Thursday, February 19, 2015

Dear Governor Cuomo

Dear Governor Cuomo,

My name is Tony Sinanis and I am a Lead Learner at Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, New York, which is a suburb of New York City. Over 400 students attend our school each day (our highest enrollment in the last seven years) and the one common trait most of our children share during their days at Cantiague is a smile. That's right sir, our children, for the most part, are happy to be at school because they are in a space where they feel safe, respected and valued (their words). Not valued like a test score because that would be completely demoralizing and dehumanizing; no, we value our students for the WHOLE child who attends our school each day. The mathematician, the musician, the only child, the author, the tech enthusiast, the Minecraft expert, the soccer star, the child who splits her time between two homes, the nurse helper, the professional developer (yes, our students have led a PD session for our staff), the reader, the child of immigrants, the student leader, and the list can go on and on. You see, we devote much of our time at Cantiague to getting to know our children and learning about their passions, interests and readiness levels. Do we address the Common Core State Standards? Yes. Do we prepare them for the high stakes testing each year? Yes. But we do not define our children by standards or test scores.... we define our children by what makes them an individual; by what excites and interests them; and by what inspires them. You see, we have made a collective decision as a staff to focus on these priorities because that is what we believe will make a child college, career and most importantly, LIFE ready! 

I have been an educator in public schools for almost twenty years - I spent eight years as a classroom teacher in the NYC public school system and in Hewlett; then I spent one year as an assistant principal in Valley Stream; and finally I have been an elementary principal for almost nine years in Valley Stream and now in Jericho. During my time in each one of those schools along my journey I have come to realize that we can train almost every child to pass a multiple choice test - trust me, I have seen it happen. We can turn around almost any school and address the achievement gap if we integrate scripted curriculum, "research based" programs and rely primarily on test preparation and benchmark testing - trust me, I have seen it happen. We can even push staff members with threats of accountability and consequences - trust me, I have seen it happen. In all of these instances though, what I haven't seen is sustainable change; I haven't seen a staff that stays in tact for years to see change "stick" for the long term; and I haven't seen children who are happy to come to school. In every one of these situations I have seen people (students, staff and administration) come to feel like widgets; interchangeable pieces in a "game" controlled by people outside of the schools. 

For the life of me, I cannot understand how we could let this happen - why do we want our children to be subjected to these types of situations? Is that what you want for your daughters? I highly doubt it because I know for sure that is not what I want for my son. Unfortunately, with your recent proposal to see state test scores account for 50 percent of an educator's evaluation I think more and more schools will look like the above. It will not be about what is best for children - in no way, shape or form! It will not be about what is best for a community - it might actually be the opposite! And it will not be about encouraging our educators to take risks with their own teaching and learning. Nope... the opposite will happen governor. We will stifle schools. We will stifle creativity. We will stifle passion. We will stifle risk taking. We will stifle innovation. We will stifle our children. And for what? Higher test scores? For more teachers being rated ineffective? Or are you just trying to annihilate public schools? Please, explain to me your rationale because I do not understand how your plan will help us promote college, career and LIFE ready kids.

With that in mind, please share with us how much time you have spent in public schools across the state of NY? Months? Weeks? Days? Or is it just hours? And based on these experiences do you know there is a "crisis" in our schools? Have you spoken to students about this crisis? Have you spoken to educators about this crisis? Have you spoken to families about this crisis? Or are you basing your call for action on recent test scores? If that is your sole data point for suggesting that high stakes tests carry even more weight then I think we are in big trouble. How about if we used a similar system to rate you? Let's say your popularity numbers dipped one month? Could we rate you as developing? Let's say that drop in score continued over the course of a year? Should you be removed from office because you were clearly ineffective based on that one data point? Does that seem fair or logical to you? Hmmmm... that doesn't sound like the best way to judge you on your performance and thus the suggestion that educators be judged in a similar fashion makes no sense to me. What research do you have that shows evaluating teachers based on how children perform on high stakes testing is an effective way to improve schools? Have we seen this work elsewhere? What research speaks to the positive impact of high stakes testing on children, their learning and their academic performance? Please share this with me because I have done some research and I don't see anything that says this model will be effective at improving schools and weeding out the "bad" teachers that you think are plaguing all our schools. 

