Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: Year That Changed The Game

I can hardly remember what my professional life (and personal life for that matter) was like a year ago... before I joined Twitter... before I started blogging... before I started my doctorate at Penn... before we were named a 2012 National Blue Ribbon School... before I started being pushed so far out of comfort zone that being uncomfortable has become the new norm!

2012 has been an incredible year for me in terms of my professional development and growth as an educator, lead learner and administrator and I owe a huge thanks to the PLN I have developed on Twitter for that change! I am so glad I overcame my initial fears and concerns about participating in the world of Social Media (you know the concerns - that Twitter was only a place to find out whether or not Rihanna was hanging out with Chris Brown again or whether Jessica Simpson was pregnant again)! Twitter is literally the BEST Professional Development experience any educator could ask for because it can be personalized, it can happen whenever and wherever and it is FREE!! What can be better than that? Do you want to watch an episode of Modern Family and participate in some PD at the same time? Twitter lets you do that! Do you want help deciding if 1:1 tablet implementation at the elementary level makes sense? Twitter lets you do that! Do you want to share the successes and/or struggles you are experiencing in your professional world in the hopes that someone will offer you perspective and support when necessary? Twitter lets you do that!

I will always be grateful to the people who have opened my eyes to the power of Twitter... Eric Sheninger, whose feature in Scholastic magazine pushed me to at least dip my toe in the shallow end of the pool known as the Twitterverse... Joe Mazza, whose weekly #ptchat on Wednesdays at 9pm has given me an abundance of ideas on how to strengthen the home/school connection; I am also honored to call Joe a friend in "real life" as we are both lead learners at the elementary level and are in the same doctoral program at Penn... Jessica Johnson whose staff blog has inspired me to start my own staff blog and who helps facilitate the weekly #educoach chat (with Shira and Kathy) every Wednesday, which is a weekly reminder that coaching is a critical part of leading; Jessica also shares an interest in Bucket Filling and I had a chance to record my first ever Podcast because of her connection with Jeff Bradbury and the awesome TeacherCast resource... then there is Todd Whitaker who is a ROCK STAR in my eyes as an instructional leader because his books and tweets inspire me to be a better and more effective leader! Then there is the awesome #satchat crew - Scott Rocco, Brad Currie and Bill Krakower - who help me kick off the weekend (7:30am EST on Saturdays) with an invigorating conversation that gets me excited about my role as the lead learner/principal of Cantiague Elementary School... then there are tweet-extraordinaires Steven Anderson, George Couros, Nicholas Provenzano and Vicki Davis who have taught me so much about Edtech and the endless possibilities of how technology should and could be infused into every learning experience; Tom Whitby and Peter DeWitt were major inspirations for me to start blogging; Jerry Blumengarten who has an endless amount of incredible resources on his website - DEFINITELY check it out! This list could seriously go on forever but I think you get the idea... Twitter has helped me grow because of the Connected Educators who are willing to share and help push me even further out of my comfort zone on a daily basis... THANK YOU ALL!

Twitter was just the beginning though - I have learned so many other things through the Twitterverse that have literally changed the way that I function on a daily basis...

  • I have learned about Zite, which has literally changed the way I start my day! I cannot begin getting ready for the day if I don't spend time reading through the blogs, posts and articles organized by Zite for me! (Eric taught me about this one at ASCD 2012!!)
  • I have learned about Google Docs (and many other Google components) that have shown me different ways to harness and focus the power of collaboration - what an amazing (and FREE) resource!! I have already created an account and started checking things out!
  • I have learned about Evernote, which has literally changed my professional life! It is an incredible app that allows me to type up stuff, take pictures, etc. and access the material from any device where I have downloaded the app because of the way it syncs! So, while doing walkthroughs each day in the building, I walk around with my iPad and take notes using Evernote and then when I get home at night those notes are on my laptop, which makes my life so much easier when offering specific praise or feedback! I love Evernote so much that I wrote a whole post about it and how it can be used to successfully support literacy instruction!
  • I have learned about Diigo, which is such an amazing tool whose potential I haven't even fully realized yet! Basically, it allows me to visit different websites, read through them, make notes or highlight parts of the text and then bookmark it to my diigo account so I can access it later! And, I can access Diigo from any computer so all my bookmarks travel with me - AMAZING! (By the way, also LOVE using Symbaloo for this purpose too - so cool!!)

This list could also go on FOREVER because I am literally learning new and exciting things each and EVERY day... I learned how to create a QR Code (so EASY), how to make music online using UJAM, how to use AppShed to create my own app (slightly tough but totally doable with some time and effort - well worth it!!), and most importantly, I started my own BLOG which makes me feel empowered and has allowed me a whole other outlet for my ideas, successes, failures and passions as they relate to the world of education! It has given me a voice and audience that I never thought imaginable and for that, I will always be grateful!

Needless to say, 2012 has been a crazy busy year (didn't even touch on the Blue Ribbon or doctoral program because those deserve their own posts) but most importantly, it has been the year of growth; the year of empowerment; the year where I took control of my own professional development; the year where I become a Connected Educator; the year that changed the game!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Tragedy: Reaching Out to Parents

After the events that unfolded on Friday in Connecticut, those of us in leadership positions within the world of education must maintain an open line of communication between school and home. This communication is key to ensuring that our children feel safe and secure in school and that they know their parents and teachers are in constant communication. Below is an excerpt from an email that I sent to parents this morning in preparation for tomorrow morning and the children returning to school.

