Thursday, January 29, 2015

ConnectED Reading BINGO Event

February is “I Love to Read” month and we’re inviting classrooms everywhere to join us in playing ConnectED Reading BINGO. We collaborated with authors and educators across North America to create an epic reading opportunity and the most AMAZING BINGO Board EVER! The goal is to foster a genuine love of reading through social interaction and great literature.  We are striving to facilitate student-centered connections between authors, educators, and classrooms.

Step 1... Watch the following video for the story behind the event...



Step 2... Click on the following link to access and print out the BINGO Board with all the awesome activities...




Some activities should be completed with guidance from a teacher or parent. Cultivating good character through digital citizenship is a shared responsibility.  Students will be best served if the adults in their lives take an active role in modeling and discussing responsible use of social media, sharing, and online interactions.  

Remember, whenever you have successfully achieved BINGO, please tweet out a pic of the completed BINGO Board and include the hashtag... #StuConnect! 

We hope you have a BLAST reading and connecting!!!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

No Thank You

A collaborative post by Lisa Meade and Tony Sinanis...

Back at the beginning of January, we wrote a piece with Jon Harper about always remembering to say thank you. Through conversations and tweets, it occurred to us that we weren’t doing a great job at accepting positive feedback and praise. Through our collaboration we learned we needed to do a more deliberate job at listening and receiving the positive feedback offered to us from the many people in our communities.

Shortly after the post, we realized there was room for a follow up post… a reflection on a phrase that is equally as challenging for us to utter. Three words that we must access more regularly if we are going to have sustainable careers as educators and specifically as educational leaders. While part of leading with the heart required us to lead with arms and ears wide open, we felt we still had to be clear about when there may be times where thank you won’t cut it. Where “Yes!” or “No problem!” could have a more negative impact than positive. We need to admit there are times when we clearly and boldly need to say -- “No thank you!”  

We must say no thank you when we are asked to believe that something is a student’s fault and that we’ve done everything we can. Ever get caught up in faculty room talk about a student not performing and how he just needs some “real world consequences”? Next time you are within earshot of a conversation like this, be bold enough to tell the group --”No thank you. I choose to believe in kids.” Or the situation when teachers criticize the families for not being hands on or involved and thus the student’s academic performance is going in a downward spiral. Can we blame the families? Sure… except, they are not the ones technically responsible for the child’s academic performance - we are responsible! And so, it is ok to say, “No thank you. I choose to believe our families are doing the best that they can and we just have to try things a little differently with our instruction and with our academic expectations to better support this learner.”

As leaders we must also say no thank you when colleagues try to make their emergencies our problem. Our first priority are our own students, staffs and school communities. Sometimes, we work with other leaders who may wait until the last minute and expect us, over and over again, to change our schedules to help them meet their deadlines. We need to say, “No thank you. Looks like this is your emergency, not mine. I’m here to help but please don’t ask me to do it for you. I can work with you but not in place of you.” Our time is precious. Our students’ time is precious. Our teachers’ time is precious. And it is our responsibility to guard and protect that time even when it means saying NO even though we may want to say YES!

In New York State, there is a loud, growing rhetoric from the Governor’s Office about how ineffective our teachers are and that we must not be implementing APPR the correct way when most of our teachers are rated as effective and highly effective. Certain politicians and Regents are saying that more teachers should be scoring in the ineffective and developing range just based on what we know about the bell curve. They perpetuate the thought that we need to hold teachers accountable to get rid of all the “bad apples.” Well, we find this message to be offensive to administrators and teachers. It implies we are not adept at our profession. It implies that we are simply winging it in our classrooms and harm children instead of help them. It implies that we have not been held accountable for anything over the years even though on most days we play the role of parent, therapist, social worker, teacher, behavior specialist and advocate just to name a few.

Well, we must, as educational leaders, be clear when we say, “No thank you. Your perception is not my perception. My perception is based on facts and actual classroom evidence. We are in classrooms every day and assure you the vast majority of our teachers are indeed effective and far from ineffective. Your “truth” is not my truth. No thank you.”

Give up? No thank you.

Shortchange kids? No thank you.

Cut arts and music to balance our budgets? No thank you.

Postpone buying materials and resources for teachers and students in order to balance our budgets? No thank you.

Give more tests? No thank you.

Weight state tests more? No thank you.

Tie strings to school funding in order to promote a single, misguided agenda? No, no thank you.

Believe in the attack on public school administrators and teachers? Nope. No thank you.