From my perspective, as someone who only has twenty years experience as an educator, I have to believe there is a better way to assess us and to hold us accountable. Trust me, I am all for accountability because I can stand behind everything I do in our school because I believe it is in the best interest of children. Can you say the same? Can you stand behind 50 percent of an educator's evaluation coming from a single test taken by a child (in some cases children who are only 7 years old and have yet to master tying their own shoelaces)? Do you think placing more value on high stakes testing is in the best interest of our children? If so, please explain how because I don't see it. I watch our kids, staff members and families become increasingly anxious as we get closer to the state tests... and why? Because they are nervous about how they are going to perform and no matter how much I try and keep the temperature down in the building, the pressure mounts and becomes almost stifling. Is that what you want for your daughters? I can tell you that it is definitely not what I want for my son. 

The more I think about it, the more I have to believe you are being misguided in your attempts to reform schools. Someone, or some group of people, is giving you misinformation and leading you to believe that educators are the enemy. We are NOT the enemies! In fact, most of the educators I know try and help children develop and amplify their own voices; we try and be the advocates for our children; and we try and create a space where children feel safe, respected and valued. I think maybe you need to spend more time in schools before you try reforming them. Come to Cantiague - our doors will always be open for you because I want you to see the smiles for yourself. I want you to see the children who love coming to school because of outdoor recess; I want you to talk to the children who love coming to school because of our library and the independent reading time they get during the day; I want you to watch the children who get to explore their passions and interests during Genius Hour; I want you to interact with the children who see themselves as authors and have recently mastered Google Docs as a way to publish their work digitally and thus gain access to an audience that goes beyond the walls of the school; I want you to come to a school where we put kids first and we know that kids are much more than a number and test score. If you can't make it all the way down to Long Island then I am guessing you will pass dozens of schools along the way that have created similar environments for their children where it is understood that being able to answer a multiple choice question is not an indicator of college, career and LIFE readiness; no way! Go visit a school where children are given voice; where staff members take risks with their teaching and learning! Go visit a school where critical thinking, collaboration and questioning are at the center - not test prep or benchmark assessments. Go visit a school where children are smiling and use that as the model for reforming schools - not the value added model that has not been proven to work! Please Governor Cuomo, make our kids and their well-being the priority - don't let them fall victim to the business of high stakes testing!

Respectfully,

Tony Sinanis
Dad to an AWESOME 5th Grader
2014 New York State Elementary Principal of the Year 
Lead Learner at Cantiague Elementary School (2012 Blue Ribbon School) 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Learning In The Digital Age

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The principalship is like a fire.  People are drawn to it, look to it for light, and it can get a little hot!  Principals lead buildings, initiatives, create more leaders, and help to provide environments where everyone can be successful.  The heat and light given off tend to wane if that fire is not fed.  But where?  Principals are often the lone wolf in their building - they are isolated and often work within a silo.  There may be assistants, dean of students, or directors, but often only one principal.  Being the leader of a learning organization means modeling the learning.  The opportunity to connect virtually with others in the principal position has the potential to be invaluable to the growth of leaders, and subsequently, schools.  Becoming connected as a principal is a great way to model that learning.

When considering the role of the school principal it becomes clear that the position is no longer singular in focus - the school principal is expected to go way beyond the administrator who sits in the office all day pushing papers around. Among the many challenges facing principals today is maintaining the balance between addressing the administrative mandates while also meeting the demands of being transformative instructional leaders. The school principal went from being a program manager/administrator in the 1960s and 70s to today when principals are expected to be transformational leaders who bring about change within the entire school community by successfully addressing both instructional needs (instructional leader) and administrative expectations (administrator) (Hallinger, 1992). An effective transformational leader, according to Hallinger (2003), is one who possesses strong instructional leadership abilities and skills that can be shared with the entire community.

