express my thoughts on racism and hatred while also communicating the power of hope and education. It may contain some information that other educational leaders, educators or families find useful when discussing the topic with their children...

Dear Hastings Community,

As a college student, one of the things that led me on my journey towards becoming an educator was the profound sense of hope that permeated the classrooms and schools I visited and worked in. Hope surrounded the daily learning experiences; hope inspired our students to dream aloud about the possibilities of the future; and hope anchored the decisions of the educators who were dedicated to doing what was in the best interest of children. It all came back to this sense of hope.

As I watched television over the last several days and learn more and more about the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, hope has been the furthest thing from my mind. While I am still trying to process and understand what happened myself, I have also been trying to answer the many questions from my 12 year old son. There are feelings of anger, confusion, and frustration as we are trying to unpack the events. In the end, there are no perfect words to explain the “whys” of what had occurred, but my son’s questioning and perspectives quickly reminded of the hope that still exists in our world, especially in our children. His interest in understanding what happened and why also reiterated the importance of education.

While we cannot avoid the fact that we live in a world where hatred, racism and discrimination are realities, in our Hastings schools we will continue to focus on the power of education and the importance of hope. We will empower our children through education so that they can leverage their innate sense of hope to make the world a better place. Our educational experiences will not only be academic in nature but will also be dedicated to supporting the development of the whole child. Whether through explicit social emotional learning experiences or conversations around racial justice, our children will be informed and knowledgeable about the role they have in the world and the responsibilities that come with being educated.

If you are looking for ways to have some of these important conversations at home, I offer the following links that I found helpful as an educator and parent…

While there is no singular solution to addressing the many issues plaguing society, such as racism and hate, we can focus our energies on our children and the impact they can have in the future as a result of their educational experiences and their innate sense of hope!


Tony Sinanis

Some additional resources that educators might want to explore, which were not included in the above communication, can be found here... 

Social Media Crowdsourced Google Doc with resources on addressing the events in Charlottesville

Google Doc I created with resources to support learning about race and racial justice 

Please feel free to use any of the text above or contribute other relevant resources in the comment section below. Together we are better for all of our children! 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Please Stop Staring

The Types of Stares

To stare means to look at someone or something in a fixed way with eyes wide open. Sometimes it can be an incredibly positive and amazing look because people are staring in awe. Individuals cannot believe what they are seeing and can't shift their eyes away. We see those stares when an acrobat performs an amazing flip or a magician makes something disappear. We can call those the AWE stares. Then there are the stares that are accompanied by a smile and sigh where people can't look away because whatever they are seeing makes them happy and fills their heart. We see those stares when we encounter an unexpected marriage proposal or see a baby take their first steps. We can call those the HAPPY stares. Then there are the other stares. The stares that are not only fixed on someone or something but are often vacant in nature and are generally accompanied by a look of shock. We see those after a terrible accident on the highway or a heart breaking story on the news. These stares do include a level of awe but not the positive type of awe; instead, these stares are often filled with pity and perpetuate a feeling of negativity. We can call those the BAD stares. The bad stares don't make anyone feel good - not the person staring and certainly not the person being stared at. Yet, the bad stares are real and pervasive in our world and we must work together to address them.

Please Stop Staring

Recently my family and I went on vacation to Aruba where we had an amazing time hanging out at the pool, enjoying the buffet and being surrounded by family and friends. The overall experience was a positive one and I cannot wait to go back to Aruba. Unfortunately, during our travels I also encountered the BAD stares and they left me feeling disappointed and disheartened. 

While I have been on the receiving end of this type of stare (I have had my share of fashion faux pas or have done something in public that I regret) this time the stares were directed at my son, Paul. Paul was born with arthrogryposis and congenital scoliosis, which have impacted his physical development and have led to certain atypical characteristics in regards to the way he walks and the shape of his spine (I have written about his journey here and here). In the end, Paul is a miracle because in the most important ways he is a typically developing and functioning kid (including possessing the attitude of a middle schooler but that is a whole other post) and he has exceeded the expectations of every doctor he has ever seen. He is smart, funny, engaging, empathetic, compassionate and, from my vantage point, pretty perfect. And while his norm may be different than others, he is a "normal" kid. Of course, when you see him you can't help but notice that there is some sort of physical issue because of his gait and the curve in his back. Fortunately, Paul does not allow himself to be defined or limited by those issues, instead he accepts them as part of who he is and realizes that they are just physical limitations not life limitations. 

