Monday, November 23, 2015

That Moment

Being Marginalized Today...

I recently wrote a post about the impact that ignorance had on my family when a derogatory comment was hurled our way. Although my son wasn't around to hear it, it definitely forced me to pause and reflect on our world and how we needed to go about navigating it to ensure that we all remained safe. You see, before coming to terms with my sexuality and living life as an openly gay man, I never had to worry about my safety because I generally felt safe in my world. I never had to think twice about how I would live my life because it was never an issue in my eyes. Call it white privilege. Call it being a straight man. Call it being cocky. Call it being educated. Call it whatever you want but I never thought twice about how I walked down the street; or whose hand I wanted to hold in public; or how I introduced my significant other. I never had to think about those things but suddenly my world has changed and I do think about them... and sometimes even overthink and analyze them. Trust me, living life that way isn't easy or comfortable. 

Unfortunately, I think this is the world we live in where if you are not a straight white man, there are a whole host of things you need to consider every time you are in public; every time you walk into a restaurant; every time you walk down a dark street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. If you are not a straight white man, you have to think about everything you do and how it looks to those around you - at least, that has been my experience as a gay man over the last couple of years - my experience as a member of a marginalized group. You see, I wonder how people will react if I am holding my partner's hand in public or give him a kiss on the cheek. I wonder what people think when they see my son, my partner and I in a restaurant together - I imagine they are trying to figure out how we are connected. I wonder about a lot of things when we are out in public, which something I never did in the past.

That Moment...

These thoughts and concerns have also made their way into my professional world. As an elementary school principal, I am always engaged in conversations with our students and I love these exchanges. Whether we are discussing the things we did over the weekend, the plans we have for an upcoming vacation or our favorite TV shows and movies, we love to share and chat! Of course, invariably those conversations also end up involving our families and the special people in our lives and that is when I start getting that uneasy feeling inside. I start to stress and worry and think about how our children might react if I mention my partner. Will they understand? Will they care? Will they be confused? The questions and concerns within my mind are endless.

For example, last week I was in a first grade classroom and a little girl ran up to me to show me a drawing she had made on her little whiteboard. When I asked her who was in the picture, she said, "It is you and your girlfriend!" Of course I smiled and complimented her art but I didn't really know how to respond or react. Do I mention that I don't have a girlfriend? Do I explain that I have a partner who is a man? Do I say nothing and just move on? Ugh... that moment was an incredibly stressful one for me even though this little girl only had the best intention. In the end, I said nothing because I figured it would just get too complicated and I didn't know how this little girl would feel or how I would feel afterwards. Unfortunately, these moments are not necessarily isolated and how I react and what I say is something that I think about... a LOT! As comfortable as I am in my sexuality and in my relationship with my partner, I am not sure how the rest of the world would react and so I often think twice... or three times... or more.  


Fortunately, I think there is hope... a LOT of hope because of the progress over the last ten years. For example, I recently attended the 5th Annual #LGBTeach Forum hosted at SUNY Old Westbury. This event started with Elisa Waters five years ago. It began as a small gathering (about 4 sessions) at Jericho MS and has evolved into a daylong conference with dozens of learning opportunities for educators who are looking to change the way schools navigate LGBT related issues. This is how we start to impact sustainable change within our schools. Coming together to discuss the issues that are affecting not only our students but our educators as well! Clearly, being gay doesn't carry the same stigma it used to carry and as a culture, we are more accepting of different lifestyles. But, being accepting might not be enough... we want to promote understanding and empathy - not just tolerance and acceptance. The time has come for us to be more intentional about the work we are doing to educate our children. The time has come for us to be more thoughtful about the conversations we are having in our classrooms, especially when it comes to the different types of families that exist in the world - traditional ones with a mom and dad; ones with two moms; ones with two dads; ones with one parent... and the list goes on. We must start these conversations at the elementary level so we can build on the children's naturally kind and accepting disposition and give them the knowledge, information and awareness they need so they can navigate life in an empathetic, understanding and empowered way.  

I am hopeful that we can impact change now so that down the road, people like me don't have to experience "that moment" where we are uncomfortable to be who we are and be true to ourselves and our loved ones... regardless of their gender, race or religion.      