Stop believing in our schools and students?

Sorry, not us. No way, no how, NO THANK YOU!

Friday, January 16, 2015

HW? Test Prep? Are They Necessary?

The following is an excerpt from a recent newsletter I shared with our #Cantiague staff on two topics that are close to my heart...

As some of you may know, two of my favorite topics to discuss and reflect on are test prep and homework... well, throw the two of them together and it goes to a whole other level! Being that this time of year always seems to bring up questions about test prep, homework and the perfect storm of the two, I just wanted to share my position on both. First off, I have spent hours over the last couple of weeks pouring over articles about the impact/importance/role of homework at the elementary level and the bottom line is this... at best, homework's positive impact on children's academic achievement and performance is questionable. Check out this article or this one to read about the fact that homework at the elementary level cannot be linked to any meaningfully positive outcomes. In fact, in one study I read, the children who are struggling academically in school, for those kids, homework actually has a negative impact. If we think about it... that makes sense! If a child can barely do the work while they are at school where they may have access to extensive scaffolding and support, how can we expect that they will meet with success when doing it at home where the level of support varies tremendously? So, when thinking about homework, please be thoughtful and keep it to a meaningful minimum - less is more in this instance. Make the homework matter; place value on the homework by checking it and giving the children feedback; and finally, try giving the children voice or choice in the development of homework assignments... I think the outcomes may surprise us. 

In regards to test prep, I have three things I must share because I think consistency in practice here is imperative to our collective success. First off I really believe that good instruction rooted in rich texts and resources that teaches children the skills they need to be good readers, writers and mathematicians is the bulk of the test prep that is needed. Let's consider embed test "preppy" questions within writing or reading workshop; or maybe embed reading responses that mirror the writing expected on the test. This limits the test prep but presents it in a contextualized way. For example, I recently was in teacher's room where she explained that once a week, the actual day of the week was up to the kids, the children had to write a reading response that they would share with her so she could get a sense of their thinking as readers. What an awesome idea... and AWESOME way to embed test prep because the teacher could pose specific questions each week that mirror the language on the test and BOOM... there is embedded test prep. Worksheets with pages of passages and multiple choice questions will not accomplish the same goal because I think they access lower level thinking. In fact, in this article on test prep, especially on page two, teaching to the test actually dumbs down teaching and learning! So, secondly, I am not saying that test prep should not occur (our kids need exposure to test taking skills, certain language, etc.) but make it as meaningful as possible and keep it at a minimum. Finally, the one thing I am not comfortable with and will have difficulty supporting is sending any test prep packets or worksheets or workbooks home for children to complete for homework. This type of work, if it is occurring at all, should be happening in school under the supervision of educators - not at home for a child or family to complete for homework. From my vantage point, test prep, if it is to have any positive impact on our children, needs to be happening in school - not at home. So, please do not send any test prep home for homework because I do believe this is in the best interest of the children.

Thank you for taking the time to read my rantings from atop my little soap box and please know that my only goal and intent is to promote practices and approaches that are in the best interest of all children. On that note, I would like to share an announcement from #Cantiague and I welcome the rest of the education world to join us... 

Our second annual NO WORKSHEET WEEK CHALLENGE will take place during the week of January 26th! That's right... we did it last year at our school and we want to spread the joy with our PLN and the rest of the world this year! A week without any worksheets... no worksheets in class... no worksheets for homework... NO WORKSHEETS!! Now, let's take a deep breath... I am not saying NO PAPER... just NO POINTLESS, THOUGHTLESS or MEANINGLESS WORKSHEETS! You know the ones! 

So join us on our annual NO WORKSHEET WEEK CHALLENGE during the week of January 26th in an effort to better reflect on the following question... are homework and test prep necessary?     

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dear Sucky Teacher

Dear Sucky Teacher,

I am sorry for calling you out but you know exactly who you are and you are pretty sucky at your job as an educator and specifically as a teacher of children. Truthfully, I wasn't planning on writing this letter to you but one of our students here at #Cantiague told me that he heard about my letter to some of the sucky administrators in the world and asked why I hadn't written a similar letter to teachers. In thinking about his comment, I decided that a letter to you was important too so here it goes...