In the end, Paul walks through life with a good amount of self-confidence and positivity, which serves him well but isn't necessarily visible to everyone else - especially to those who don't know him. Instead, what is visible is the curve in his spine, and the way that he walks, and these are the things that bring on the stares... the BAD stares. Now I am not sure if Paul notices the stares and just ignores them or is completely oblivious to them but I notice them and they break my heart a little bit each time. The stares bring on a range of emotions. I feel everything from anger to sadness to indifference to frustration to disappointment. And while I understand why people might glance for a moment, I don't understand why people stare - literally eyes fixed, mouths wide open and looks of shock. One time, I actually watched a person walk into a wall because they couldn't stop staring. I think the stares that I have the hardest time with are the ones that come from adults. I can't help but think - wait, you're a grown up and someone must have taught you that it is not ok to stare. Yet I see it over and over again. People stare and literally can't stop themselves; unfortunately, those stares only evoke insecurity and negativity and the time has come to stop the staring.

What Can We Do To Stop The Staring?

While I don't think schools and educators alone are the silver bullet to "fix" the societal issue that manifests itself in the form of staring (I think the issue here is a reflection of much a more systemic and pervasive issue in our world impacting people who are marginalized), I do think there are things we can do within our schools to help our students be positive global citizens. Here are 3 ideas that I think can help stop the staring...

1) Put empathy and inclusivity at the center of our work in schools - and not just during SEL time! Our curriculum can no longer be just about academic skills with a special period of social emotional learning; but, instead we must place the importance of empathy and inclusivity at the center of our work whether we are doing a read aloud, completing a science experiment or solving a math problem, we must expose our students to what it means to be an empathetic individual and citizen of the world. Just think about the whole 21st century movement - both collaboration and critical thinking skills are central to this work and are also important when thinking about developing empathy and believing in inclusivity.  We must also be mindful of our actions as the educators because we can model (and even do a "think aloud" to show kids the what and why of our thinking) empathy and inclusivity. While I do believe some people are more inclined to be empathetic and inclusive (a lot to consider in the whole nature vs. nurture argument) I think we could equip all of our students with the skills to be able to exhibit empathy and be inclusive of those around them who might be different. It is another skill set we can expose kids to through inquiry and discussion if we focus on empathy and inclusion with intentionality. Ultimately the work we need to do is about emotional intelligence and high levels of self-awareness (for students and staff) and by building those capacities, we can take the conversation beyond tolerance and acceptance and help nurture empathy and inclusivity. This is not easy work but so important because when we nurture the ability to be empathetic and inclusive, we take learning to a whole other level.    

2) Use digital platforms to connect our students to people from every walk of life - we can no longer contain the learning to the four walls of our classrooms or schools! There are so many digital platforms (new ones spring up each day) that remove all barriers (geographical, SES, gender, etc.) and allow us the opportunity to learn from the world; yes, literally learn from the world beyond our classrooms. By accessing digital platforms, we can accelerate our learning because we can engage our students with people who are different than them and the result will be an informed perspective and appreciation and respect for what makes us different. We can have our students learn from people who have a different skin color, people who speak a different language, people who subscribe to different religions, people who live a different lifestyle, people who are living with disabilities, people who aren't like our students. This type of exposure and interaction will help support the development of global citizens! 

3) Incorporate literature, texts, blog posts, articles, etc. that feature characters and people who can serve as windows and mirrors for our learners. Much like the use of digital platforms (which may not be for every community), texts can serve as the gateway to an understanding of how others experience life. To that end, we must ensure that the literature, and other text based resources, available to our kids are rich, diverse and inclusive. Ultimately, empathy is about understanding, respecting, and potentially appreciating, the experiences of others. 

In The End... 

These are just three possibilities of what we can do in our schools today to help nurture the development of global citizens who are empathetic and inclusive... and don't stare. I am sure there are better ways to accomplish this goal but the problem is real and we must address it sooner rather than later because our kids, my kid, deserve better. In the meantime though, to all the adults out there, please stop staring.