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Heart of a Keynote

Over the last year I have had the opportunity to travel around the country and attend several conferences, workshops and EdCamps. Most of the travel has involved some speaking and presenting opportunities. In fact, I have even had the opportunity to keynote a few times with my coauthor (and brother from another mother) Joe Sanfelippo and the experience has been AWESOME! Unfortunately, the one downside to being the keynote or speaking at a conference is that I don't actually get to attend too many other sessions or actually hear someone else speak or present because I am consumed with my own work. That means that I don't always have a chance to learn from other speakers and presenters to enhance my craft moving forward. Well, that all changed for me when I recently attended Miami Device and had a chance to hear several awesome keynotes that forced me to pause and think about the things that I would do differently as a speaker moving forward. 

Even though all the keynotes were impressive (thank you Adam, Derek, George and Angela) for different reasons, one of them really resonated with me and left me thinking for days. The thing about George Couros' keynote that forced me to pause was that during that one hour keynote I experienced every emotion possible. I cried, I laughed, I danced, I smiled, I shook my head in agreement, I tweeted out nuggets of brilliance to remember moving forward and in the end, I was impacted on both a personal and professional level. That was the game changer for me... George's keynote touched my heart and mind and because of that, the message resonated deeply and kept me thinking way beyond the end of the keynote.

Don't get me wrong - there were parts of George's keynote that were similar to many others I have seen in the past. There were awesome videos, powerful images, thought provoking quotes and everything in between. The keynote had an overarching theme, in this case the Innovator's Mindset, which George hit home consistently and thoughtfully. George made us think about our own mindset, practices and beliefs. George challenged us to reflect on our daily work as educators and pushed us to consider how we could do differently moving forward to embrace an innovator's mindset, especially for the purposes of doing what is best for children. I have seen other keynotes, with a different focal point, that achieved similar accomplishments but for most other keynotes, when the speaker was done, the message was done too. This was not the case with George - the end of his keynote was just the beginning.

You see, at no point did George tell us that what we were doing was wrong. At no point did George tell us that we had to go back to our schools the next day and do things his way. At no point did George make us feel badly about our current practices. What George did, for me at least, was connect with my heart and mind. He gave me an entry point - both on an emotional level and intellectual level - so that I could see that his message mattered to me - Tony the person; Tony the dad; and Tony the educator. In the end, the message resonated with me on a personal level first and then on a professional level, which is why I think it impacted me so much after it was over. What I know from my own dissertation research is that any type of development, in order for it to be truly sustainable, must impact a person on both a personal and professional level. We can no longer just refer to professional development when we use the acronym PD - we must think about personal development too! If an idea is going to go beyond a conference or workshop, it has to be valuable to the participant; it has to mean something; and it has to leave a mark on the person's heart and soul so they see the value in pushing forward. 

That is what George's keynote did for me. I left his keynote wanting to make schools better for Paul. I left his keynote feeling good about the direction we have taken at #Cantiague. I left his keynote thinking about what I wanted to do next. I left his keynote thinking about what we haven't done YET! The truth is, I left his keynote in a happy place - trust me, I cried several times but they were all good tears - because I left with hope, anticipation and enthusiasm. I was excited about embracing the Innovator's Mindset even more in my daily personal and professional work. I left there understanding that innovation is about an opportunity to make things better, even if they make people uncomfortable sometimes. I left that keynote even prouder to be an educator and excited about the possibilities of the future.

In the end, I thought a lot about the heart at the center of George's keynote and I understood why it impacted me so much and on so many levels. Now, my only goal is to ensure that people walk out of any keynote, presentation or workshop I facilitate feeling the same way - ready to change the world and make it better for kids! 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

#MiamiDevice: A Learning Event

Now that it's over and I have had some time to decompress (it happened fast thanks to the freezing temps here in NYC), I can confidently say that Miami Device was the best education conference I have ever attended. Yes, the sunny weather, palm trees scattered throughout, warm temps each day and pool most definitely impacted the experience but it was about so much than the backdrop. Miami Device was about the people; Miami Device was about the variety of sessions; Miami Device was about a collective enthusiasm and passion that permeated the space; Miami Device was about the opportunity to connect with other educators thanks to the built in "social" experiences; Miami Device was a learning event different than any other I have ever experienced; Miami Device was so much more than a typical conference or professional development experience because of the work Felix Jacomino put into it to engineer an almost flawless learning event!