You are the teacher who gives the rest of us a bad name. You are the teacher who only took the job because you think the day ends at 3pm and you have summers off. You are the teacher who only communicates with families when something bad has happened and then you dump the problem on the family. You are the teacher who gives a lot of homework every night and then doesn't bother to check it. You are the teacher who sits at your desk most of the day and only gets up to lecture the children or discipline them. You are the teacher who does not tap into your children's passions and interests and you believe that children should not be empowered in schools; instead, they should only be obedient and compliant. You are the teacher who does not plan in advance. You are the teacher who doesn't make learning fun; instead, it becomes an oppressive experience for children without joy. Basically, you are sucky at your job because you are not focusing on what matters most in the world of education - our KIDS!

Fortunately, it is not too late to turn it around and go from sucky to good... good for kids! Here are some things to avoid in your attempt to exit "sucky-ville" (these suggestion come from me and many of the children at Cantiague who shared their opinions about what to avoid because they believe none of their teachers are sucky but they are going on what they have heard)...

1) The work of educating children is not about you... it is about creating a space where the children are empowered to explore their passions, find their voices and feel valued and respected!

2) Do not take yourself so seriously - it is not all about you! Yes, take your work seriously and be passionate about what you do with kids and colleagues but remember to smile and laugh - especially at yourself! Please don't listen to the one professor in education school who told you not to smile until December... smile from day one and share your joy with the children! Smiles, laughter and joy help nurture healthy relationships with your children, which is critical to learning.

3) Don't just give homework because that is what has always been done or because families expect it - make homework relevant and important to children! Maybe even give children voice in their homework or consider limiting the amount of homework because the research on homework having a positive impact on kids (at least at the elementary level) is inconsistent. If you give homework make the time to check it, give the children feedback and maybe use it as a formative assessment. If it is worth the children's time to do it, then give it value!

4) Don't see yourself as the "sage on the stage" who has the "right" answers to every question! Give yourself an opportunity to be a facilitator of learning; give yourself an opportunity to relinquish control of the teaching and learning to the children; give yourself an opportunity to try different instructional practices and techniques; and hey, try and make the learning about asking the "right" questions instead of getting the "right" answers - the process matters as much as the product! 

5) Stress the learning and not just the teaching! Are effective instructional approaches and techniques critical? Yes! But, you also need to be focused on the learning... the learning of your KIDS... the learning of your colleagues... the learning of the family members... and your own learning! You are not necessarily responsible for every one's learning - that is not your burden but also don't feel like you are responsible for all of the teaching alone!

6) You are not a "fixed" entity and you have not reached the pinnacle because you are THE teacher! You still have a lot to learn and do... you have still have a lot to try and many things to fail at within your work... you still have to enhance your craft... you still have to get better and remember that you are a work in progress! And, if you have a chance, become a connected educator - it will change your world!

7) Stop handing out packets during class and sitting at your desk while your children sit in quiet isolation at their desks completing the packets. School, teaching and learning could be about so much more than worksheets, packets and consumables... school could be about thinking outside of the box, nurturing creativity and who knows... maybe even inspiring innovation.      

8) Stop becoming obsessed with the scores on high stakes standardized tests... your kids (and you) are worth a LOT more than a number. Are test scores important? Yes! Is data important? Yes! But children and learning are about a lot more than performance on one assessment or benchmark - don't define your children (or yourself) based on the results of one TEST! 

9) Have fun in school... not all the learning has to be serious, heavy and intense. It can be noisy; it can be messy; it can be student driven; and yes, it can be really FUN!

10) If you are using the same lesson from the same binder from the same bookshelf as you have for the last three years then you are not teaching the children in front of you... you are just covering the curriculum as you see fit. Change it up; disrupt the norm; be innovative with your craft and work hard to meet the needs of every child in your room... even though it is not easy! 

11) And lastly... model what you expect of your students... model what you would want for your own children if they were in your classroom!

So, I am sorry to call you out sucky teacher, but there are way too many of you out there in the world of education! The time has come to change and get better because the current landscape of public education is not a positive one and we need educators who will fight for what is right for our many students who enter our classrooms filled with passion, excitement, curiosity and enthusiasm... be the advocate and protector of children! 

Please understand that I know I have many shortcomings myself and plenty of things I am sucky at too but I try and get better each day because I know that is in the best interest of my children. 

Sincerely,

Tony Sinanis 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Dear Sucky Administrator

Dear Sucky Administrator,

I am sorry for the choice of words but you know who you are and you are pretty sucky at your work as an educator and specifically as an educational leader. 