The expectation of being an effective transformational instructional leader, along with the need to seek out current and relevant professional development opportunities, have led me in a new direction: to Twitter and the thousands of other educators using that platform to connect, share, learn and grow. A socially networked online community, Twitter is one of the most popular social networking sites and is considered a form of micro blogging that encourages educators to tweet and share their thoughts, opinions and resources in 140 characters or less (Perez, 2012). As educators, we have experienced the power of Twitter firsthand over the last several years and this has led us to find out how principals may address their professional development needs by participating in this socially networked community. Twitter, like other social networking sites, functions as a social learning resource and space where educators can be exposed to a whole other type of discourse and literacy practice (Greenhow 2009). Jane Hart, a social media and learning consultant, has classified Twitter as a tool for personal and informal learning that goes beyond the confines of any building (Galgan, 2009). Learners can use Twitter to ask and answer each other’s questions and Twitter can in turn help support collaboration and deeper understanding (Galagan, 2009). Since information on educators using Twitter for learning and professional development is limited because it is relatively unchartered territory, we will be offering a guide about what systems need to be put in place to begin supporting the professional development of principals using platforms such as Twitter.

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Although one of our focal points will be Twitter, the bottom line is that we want to show that people, in this case specifically principals, can learn through social interactions and in the digital age, these are interactions no longer have to be inhibited by physical boundaries. So, check out our latest book, Principal Professional Development: Leading Learning in the Digital Age so you can take control of your own professional development and ensure that it is personalized to best meet your needs in your efforts to stay current and relevant in the 21st century!


Sunday, February 8, 2015

Tech Amplifies Student Voice

Recently I was honored to be asked to participate in Digital Learning Day , this year's theme is directly connected to the important #FutureReady effort being spearheaded by both the Alliance for Excellent Education and  the U.S. Department of Education. The emphasis at this event was to consider and share instructional practices that effectively used technology to strengthen a student's learning experiences. Although we have used technology in many ways to help strengthen a student's learning experiences at #Cantiague, the first thing that came to my mind was how we have used technology to amplify student voice and show the world what we stand for and what we believe in at our school. The idea of student voice is one that is important to us because we see our children as the center of all the teaching and learning... they are who we plan for, they are who we scaffold for independent success and they are who we advocate for each and every day. Thus, we know we must listen to  them to best understand their needs, passions and feelings about school. And so our journey began to use technology to give voice to our students - both directly and indirectly - with a rebirth of our vision statement and the integration of weekly video updates featuring our children as the school storytellers! 

Our vision statement, reborn... As educators, especially those of us in leadership positions, one of the first things we are asked to consider is the Vision Statement for our school. You know what I am talking about... that bulleted list of generic phrases and words trying to capture what the schooling experience will be like for children. Here is an example in case it's been a while since you looked at your own vision statement...

Our vision is that children leave school with: 

A set of values -- being honesty, being determined and being considerate of others. 

A set of basic skills -- literacy, mathematical, scientific, artistic and social. 

Strong self-esteem and developed self-confidence. 
Tolerance and respect for others.

We value the partnership which exists between school, families and our community in realizing this vision. 

WOW... those all sound like some pretty wonderful and important aspects in the development of a child. But, I have a bunch of questions and concerns...

  • Is there anything in that vision statement that makes identifiable to a specific school? (Sounds pretty generic)
  • What exactly does all the stuff described in the vision statement look like? 
  • Does the vision statement speak to a school being #FutureReady or the students being fluent in 21st Century skills needed to be successful in life? 
  • What does being determined look like? 
  • How do we teach children about their levels of self-confidence? 
  • What role do the students play in this vision aside from being on the receiving end? 
  • Is this vision happening to kids and the community or are all constituent groups actively part of the process? 