From the opening keynote on Thursday morning to the closing keynote on Friday afternoon, those two days were jam packed with learning opportunities with people who were excited to be there, willing to share and looking to learn. Those are such a rare things within the current landscape of education, which is part of the problem plaguing our profession. Many educators don't invest in their own learning! Many educators don't direct their own learning! Many educators wait for professional development to happen to them and then don't use it when they are done! These statements are based on recent experiences when I have attended conferences with other educators who only come because they have to be there or because they are presenting or because someone else directed them to attend. Yes, I have been in situations like that too and I have also been to conferences where there was no investment on my part and in the end, there was no learning either. That was not the case with Miami Device.

So, what made Miami Device different? Here are just some of the things that stood out to me...

1) Most of the keynote presenters were in attendance for the whole conference and not only did they facilitate individual sessions on top of the keynote, but they also attended other people's sessions to offer their insight, participate and learn. For example, right after his opening keynote, Adam Bellow facilitated a bunch of sessions but also attended some; in fact, George Couros (another keynote) attended one of Adam's sessions and offered some powerful perspectives to consider... such as the difference between professional development and professional learning. That was awesome to watch and I have been to dozens of conferences over the last couple of years and have rarely, if ever, seen the keynotes be so actively engaged in the learning throughout the conference!

2) There was a great variety of sessions. Although many of the sessions had a tech focus or theme (it is Miami Device after all), there were also sessions that addressed broader pedagogical techniques and approaches. For example, I attended an amazing session on assessment with John Spencer that had almost nothing to do with technology but helped me think about how we can diversify the way we assess children at #Cantiague. I was also fortunate enough to co-facilitate a conversation on Telling Your School Story and Culture with my friend Todd Nesloney

3) The tech sessions were awesome and somewhat differentiated! So, if you were a tech expert of sorts, you could attend Adam Bellow's session on hacking the keynote experience where he went step by step on how to do some impressive things within Keynote. Or, if you were less techy, like me, there were also a bunch of amazing tech themed sessions that were a little easier to access like the one by Kyle Pace where we digged deeper into Google Drive and I learned about tools such as Pixlr Photo Editor and or the session with Tony Vincent where I learned about different tech resources to enhance the centers experience (i.e. - Shadow Puppet EDU app, EdPuzzle and Blendspace). Bottom line... the sessions were awesome!

4) There was lots of time for socializing throughout the learning event and guess what?? It wasn't all about taking selfies with people (even though a lot of that happened too)! Whether walking together from one learning space to another or sitting together for lunch or breakfast in the outdoor courtyard, the opportunities to socialize never stopped. This may seem like a byproduct of the physical setup of the conference but I know it was intentionally engineered that way by Felix so that the conversations and learning could continue beyond a session or keynote. What we know from research is that some of the most powerful learning happens through social interactions - people learn when they talk to other people. What was amazing to me at Miami Device was everyone's willingness to engage and share... it was like a pop-up community of practice where people easily fluctuated between expert and novice based on interest and experience. It was AWESOME! The best part was that I left that space with new life-long friends who will not only shape my professional learning but also my personal learning. That is a WIN/WIN in my book! 

5) The food at Miami Device was AMAZING! Yes, I like to eat so the food is important too and most times, food at conferences is blah, at best. Well, whether it was the paella on day two or the buffet on day one, the food was AWESOME at Miami Device (thank you Felix)! Of course, we also had time to explore Coconut Grove and Miami Beach at night and thanks to the recommendation of a friend (thank you Ross) my colleagues and I had the best pizza EVER at Lucali - a must stop if you are ever visiting Miami!

6) Every person I met was excited to be there and wanted to be there! Whether it was Tanya, Rebecca, Carl, George, Paige, Tracy, Rich, Katrina or Rodney, EVERYONE wanted to be there! Aside from EdCamps, this is something that is usually missing from education conferences and I can say that it was a game changer here. Yes, people had fun and there was plenty of eating, dancing and even some delicious beverages but almost every exchange was rooted in learning so that we could enhance our craft and be better for our students. From my vantage point, that was the most awesome part of the experience!

So, now that I am home and have had some time away from the Miami Device experience, there is one thing I am certain of... if it's possible, I will be going back to Miami Device in 2017! With that being said, this blog post is intended to inspire others because I think what Felix accomplished at Miami Device can be replicated by other educational organizations (just reach out to Felix). If we can replicate the Miami Device experience throughout the country, then something amazing might happen... we will put learning at the center of our profession and take control of our own professional development. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015


"...and the two faggots next door..." screamed our next door neighbor while on the phone with someone. At that moment she was explaining why none of her neighbors could help her with a problem she was having at home. Unfortunately, instead of referring to us as her neighbors she resorted to this pejorative term to express her disgust about our sexual orientation and more importantly, to amplify her ignorance. Fortunately Paul and I weren't home to hear her but my partner was there and he heard the words loudly and clearly and we realized that we live next door to a bigot... at least the one bigot we are aware of because of her outspoken nature.