You are the administrator who gives the rest of us a bad name. You are the administrator who perpetuates the "Us vs. Them" feeling that permeates many a school community. You are the administrator who creates a "Fortress School" and sends the message to families that you are not interested in collaborating, sharing or being transparent about your practices. You are the administrator who spends more time in the office pushing papers and doing "important" work instead of being in classrooms and interacting with students and staff. You are the administrator who does not value relationships with the people around you and is only focused on numbers, appearances and making yourself look good. You are the administrator who doesn't foster a sense of trust in your school. Basically, you are sucky at your job because you have lost the focus on what matters most in education - KIDS! 

Fortunately, it is not too late to turn yourself around and go from sucky to at least halfway decent. Here are some things to avoid in your attempt to exit "sucky-ville"...

1) The work of educating children is not about you... it is about creating a space where the educators are empowered to do what is in the best interest of EVERY child!

2) Do not take yourself so seriously - it is not all about you! Yes, take your work seriously and be passionate about what you do for kids but remember to smile and laugh - especially at yourself!

3) Get out of your office and talk to everyone around you! Talk to the secretaries, the nurse, the custodians, the teachers, the teacher aides, the bus drivers, the families and most importantly, the KIDS!

4) Stop isolating yourself and being so guarded and start sharing and being more transparent in your practices! If you are doing what is in the best interest of KIDS then you can be open about it and stand behind your actions and then being transparent should come easily. Remember, be a successful educator is about relational trust and building social capital!

5) Stress the learning and not just the leading or teaching! Is effective leadership and instruction (building-wide and within classrooms) critical? Yes! But, you need to be focused on the learning... the learning of your KIDS... the learning of your staff... the learning of the family members... and your own learning!

6) You are not a "fixed" entity and you have not reached the pinnacle! You still have a lot to learn and do... you have still have a lot to try and many things to fail at within your work... you still have to enhance your craft... you still have to get better and remember that you are a work in progress! And, if you have a chance, become a connected educator - it will change your world!

7) Stop implementing zero tolerance policies and rules based on one incident or what could go wrong! Every situation, child and incident is different so treat it that way. Treat mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow and get better. For example, when a staff member or child or even you uses social media inappropriately don't ban social media; instead, use it as an opportunity to teach a lesson about digital citizenship and developing a positive digital footprint.      

8) Stop putting up road blocks for your staff when they want to try and implement new things that might fail! Be the remover of road blocks... not the creator of them! Trust your staff and their expertise and get out of their way... unless they need your support or perspective and then offer it in a non-judgmental way!

9) Stop using Faculty Meetings as an opportunity to share information that could easily be shared in a memo, email or quick announcement. When you gather the staff, make it worth their time because it is precious!

10) Remember, your work as an administrator is not about you! Your work as an effective administrator is about advocating for the needs of those around you and always doing what is in the best interest of a child! Be the voice for those without one.

11) And lastly... model what you expect of those around... model what you would want for your own children if they were in your school!

So, I am sorry to call you out sucky administrator, but there are way too many of you out there in the world of education! The time has come to change and get better because the current landscape of public education is not a positive one and we need leaders who will fight for what is right for our many educational communities. 

Please understand that I know I have many shortcomings myself and plenty of things I am sucky at too but I will continue to work on those because I try hard each day to avoid becoming a sucky administrator!

Sincerely,
Tony Sinanis 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Proud To Be a Lead Learner

Pernille Ripp, an educator and individual who I respect and adore tremendously, recently wrote a post reflecting on the term "Lead Learner" (Can We Discuss the Title "Lead Learners" For A Moment?) that really got me thinking... a LOT! So much so that I felt compelled to reflect, respond and share my thoughts on the term Lead Learner, which is one I proudly use on a daily basis to describe the work that I do here at Cantiague Elementary. That's right, I am proud to be a Lead Learner here at Cantiague... not THE Lead Learner but A Lead Learner!

A couple of years ago my friend and mentor, Joe Mazza, tweeted something about the term Lead Learner and how he was using it to describe his work as an elementary principal. I started researching the term and came across quotes from people like Fullan, Marzano and others who repeatedly
stressed the importance of the principal being the instructional leader as someone who is specifically focused on learning... the learning of the staff... the learning of the students... and the learning of the community. The more I read, the more I realized that was where I was devoting the majority of my time and energy as the principal of our school - I was really focused on the learning of those around me. I am passionate about learning, teaching, curriculum and instruction so focusing on these aspects of my work as an instructional leader made the most sense. 