The list of questions could go on and on but you get the idea - what is the point of this vision statement and what does it really mean for a school community? This is something I had been struggling with for years at our school because I wasn't quite sure about the best way to capture and represent our vision statement, especially in thinking about the fact that we have dedicated ourselves to focusing on 21st Century skills both in our teaching and learning. Although 21st Century skills emphasize concepts such as critical thinking and collaboration, we also wanted to find a way to celebrate and recognize our dedicated efforts to meaningfully integrate technology into the teaching and learning experiences each day at #Cantiague. This had all proven to be a challenging task and the trajectory was rather unclear but eventually we decided to tackle the dreaded vision statement because we had finally achieved a group understanding of our vision and the direction we wanted to go with our vision!



from likeateam


So, at the start of last year, our Shared Decision Making Team was charged with this important task... re-write and re-create the Cantiague Elementary School Vision Statement. Our Shared Decision Making Team is comprised of six staff members, four parents, two students and me. We started by listing words that we felt best described Cantiague and the Cantiague experience. Generating that list (ended up being about 100 words and phrases) and then narrowing it down was quite a process that involved surveys, discussions, more surveys and follow-up discussion. It literally took us months to decide which words and phrases best captured the Cantiague experience for kids. After deciding on the words that best fit Cantiague (the students on the team really helped refine the list from their vantage point) we then shifted the conversation to what our vision statement should actually look like... will we generate that bulleted list? Maybe write it in a different way? Or go in a completely different direction and create a Wordle that would permanently be visible on our website. Although it was a great discussion, we had a tough time coming to a conclusion!

After a month of discussion on this topic, the team kept coming back to the idea of a video and how it might best capture the Cantiague experience and would allow us to actually show, with images, what the vision statement looks like in school. Well, thanks to the hard work of three team members - KatieCaseyLisa and the rest of the Shared Decision Making Team - the Cantiague Vision Statement went from an idea to a video reality. Check it out and please leave a comment below letting us know what you think about our vision and ask yourself, What does your vision statement say about your school and what role do your students play in that vision statement?    






#Cantiague Video Updates... our best effort to amplify student voice on a grand scale! At Cantiague, we started doing Weekly Video Updates last year where 6 or 7 students from each class do research about what’s happening on each grade level and then share those updates on camera. The children have two days to do their grade level research and then they join me for lunch on Wednesday or Thursday and we shoot the video. No class time is lost; the children decide what information is shared; and the community knows exactly what is happening in school in real time!

Let's face it, the children are the best storytellers and who better to share what’s happening in our schools than the people who are experiencing it first hand - our amazing kids! That is the power of student voice (#StuVoice). We have been shooting weekly video updates for almost two years and here 
are some helpful hints based on what we do at Cantiague…

Use whatever video platform that works best for you. We use the Touchcast app on my iPad, which is free and allows for 5 minute videos. The app also gives you the option to add in sound effects, pictures on the screen and other such video enhancing features.

After creating the video, we upload it to our YouTube channel. Although a YouTube channel is not a necessity, it does provide an online space to house your videos and allows for easy sharing with the entire community via an emailed link - again, not a must but something to consider! The great thing about YouTube is that it is linked to Google and you can set your channel so it is public or private, which is definitely important for the community to understand.

And after all that work, here is an example of the final product featuring the awesome kids of #Cantiague...