Yes, it is 2015 in the state of New York (generally considered a liberal state) but hate, prejudice and judgement are still rampant. The sad part is that we know it's not just the adults around us who say these things - our students/children use the words "faggot" and "gay" on a regular basis to communicate disapproval or disgust towards someone or something. I have heard children use these words with my own ears and although I generally seize the opportunity to educate the child about why these words shouldn't be used in that way, these isolated incidents are symptomatic of a bigger problem. From my vantage point, the consistent use of the word "gay" as a pejorative term within our classrooms is indicative of the deep rooted hate and ignorance that not only plagues our schools but our country as a whole (yes, I think our school system generally perpetuates the marginalization of certain groups based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation). 

Is this reality sad in 2015? I would say, yes. Is this reality "wrong?" I would argue, yes. But, acknowledging it as sad or wrong isn't enough anymore. We can no longer address isolated incidents of hate and ignorance - the time has come for us to be more intentional about the work we are doing to educate our children. The time has come for us to be more thoughtful about the conversations we are having in our classrooms, especially when it comes to the word gay because of the negative connotation it carries for most people - even if the person saying the word is "just kidding," it is still wrong. If we want to stop hearing words like faggot or gay used in a negative way (along with the dozens of other words associated with marginalized people) we must educate our children from a young age. We cannot wait until they are in middle school or high school to correct their mistakes or raise their awareness. We must start at the elementary level, and even younger ages, so we can build on the children's naturally kind and accepting disposition and give them the knowledge, information and awareness they need so they can navigate life in an empathetic, informed and empowered way. In my mind, that is the key... teaching our children to be empathetic and understanding of those around them - especially those who have been marginalized. 

Yes, this is incredibly personal to me. I don't want to be worried about holding my partner's hand in public because of something someone might say or do. Yes, this is incredibly personal for me because I don't want my son to be embarrassed or afraid of telling people that he spent time with his dad and his dad's partner. Yes, this is incredibly personal for me because I can't stand by any longer allowing words like faggot to be used without regard for those on the other end. The time has come for change through education. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Listen To Kids

Making The Time To Listen... 

Yesterday I had the opportunity to enjoy my lunch with a bunch of #Cantiague munchkins - some 2nd and 4th graders - and I can honestly say that it was the highlight of my day. Normally I don't get to eat my lunch sitting down so today was a treat for more than one reason. These kids won a raffle at Homecoming two weeks ago and the prize was lunch with me. I don't know that I would have considered lunch with my principal a "prize" when I was in elementary school but these kids sure did and they were super excited to hang out with me. So, after we all got our lunches, we got comfortable in the conference room where we ate our lunches while we chatted it up. I heard about their weekends, which included some funny Halloween stories, different family functions and collective sadness over the losses of the Mets, Jets, Giants and Islanders - clearly not a great weekend for NY sports teams.

Our Kids Have A LOT To Say... 

Although there were lots of laughs and stories exchanged, the discussion went far beyond our favorite TV shows or most annoying sibling (yup, that came up too). At some point we started talking about school and the experiences they were having as learners in the building. The insights and perspectives they shared were awesome and so informative for me as an educator in the building. I couldn't help but think, I need to do this every day - just sit and listen to kids because they know what is working and what needs to change.

Lunch Takeaways...

  • For example, they shared with me how much they love physical education, probably their favorite special, and how they appreciate that one of our physical education teachers is a little more structured while the other is not as much. They explained that they need this balance because it makes time in the gym fun but safe. WOW! 

  • They also shared with me how much they love the new library experience (new furniture and new teacher). They explained how the furniture makes them so much more comfortable while exploring the books - WOW - and that the new teacher has shifted the focus to add more technology - yes, they realized this intentional shift.
  • They even shared that although they loved our former librarian, the new one has taught them a lot about how to use technology, and specifically databases, to learn. WOW! 

  • The conversations went on and I learned a lot about what we could be doing better, what we are doing well and what the students love most! I was also reminded about the importance of accessing student voice, on a regular basis, and how this must become the norm, not the exception... even at the elementary level! With that being said, listening to our students is not enough - we must act on their ideas and empower them so they understand that they have a say in what happens within our school. 