Somewhere along the way though, I realized that my own learning had become stagnant and I felt like I had not really grown nor had I enhanced my skill set as an educator and leader in a long time. I was pretty static as a learner and I came to the conclusion that if I were going to be an effective instructional leader, I had to focus on my own learning; I had to model for those around me what I was expecting - continuous learning and growth; I had to pause, reflect and learn. So, I enrolled in a doctoral program and got connected on Twitter and the learning literally exploded from that point forward. I was basically learning something new each day. Whether it was a from a reading for one of my classes or a link from a tweet that someone in my PLN shared, I was learning something new that I wanted to consider EVERY single day and the feeling was pretty awesome. Suddenly, my own learning was at the forefront and I was reinvigorated and excited about my daily work as an educator and leader. And that is when it clicked... I was a Lead Learner because I was modeling the importance of learning through my own daily actions and I was supporting and facilitating the learning of those around me. Again, I am not THE Lead Learner but the title Lead Learner captured two of the things that I most passionate about in my daily work... learning and leading within an educational organization. Yes, I am passionate about leading, which is great because that is my job. Although I am not a fan of titles, the term Lead Learner really resonated with me and captured what I believe are the most important aspects of my work.

So, somewhere along the line I re-branded myself as Lead Learner at Cantiague Elementary. I stopped using the word principal because I didn't feel like it really captured my daily work. When you think of the word Principal, what comes to mind? Well, I have asked groups of people... staff, kids, other educators and the words that come up include: boss, disciplinarian, head of the school and paper pusher just to name a few. From my perspective, there was very little positive that came from the term "principal" - not many people saw it as a positive presence in the school. Then I asked about the term Lead Learner and the responses were completely different and they included focused on learning, instructional leader and life long learner just to name a few. Suddenly, it clicked. People responded much more positively to the term Lead Learner and the descriptors were a much closer match for my daily work than principal, which comes from the term Principal Teacher, which I do not see myself as in my current role. And thus, I started using Lead Learner.

But, let me be clear in communicating that I do not see myself as THE Lead Learner here at Cantiague... no, I am just ONE of a group of Lead Learners here at our school. I see our staff as Lead Learners based on their daily instructional work. I see our kids as Lead Learners at different points when they vacillate between the role of learner and teacher throughout the day. This is something that has increased this year with the integration of practices like Genius Hour and Passion/Project Based Learning opportunities where our kids take on the role of Lead Learner regularly. I see our family members as Lead Learners at different points in time because they share a lot to help us enhance our craft. The "position" of Lead Learner is not something I see as fixed and belonging to one person. I see it as a reflection of what matters most to me as an educator; I see it as a way to communicate the things I am most passionate about in my daily work; I see it as a way to really capture the essence of transformational instructional leader, which I am expected to be as the principal of our school (try that one on for size... not only the leader of all instruction but also transformative at the same time... WOOO... that is heavy stuff for a whole other blog post).

That is my take on the term Lead Learner... it is not about the title... it is not about the position... it is not about a singular person... it is about learning and leading. 

My name is Tony Sinanis and I am proud to be a Lead Learner!       