The time has come for all educators to dedicate themselves to being #FutureReady and find different ways to use technology to enhance and support student learning. We have used technology to amplify student voice... what are you doing with technology in your school?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Student Led PD


Our most recent Faculty Enhancement Opportunity (our version of Faculty Meetings known as the F.E.O.) at #Cantiague was an EPIC one because it featured some of the best professional development we've had all year. Professional development that included choice in sessions - everyone had the opportunity to choose between three different PD sessions where various apps were being featured and basic training was being offered. The choice of PD opportunities wasn't the best part, although it is pretty awesome to give educators choice and voice in their own learning and development. The most awesome part of the experience, at least through my lens, was that the providers of these professional development sessions were our kids. That's right... For the first time ever at #Cantiague our professional development was led by our students... thirteen fifth graders facilitated our staff learning by sharing various apps that they loved using and felt like experts in regards to application!




The idea of student led PD was one that I had been toying with for over a year because the idea of student voice (#StuVoice) is one that I place much value on. Our students are so bright and passionate and knowledgeable and well spoken that it seemed like a no brainer (in my eyes) to have them share their knowledge and expertise with our staff at some point. Unfortunately, it just never came together and I wasn't quite sure what they could "teach" the staff during a PD or F.E.O. session.




Then it hit me during a visit to one of our fifth grade classes. Rande Siper, the classroom teacher, had decided to launch a "Geek Squad" of sorts in her classroom where the students had an opportunity to teach others about various tech resources based on the fact that they had developed a level of expertise with those resources. GENIUS!! That was it... We had to tap into areas where our kids felt like experts and where the information was almost intuitive to them and what better way than some form of technology? Whether it is apps, websites or just different ways to use various mobile devices, our kids are digital natives and have experiences with technology that they could easily share with our staff to help us enhance our craft. Of course, it doesn't just start and end with technology - our kids have many areas of expertise that they could share with the staff to help us get better at our craft in our goal to facilitate meaningful teaching and learning. Our kids are amazing facilitators of learning when given the opportunity to teach... At least I thought so but wasn't sure until we actually provided them with a platform to spotlight their teaching skills. 




So, we finally made it happen this week. Thirteen fifth graders agreed to stay after school (thank you to their amazing families for giving them permission and supporting our staff PD) and work in small groups to spotlight the following six apps for our staff: Educreations, Sticky Notes, Bitmoji, iMovie, Haiku Deck and Near Pod. The children were given time in their classroom to prepare presentations and then had a chance to present to their classmates and refine their presentations. The groups were then paired up and assigned to a room so that each room featured two app presentations by two different groups (3 rooms in total). The staff then had a choice of which presentations they wanted to participate in and went to that room. The staff members were informed in advance about the apps that would be featured and were encouraged to download the apps of interest and bring their devices to the PD sessions so they could be more interactive. Then it finally happened... our kids facilitated their first ever PD sessions and the feedback thus far has been really good. One staff member said it was cute and informative while another said she learned a lot and was impressed by how confident and knowledgeable the children were during their presentations. Several staff members also asked if the students could visit their classrooms and help them teach their students about the resources. Even though I have not heard feedback from everyone at #Cantiague, the initial feedback has been positive and our staff was incredibly receptive and excited about our student led professional development. In fact, since I published this post earlier in the week, I received this email from a teacher truly capturing the essence of the experience...

-I thought it was awesome! I came home and told my family about it and how amazing it was to see the confidence and knowledge base that our children have to share.

- Our children clearly have a deep understanding about the "tools" that they are using. It is easy to say you know about something, but it is a whole other thing to be able to teach it to others.

-I also think of the trust and mutual respect shared by both our children and us. They felt comfortable enough to teach us and we felt that we could open our minds and let ourselves be taught by them.

- I also felt like it totally takes a village and like a super proud mom! The children that were presenting only 5 years ago were in our kindergarten classes. They didn't know their letters. They didn't know their sounds. They weren't able to write. And here they were today teaching us!


-Our students are truly amazing! They are smart, funny, confident, kind, flexible, enthusiastic and happy! 


In the end, I am not sure what the next student led professional development session might look like but one thing is for sure in my mind... our students should not only have voice in their own learning but their voices can be quite valuable in our own learning and professional development as educators!   

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!