Student Voice: Should Be Heard & Acted Upon...

In the end, what I know from my experience is that the educators in a building literally make thousands of decisions a day that we believe are in the best interest of our children. I think that for the most part we are successful with these decisions and we work hard to give our students what they need regardless of readiness levels. With that being said, we cannot forget the importance of including student voices in the decisions we make, especially in the ones that will have a direct impact on them and their learning (read this piece from Johns Hopkins about giving students voice or this research from the Gates foundation about listening to students). 

Our students have important insights and valuable perspectives and from my vantage point, they are our most important "clients" so listening to our kids (and acting on their ideas) should be a priority for us as educators. So, we may have to get comfortable with relinquishing some of the control but the end result will be amplifying student voice and empowering students to have a say in the future of their school and their learning. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Observations Aren't Enough

Although I have been an elementary school principal for almost ten years it didn't occur to me until recently that formal classroom observations and informal walk-throughs of classrooms aren't enough to provide us with a complete picture of what is happening in our schools... we must also be engaging in conversations too! 

My Pitfalls

You see, what I have come to understand is that the formal observations and informal walk-throughs have led me to certain pitfalls. Either I am making assumptions that everything is great based on a snapshot; or I am trying to generalize what I watched over a 40 minute period to make broad stroke statements about the whole year; or I am overreacting to something I saw; I start to think that certain teachers only eat snack and pack up. But that is not the reality. That is not the complete picture because observations are not enough. 

Not Just Any Talking

I know this sounds like a no brainer and many would argue that they engage in a lot of conversations on a daily basis but, I am not talking about exchanging pleasantries or chatting in passing. I am not even talking about visiting classrooms and watching what is going on for a few minutes and then offering some feedback. Yes, those conversations and exchanges are important but they are not enough. We, as the educational leaders in the space, need to spend more time talking with those around us than just talking in passing or after an observation. In fact, we need to be talking and sharing with intentionality. Observations, pre-observations and post-observation conferences are not enough.   

Intentional Conversations

I am referring to setting aside "sacred" time to talk about learning. I am referring to the importance of scheduling time to discuss the instructional practices that are unfolding within our classrooms. I am referring to discussing the readiness levels of our students and what we are doing to best meet their needs. Up until this year it never occurred to me how important it was to set up this time to meet with our teachers and just talk without distractions. Just talk about learning. Just talk about teaching. Just talk about the successes and failures within our schools. Just talk... but with focus and intentionality. 

Literacy Check-Ins

At the start of the school year we bought each classroom teacher a set of the new Teacher's College Reading and Writing Units of Study and although we are not officially a TC school, we were offering our teachers PD opportunities with the amazing JoEllen McCarthy. These PD opportunities and new resources have led to a shift in the instructional practices unfolding in our classrooms, which has been impressive but, as we know, any shifts present their own challenges and concerns. So, in an effort to better support our teachers, I scheduled 30 minute "Literacy Check-In Meetings" with each grade level at the end of September just to talk, share and check in to see how the literacy learning was unfolding in our school. I set a timer at the beginning of the meeting, which took place during a common prep time, because I wanted to keep the discussions to 30 minutes and wanted to be respectful of our teachers' valuable time. As we kicked off the meeting, I took on the role of facilitator and recorder and set up a Google Doc for each grade level to track our thoughts. I started the meetings by asking each team how they were doing, what they were trying and how it was going... and then I did less talking and more listening.  

The Bottom Line

Well, the flow of conversation and exchange of ideas that ensued during these literacy check-in meetings was awesome to observe and even better to participate in. I learned so much about our students and teachers from these conversations. For example, I learned that what TC suggested takes one day, takes us about 3 or 4 days. I learned that our teachers really know our kids and their readiness levels and that serves as the impetus for every instructional decision. I learned that our teachers do a lot of self-assessing and engage the students in a lot of self-assessment. I learned that student voice matters at Cantiague as we develop lifelong readers and authors. I learned that our teachers are really thoughtful about the work they challenge our students to complete within the reading and writing workshop experiences. 

The list can go on and on but the point is, I learned so much from these conversations about what was going on in our school that for the first time ever, I felt like I was getting a more complete picture of what our teachers were doing and why they were making certain choices! It also helped me realize that observations aren't enough... we need to be intentional about our work and as a result, we need to spend time facilitating conversations because talking (and more importantly listening) is not only enlightening but it can help us fill in the picture of what is going on in our buildings and help us best meet the needs of our learners.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

YouTube: Informational Text Hotbed?