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Always Say Thank You

Always Say Thank You
A collaborative post by Jon Harper, Tony Sinanis, and Lisa Meade
We are intelligent. We are courageous. We are funny. We are caring. We are compassionate human beings. We are also humble. Is there such a thing as being too humble? Or have we confused humility with pride? A true leader ought to be able to think positively without feeling boastful or arrogant.
When people go out of their way and take the time to recognize positive qualities in any of us we need to start by fully listening to the comment. Just accept it. Follow the acceptance by saying thank you. That’s right… thank you. Two tiny words that go a long way but are often so hard for people to say when on the receiving end of a compliment. Saying thank you is probably easier and faster than trying to deflect the compliment or counter with some self-deprecating comment.
It’s not as if we are looking for compliments and it’s not as if we expect them. But, we will get them. Sometimes, they are few and far between. But, to immediately dismiss a compliment is wrong for several reasons.
First, it says to the person complimenting you that they were wrong. Someone has gone out of their way to find something good enough in us that they feel the need to let us know. And what do we do? We reject it. We brush it off or sweep it under the rug. Sometimes we even change the subject!
Shame on us for not placing value on the idea that someone else shared! The other day, it was one of our dress down days where I was wearing jeans, someone complimented me on how thin I looked and instead of saying thank you, I said, “I haven’t really lost any weight - it’s just the clothes.” Don’t get me wrong, inside, I was totally flattered and excited by the comment (I did look good) but I didn’t want to come across vain or even worse, I didn’t want the person to think I was on a diet. A simple “Thank you…” would have sufficed but instead I made the person feel silly for their compliment and it ended up being an awkward exchange.    
Second, by rejecting compliments we give others permission to do the same. As leaders we try often to make others feel good about themselves. We go out of our way to compliment them. But if others notice us constantly rejecting or deflecting compliments what do they think when we give them? Likely, they think our thoughts are worth less than a wooden nickel.
As we know, it always comes back to modeling - if we can successfully model receiving a compliment, our students, staff and community members will be accepting when we offer the same. Now, there is something about compliments that we must remember… they cannot be general and vague and applicable to anyone or any situation. For example, after watching a powerful reading workshop experience in a fourth grade classroom, we shouldn’t just walk out and say, “That was GREAT!” What was great? Why was it great? Was it greater than anything done before? What does that even mean? Compliments need to be specific and honest and clear. For example, “I loved the way you facilitated that mini-lesson and offered the children an opportunity for guided practice before letting them try it independently!” Here is a compliment that is specific to what happened and it indirectly reinforces what you hope to see in the future… a compliment can have some serious legs!  
Our children and our students need to know that it is okay to feel good about themselves. If they witness us deflecting compliments they will begin to hang their heads just a little lower when all the while the while we are trying to help raise them up. What do we teach young women when they see strong, positive female leaders brush off an accolade in their presence? What do we teach our young men when they see strong, positive male role models dismiss a compliment given by another human being? There are so many ways that we can help promote positivity and a sense of self-confidence in those around us, and in ourselves, when we get more comfortable with receiving and giving genuine, specific compliments.
Leading with heart requires us to be fully in. Part of being fully “in” requires us to be steadfast in our strengths, open to improvements in our weaknesses, and to celebrate the good within the others we work with...ourselves included.
Our Deepest Fear


Sunday, December 28, 2014

School Reform: Can It Work?