A couple of years ago when I wanted to learn how to tie a bowtie, the first thing I did was go to YouTube and watched this video. Within fifteen minutes I was able to tie my own bowtie - mission accomplished and Bow Tie Tuesday was no longer out of my reach.  

Of course, the truth is, I never would have considered YouTube as the right place for research if it weren't for my son, Paul. Paul is a YouTube fanatic (I would argue that he is slightly obsessed) and basically all the information he consumes comes from YouTube. Whether he is watching his favorite #MineCraft channel (Pat & Jen Popular MMOs) or doing research on drones for his science class (he watched this video by Mocomi Kids), Paul does not go to Google to find something out - he goes to YouTube! YouTube is this generation's Google - with over 75 hours of video content being uploaded every minute to YouTube it is a primary source of information for our youngest generation. 

The more and more I started thinking about the notion of YouTube being the go to "search" engine for our children, the more and more I started considering the ways we could harness the power of YouTube within the classroom to engage our learners on a different level. Sure, we can show video clips from YouTube, that is one way to use the resource in the classroom for educational purposes... but what if we challenged students to think more critically about the videos that they are actively consuming? What if we challenged students to consider the various features of the videos they are watching and how those features impact the quality of the video and the delivery of the information? What if we asked our students to rate different videos based on how much they learned? This is something I think we need to seriously consider in our schools because integrating YouTube videos within the curriculum may not only engage students in a different way but will also be a direct link to their "real worlds." Our children and students are spending a lot of time on YouTube so why not educate them about how to critically consume the information they are exposed to within that context? Why not bridge the gap between what they are doing outside of school with what they are learning to do within the walls of our schools?

With the integration of the Common Core State Standards (regardless of how we might feel about them) and the emphasis on 21st Century Skills, I have thought a lot about promoting critical thinking skills in our students and I think this is another way to make that happen. The first thing that comes to mind is the nonfiction work our children do in school. They read nonfiction, write nonfiction and sometimes write about the nonfiction they are reading. They explore expository texts, directions/recipes and informational texts. What if we broaden the lens of what we consider an informational text? Could we work YouTube videos into that unit of study and push our students to analyze the features of this type of "text"? We know that informational texts are intended to inform the reader about the natural or social world and the more and more I think about the videos our children are watching on YouTube, the more I think we are missing a powerful instructional opportunity. 

So, although I'm not sure if YouTube is a hotbed of informational texts, I am sure that we can use appropriate videos from this site to teach our children how to be stronger critical consumers of information and at the same time, hook an entire portion of our student body that we have missed in the past.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Don't Worry, Be Happy

This week, I am honored to have two amazing educators wrote a guest post for my blog! I have the opportunity to work with this awesome team each and every day - Allison and Marissa, otherwise known as the Levlons here at #Cantiague! They are our 5th grade co-teachers and they wrote a piece about the ways they go about creating a happy classroom in honor of our #YearOfHappy! I think this is a MUST read for all educators...

Perhaps Winnie the Pooh said it best when he stated, “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.” 

Dr. Sinanis has declared the 2015-1016 school year, #yearofhappy. We have been thinking a lot about this phenomenon and realized some important things about what motivates our students, what motivates us, and about our classroom environment in general. It is really quite simple. Kids perform better when they are happy. If they look forward to coming to school, have positive learning experiences while they are here, feel connected to their teachers and peers, and leave each day with a smile, they WILL be more successful. They are more open to learning, they are motivated to succeed, and their confidence soars. After all, don’t you perform better when you are happy? 

So now that we know happiness promotes success, how do we make it happen? Let’s begin with our morning meeting. The Levlon morning meeting has been compared to the Kelly and Michael show (LOL). We bring humor to the meeting, engage our audience, and make sure student voice is heard and valued. Each day our students look forward to this casual and comfortable experience. A benefit to co-teaching is that we are able to model positive social interactions all day every day. The Levlons take this opportunity to model compassion, kindness, and humor. We are constantly laughing at ourselves, and WITH each other and our students. 

We also work hard to create a safe and happy environment for our kids. We often refer to math instruction in our classroom as “group therapy,” which lets our students know that we are “all in it together.” They feel comfortable making mistakes, and this motivates them to try harder, and enables them to be more successful than they believed they were capable of. 

Our students also really enjoy our daily read aloud. After lunch is a sacred time in our classroom where we read books to our kids strictly for enjoyment. There is no mini lesson attached or hidden agenda. We simply read to read! We choose relevant books that we know the kids will relate to, connect with, and enjoy hearing. During these read alouds, we laugh together, cry together, and definitely grow together. 

Another happy time in room 26 is Genius Hour. This is a time each week, where the kids can explore their passions and interests. It enables EVERY child to be successful and feel good about what they’re working on. We all look forward to this special weekly experience. 

Most importantly, throughout each day we talk to our students. Not just about what we are learning in Social Studies or Reading Workshop, but about what’s going on in their lives. We make connections with them and follow up with them about how things are going. We’ll ask how a new soccer team is working out, or if they received that special robot for their birthday. We also share information about our lives; our kids and our weekends. It’s not a surprise when our students follow up and ask us about what’s going on in our lives as well. We care about each other and respect each other as individuals. 

So, if you ask us what makes our kids so happy, we can list a whole bunch of activities and experiences that occur in our classroom on a daily basis. We believe it really boils down to the way we treat our kids. We make every decision with their best interest at heart (and they know it!). We listen to them and empower them. We hug them and love them. The best part is that in return, our kids love us back and add so much joy to our lives. We come to work HAPPY every day and we are motivated to be the BEST we can be for our kids!

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Curse

Being a school principal can make me feel like I have the curse. That’s right - I said it - being a principal can be a curse… especially when you also happen to be a parent.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job. In fact, I think I have the best job ever - I get to hang out with amazing kids, educators and families every single day and have fun at the same time. I get to greet kids in the morning as they enter our building with music blasting over the PA (a new thing we started this year thanks to a suggestion from Lisa, a reading teacher in our school); I get to sit on the rug during whole class meetings/lessons and see things through the eyes of my kids; I get to watch passionate educators try innovative instructional techniques to best meet the needs of kids. Is it always sunshine, roses and rainbows? No but it is pretty awesome the majority of the time and as great as that is, it also makes other aspects of my world a lot more complicated and difficult - especially when it comes to parenting.

I have heard some educators who are also parents refer to this phenomenon as the curse… the curse of looking at things through your parent eyes as an educator. No matter how hard I try, when it comes to Paul and his educational experience, I can’t separate the parent from the educator and invariably I compare what I see in Paul’s school to what I see unfolding in our school and that can be tough at times. I am not saying that our school is better or that his school is inferior but what I do know is that I am often thinking things like… Oh, we don't do things that way at our school… or… If Paul was a student at Cantiague we would have done this to best meet his needs as a learner… or sometimes I am just left scratching my head and asking WHY?

For example, Paul recently started middle school and they were having their Meet The Teacher Night event, which started at about 5:30pm on the fourth day of school (after a four day weekend). Unfortunately, according to Paul, they did not send home a notice about the event until the day it was taking place. I am not sure if this is how most schools conduct business but I kept thinking that this type of communication alienated some families and that is not how I am used to doing business as an educator. How would the working parent even find out about the event if they didn’t get home until after it actually started? How would the single parent arrange child care with such short notice (granted, a middle schooler could probably stay home alone)? How would the parent who didn’t speak English be able to arrange for a translator to join them with only hours notice? The questions went on and on and ultimately I found myself judging the school for how they handled everything because I was comparing it to our Meet The Teacher Night event at Cantiague. Even though I felt like I could offer the school some feedback on how they could have tried things differently I didn’t want to be THAT parent… the educator parent who thinks they know better. Hence the curse… you can see things from both sides but you can’t always affect the same type of change as a parent as you do as an educator because you don’t want to be THAT parent… the educator parent who thinks they know better.

This has never been more difficult for me than it has been over the last few weeks. And to be honest, it has been incredibly frustrating because for the first time I felt like the fact that I was a school principal was a curse… I wish I knew less… I wish I was uninformed… I wish I could just assume my son’s school was doing its best and move on… Ignorance is bliss, right? Well, it’s too late for all that because I know too much - I have been an educator for 20 years and I have seen a lot in that time. So, I am going to try hard not to get frustrated moving forward; instead, I have made the following decisions about how to manage being a parent who sees things as an educator first…

  1. I am going to be THAT parent when necessary and advocate for my son if his needs as a learner are not being met because I want him to have access to the best educational experience possible;

  1. I am going to support Paul at home as a parent… help him with his HW when appropriate… discuss books with him when possible… push his thinking when necessary… offer him feedback on his writing to help enhance his craft. I am going to do my best to support the efforts of his school;

  1. I am going to support Paul in his efforts to advocate for himself and to express himself if he feels an injustice has occurred;

  1. If I feel like Paul’s school should have handled something differently, I am going to offer my feedback… not all the time but when I think it could be helpful to the entire school community;

  1. I am going to learn from Paul’s school… I am going to try and replicate the awesome things I see (I am hoping there are many of these opportunities this year) and I am going to make a list of what not to do at Cantiague based on things that I would have handled differently.  