As I get closer to the end of my doctoral studies, I am left feeling both hopeless about the future of a consistently successful school reform model while at the same time feeling more informed about the realities of an opportunity gap that exists in our country. We have spent the last three years immersed in conversations about school reform and the achievement gap that has supposedly been plaguing many of our schools, especially those found in urban areas. What I have come to believe and understand over the course of the last few months is that issues plaguing our schools go way beyond an achievement gap and are actually rooted in the opportunity gap that has permeated our society and is perpetuated within the confines of our schools. Our emphasis has become so singularly focused on addressing the achievement gap that we have lost sight of the whole child and the opportunity gap that potentially faces our children before they attend formal schooling and after they graduate high school. It is my belief that our nation is filled with the “haves” and “have-nots,” which are at the root of the opportunity gap, and our schools continue to sort individuals into these two categories regardless of whether they are attending a public school, independent school or charter school.
From the release of A Nation At Risk over twenty years ago to the roll out of the Common Core State Standards about four years ago to the emphasis on educator effectiveness over the last two years, the discussions in most school districts have been focused on accountability in an effort to close the achievement gap and give all children access to highly effective educators and schools. We have come to believe that our schools are not effectively preparing our children for college and careers beyond school and thus school reform has been anointed as the highest priority.
Unfortunately, what we know through extensive research is that no one approach to school reform has been proven to work consistently nor has one been successfully replicated in different contexts. Let’s consider charter schools and their impact on the school reform movement over the last twenty years. Curto et. al. (2011) argue that certain charter school models, such as KIPP and Harlem Children Zone Promise Academy, are indicative of the fact that a “high quality” school is enough to potentially transform the state of poverty and racial inequality in the United States. The review argues that a high quality school alone offers higher social returns than community-based interventions because students in these “high quality” charter schools are showing slight academic gains, especially in the area of mathematics, over their counterparts in public schools.
Reading this review of data in isolation could easily sway private funders and urban communities to believe that opening a “high quality” charter school will solve many of their problems and successfully close the achievement gap. From my perspective, those beliefs would be wrong! First off, we know that reviews such as this one, where the focus is on a small number of schools and students, spotlight data that may not be trustworthy and cannot be easily generalized (Hill, et. al., 2006). Curto et. al. focused their review on the research of others (in Boston and New York) and then zeroed in on a small number of charter schools from within those studies but in the end, didn’t accurately reflect all the information we know about these specific schools. For example, using the Harlem Children’s Zone Promise Academy as an example of a “high quality” school and not emphasize all the wrap around services they provide their students and the surrounding community paints an incomplete picture. In fact, if anything, HCZ is a strong example of the idea that it does take a village to educate a child, which is the opposite argument this study was presenting. Furthermore, what we know about charter schools through several other studies (Bracey, 2005; Zimmer et. al, 2003; and Miron & Nelson, 2001) is that their results are mixed at best. In some cases they perform better than local public schools while in many other cases they perform at the same rates or worse than similar non-charter schools. Finally, when considering the Curto et. al. review we see that there is evidence suggesting that some charter schools are struggling to get their students through college, even though they may have closed the achievement gap during the elementary and middle school years. This struggle, post charter school, speaks to the opportunity gap that negatively impacts the “have-nots” in our society because although charter schools can control many variables while the children are in their buildings, they cannot effectively control what happens after children graduate.   
In addition to the mixed data we have about the success of charter schools, which many would argue are the silver bullet in current school reform movement, we also know that some charters employ strategies and techniques that have not been proven to have long-lasting positive impacts on students, their performance or the surrounding communities. For example, there are charter schools that employ educators, in both teaching and leadership positions, who are products of the Teach For America program, which in itself has been a focal point of the school reform movement. Many of the educators who have been trained through the Teach For America program and end up in leadership positions would argue that improving schools and closing the achievement gap can be handled by charismatic leaders through mostly managerial solutions where they hold teachers accountable (Trujillo & Scott, 2013). Trujillo & Scott (2013) point out that TFAers who assume leadership positions rarely focus on the social and political inequalities impacting the school; these leaders also devote little time to collaborating with the community and the children’s socio-emotional needs are not a priority. The focus in spaces led by these educators is test scores, which they see as the primary way to close the achievement gap while all the while ignoring the opportunity gap. If these leaders would dedicate time to connecting with both their students and the communities at large, I would argue that they would better understand the issues impacting the children and their families and they would appreciate that test scores are only one tiny piece of the puzzle in trying to address both the achievement and opportunity gaps.
Regrettably, there are some important voices missing from the school reform movement conversation – the voices of students and their families. The lack of emphasis on student voice and engaging the families and community is a theme that runs through many of the readings we have encountered during this course. Whether it was the reform movement in Philadelphia where all decisions were made behind closed doors and community input was minimal, if any, or the PSCI movement in Los Angeles where families and the surrounding community were often confused as to the goals of this initiative (Marsh et. al, 2012), the common thread is the lack of community voice and engagement as it relates to school reform. The silence doesn’t end there though because the voices of the students are also rarely heard in the school reform movement. In some charter schools, students are expected to have little or no say in their educational experiences and little choice in how learning unfolds within the context of school (Goodman, 2013). This lack of student voice and disapproval on the part of the adults for much of what students may want to express could be contributing to an diminished sense of self, which could have detrimental long term affects and could further contribute to the opportunity gap. Research shows that increasing student voice within the context of school can actually serve as a catalyst to improve teaching, learning, the curriculum and the relationships between teachers and students (Soo Hoo, 1993). Why would student voice and increased community engagement not be a focal point in the school reform movement when we know that these voices not only inform our practices but may also transform them? Our children and their families have a strong sense of self, the community and the school and by giving them a voice in the school reform movement, we may not only expand our approaches to addressing the achievement gap but we may also start understanding the opportunity gap, which is THE gap we need to close if we want to make progress as a nation.      

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Words


I will never forget that moment. The moment my son's friend used the word gay in a derogatory way as I walked by them. The instant I heard that word as my son clearly heard it too and our eyes locked on each other and then there were no words. Silence. Just silence between two people who were uncertain about how to respond or how to handle the moment.

Yes, this did happen and although it left me feeling a variety of emotions (it was an unsettling experience), it also gave me this amazing and important opportunity to engage in a conversation with my son about how he felt in that moment. Was he uncomfortable? Was he upset? Was my sexuality a source of discomfort for him? What did he wish happened instead? We also talked about how he might handle a situation of that nature when it happens again... not IF, but WHEN because it will definitely happen again. 

You see, from my perspective and experiences, the derogatory use of words like gay or faggot (or retarded or girly or the dozens of other terms) is common place in our society, especially for children in their intermediate schooling years. Heck, I was guilty of using this type of language too when I was his age. But, what words could I help my son access today so he could handle that moment of discomfort when it arises again in the future? We discussed possible responses that he was comfortable with that would communicate his feelings about the specific term or situation. We even role played and practiced using certain words or phrases. We took a potentially painful situation and made it a teachable moment that hopefully empowered my son to successfully navigate an experience of this nature in the future. 

Unfortunately, I am not sure if all the children in our schools have the words to handle uncomfortable situations, personal attacks or just ignorant behavior on the part of their peers. With all this talk about college and career readiness and the implementation of the common core state standards (a questionable experience thus far) and the focus on high stakes testing, I am worried that we are not attending to some of the "life skills" our children need to navigate certain situations and experiences. Specifically, I am worried that we are not taking the time to expose our children to the words they may need to handle a challenging situation. Yes, there is a lot of emphasis on the social and emotional literacy of our students.  We talk a lot about perseverance and grit and how if our kids were taught to embody these attributes, they could meet with success regardless of the obstacles life threw their way. We also talk a lot about things like anti-bullying programs or the Bucket Filling philosophy or the importance of our children being UPstanders and not a bystanders. But, in thinking about how these programs/ideas/concepts generally manifest themselves within our own schools, my concern is that we are focusing too heavily on what not to say or do instead of devoting the time to the words our children may need to handle a difficult exchange, peer or situation.

From my narrow and limited perspective, I think our children need words. They need space to think, reflect, discuss and deliberate. They need the opportunity to role play about how to handle derogatory statements that belittle someone because of their race, class, gender or sexuality. Our children need the words to give voice to themselves as individuals. Our children need the words to express their comfort and discomfort. Our children need the words to successfully question and engage with people or contexts that are unfamiliar to them. Our children need the words to advocate for themselves. Our children need the words to communicate their feelings and needs. 

Do I think equipping our children with words is solely the responsibility of our schools? Absolutely not! I see this as a joint venture between home and school... between families and educators... between adults and children. If we want our children to be college and career ready... actually, scratch that because college and career are just a fraction of our lives; if we want our children to be life ready, we need to give them access to the words.              

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Point of Pontification

Has Twitter just become a place for people to pontificate? Do people (myself included) just like to get up on their little 140 character soap box and say stuff without engaging in a dialogue with others? Or is this something I am just noticing because of where I am in my Twitter journey? I am not sure about the answers to any of these questions but they have definitely been on my mind after participating in a couple of Twitter chats over the last few weeks and reflecting on my own use of the medium.

I realize that being a connected educator means that I have access to ideas, perspectives and resources from around the world, which is an amazing thing! I also value the friendships that I have forged with members of my PLN, who I have come to rely on for "conversations" and on going dialogue thanks to Twitter. Whether I am discussing a Lunchroom DJ idea with Brad Gustafson or reflecting on a different way to tell our school story with Joe Sanfelippo, my PLN has become a source of inspiration and motivation.  

With that being said, on the flip side, I have also seen Twitter be used as a space where individuals are just pushing an idea; or going on and on about a topic that is important to them; or simply looking to call someone else out. Whatever the case, I feel like I am noticing more and more people who are not necessarily looking to engage, discuss and deliberate, which I recognize is challenging to accomplish in 140 characters, but instead just looking for a space to sound off. My awareness to this phenomenon (might not be the right word) was heightened during two chats I recently tried to engage in - last week's #ptchat, which focused on the recent events in Ferguson and race, and last week's #NYedchat, which focused on the concept of STEAM. Both topics are ones that I am interested in and was excited to participate in but when I did, I experienced two things... 

The first thing I noticed was that some people were not looking to unpack an idea and better understand it through an exchange; instead, they were looking to react and push back on something they may have misunderstood. Granted, I realize this happens often because with Twitter tone is lost and thus at times the intent and meaning get fuzzy - this has happened to me many times. But, before we push back and react, shouldn't we engage in an exchange to deepen our understanding? Shouldn't we check our own understandings and interpretations before being offended or reacting? Doesn't deliberation help us broaden our point of view and enhance our thinking? Isn't that what we should model for our kids each day? 

The other thing I noticed during these chats was that some people were just sharing what can best be described as cliches (I am guilty of this too) and there was no tweet following the cliche to substantiate the idea. Sure, it's great to sound like the inside of a fortune cookie; sure, it is easy to point out all that is wrong with public education; and sure, it is simple to tell everyone else what they should be doing in their classrooms but what does that really look like? I am not quite sure because I am often left looking for the idea to unpack the cliche. 

In the end, maybe it's just me: My tweets; my perspective; my exchanges; and my understandings. Maybe I am guilty of the above and I am just becoming aware. Not sure what the deal is yet but what I do know is that I am going to try and avoid the point of pontification and instead, focus on exchanges that will help me enhance my craft.