Although I am sure I will add to this list as the year unfolds, I am going to embrace the fact that being a parent and educator isn’t necessarily a curse; instead, it is going to be treated as an opportunity!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On The Carpet

This post is co-written with Adam Welcome who is Principal at Montair Elementary School in Danville, CA.

As the educators in a school building, it is often easy to focus on the adult issues and needs within the community because that is the lens we use to look at things on a regular basis. Are our kids at the center of what we do? Yes. But, are we really looking at things through the eyes of our children? Are we getting down to their level (literally) and looking at things as they see them so we can better understand and appreciate their needs? Do we know what they see? What they feel? If not, then the time has come for us to refocus our lens and reconnect with our kids… possibly by getting on the carpet!  

How do you connect with kids? How do you get to know your staff? Building relationships with students and adults (teachers, aides, custodians, secretaries, etc.) on your site is paramount.

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First off, visit classrooms every single day (assuming you are in the building) and have your finger on the pulse of what’s happening. You can’t support teachers in their work and students in their learning from your office while responding to email. You must be present and that starts with classroom visits. With that being said, visiting classrooms is the first step - a critical one - but just the first one!

Step two involves understanding the difference between being visible and being engaged as educational leaders. Just walking in and out of classrooms to be seen without much interaction does not contribute to the building of relationships - does it make you visible? Sure… on some level. Does it make you an engaged leader who is advocating for the needs of your students and staff based on what you learn from seeing healthy relationships rooted in respect and trust? No because just being visible isn’t enough to really connect with kids and staff!  

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We need to ask questions; we need to listen to what is happening; we need to be engaged; we need to connect; we need to offer feedback and not in a judgemental/evaluatory way… no, no, no - that is not going to work. We just need to connect and build those relationships and the healthiest way to do that is to be present, to be visible, to be engaged and to be a good listener. Stronger relationships will take the work deeper and farther in the long run, investestment now pays huge dividends later!

Have you ever had that Principal that stood in the back of the room with a clipboard? Didn’t talk with anyone, wrote notes down furiously and then left the room? That’s not the best way move a school forward and build an innovative mindset. Leaders must be on the ground floor of their school, hanging on the carpet with kids is the place to be. There really is no better vantage point than that of the children. We see what they see; we hear what they hear; we feel what they feel; and most importantly, we understand what they need and what they get as learners. Ultimately, that is our job - to be the person who removes the roadblocks and helps the students and staff best meet their needs by providing them access.

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Don’t be that disconnected evaluator in the back of the room with the clipboard! We are not dealing with factories, conveyor belts and widgets… we are dealing with learners and teachers… we are dealing with people who are looking to learn and grow… we are dealing with our community who needs to trust us as the educational leaders who are seeing and understanding things through their eyes!

Be that leader with your smartphone in hand, taking photos of students in action. Tweet those moments to share with your community and make each day at school open house. Flatten the walls of your school and create high levels of transparency between the school and the surrounding community! When parents see you engaged, see you on the ground floor connecting with kids on the carpet, they can see how much you care and how your focus is on the children. A stronger community with everyone on the same page sharing a common vision, is a more powerful team for our kids.

If not us, then who? If not now, then when? The leader of a school must innovate, bring new ideas, modeling that learning comes first, see where the gaps are, fill those gaps with solutions and move the team forward.

Henry Ford revolutionized the automobile industry in the early 1900s! By being involved, being hands-on, being innovate, not listening to the naysayers, by breaking away from the mold and building his own road. Henry Ford was on the ground floor of his production line, his hands were dirty, he communicated with his employees, and he built a massive enterprise. He wasn’t sitting in his office disconnected, he was the change, he made the change, he was on the “carpet” connecting with people and igniting the change!

Check out the new #principalsinaction hashtag happening on Friday’s. Leaders from around the country will be Tweeting and sharing what they do at school! Be on the ground floor, be engaged, be involved in teaching/learning and watch your school grow!

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