Good morning! We hope this email finds you all doing well on this Sunday morning. We can imagine that it has been a difficult weekend for all of us in light of the events that unfolded on Friday in Newton, CT at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Although we are all aware of the lives lost in this unfathomable tragedy, we should also try and find hope and strength in the stories about the heroes in the community during this difficult time – the teachers who protected the lives of the other 580 students and 70 or so staff members in that building so that they were able to escape; the emergency responders who risked their lives to save as many people as possible; and the neighbors who came together as a community in Newtown to help sustain each other and begin the healing process.

In this time of devastation, there are also the glimmers of hope, strength and perseverance. It is with these characteristics that we will greet the children tomorrow morning as they come back to Cantiague. We will maintain normalcy, lead the day with strength and offer the children support and hope as they need it. We will try and keep the discussions at a minimum about the tragedy in CT in the hopes that many parents have already spoken to their children about this event. In case anyone feels they need more ideas on how to discuss the tragedy, we have amassed some additional websites that offer suggestions, tips and ideas for speaking with children…

We wish you all a wonderful rest of the weekend and please know that our main priority each and every day at Cantiague is to keep the children safe, happy and feeling secure. Please feel free to email us if you have any questions or concerns.

Feel free to use any or all of this email for communication with your parents. Strong and constant communication between home and school is paramount in any successful learning community.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Glass Walls

As lead learners, administrators and educators, it is our responsibility to transform the thick brick barriers surrounding our school buildings into clear, transparent walls of glass! We should want our community to see all the amazing things happening in school and we should want our children to have a strong connection with the community around them. A positive and productive home/school connection, rooted in strong two-way communication, is critical to the success of all of our students and the school in general. In this day and age of Common Core Standards, APPR, SLOs and the standardized testing craze that has consumed our schools, we cannot lose sight of what matters most and why we entered the world of education - to make a difference in the lives of children. Together, with the families of our students, we must collaborate to help our children learn, grow and develop the skills they need to be successful adults who contribute positively to the world!

Based on various conversations I have had with several other educators, the communication between home and school seems to be inconsistent at best. In some cases parents get a newsletter once a month (by the way, it is hard to talk to your child about something they did weeks ago so try and be more current and timely); while in other settings, parents have to rely on interrogating their child to find out a little bit about what is happening in school. I really don't understand how this is possible in 2012! Why do we work so hard to keep everything hidden in our classrooms? In our schools? Why not share all of the amazing things happening in our spaces with the parents and community? Why not spotlight the successes (and challenges) that our children are experiencing each day at school? I don't know about everyone else, but as a parent, I want nothing more than to know what my son is learning about in school and how he feels about his learning experiences and about himself as a learner. And as an educator, one of the highlights of my day is sharing all of the awesome stuff happening in our building - whether through an email to parents, Tweets throughout the day or a blog post, I want the entire community to know that incredible things are happening in our school every minute of the day. Here is an excerpt of an email that I sent home to the entire parent community late last week...

Good afternoon – we hope this email finds you all doing well and that everyone is having a wonderful week. The children had a busy day today and were thrilled to get outside for outdoor recess on this fall-like day. Aside from the lunch and recess experience, the day provided for some important and meaningful learning opportunities. Here is a glimpse into some of the exciting things our children have been working on this week…

·        Our kindergarteners were engaged in some great writing during their Writing Workshop experience. They are currently immersed in a study of nonfiction writing that focuses on Lists and Labels and today they created their own pieces where they wrote a Wish List- they were so engaged the whole time!
·        Our first graders continue their journey with Functional Writing as part of their Writer’s Workshop experience by examining different artifacts and concrete examples of Functional Writing as they build schema and background knowledge.
·        Our second graders recently explored the seeds of different fruits and vegetables in the Science Room as part of their science unit of study. The children were excited to take apart lemons, peppers and tomatoes as they searched for their seeds and categorized them – it was a lot of fun!
·        Our third graders have been doing a lot of wonderful work in Reading Workshop as they explore the idea of questioning and wondering to help build comprehension while reading independently. The study has taken a sophisticated turn as the children are exploring the differences between “thick” (complex) and “thin” (basic) questions!
·        Our fourth graders continue their studies in mathematics where they are problem solving with an emphasis on multiplication with multi-digit numbers. The children have learned the traditional algorithm but have also been exposed to the idea of partial products as a way to build their conceptual understandings.
·        Finally, our fifth graders continue their study of Italian as part of the FLES experience. The children have been involved in some improvisational conversations in Italian and the results are awesome!

But, don't stop here because there are a bunch of other things you can be doing to communicate with the families of your students and help create glass walls throughout the building. Here are some more suggestions...

1) Pick up the phone and tell a parent how wonderful their child is and how happy you are to have her/him in your class or school;

2) Take a picture of a child during a critical and successful learning experience and email it to the parents as soon as possible (preferably before the child gets home) so that the parents have a talking point and feel directly connected to the learning in school;

3) Create a professional Twitter account and use it to communicate what is happening in your learning space. Be proud of what you're doing and show it off - in 140 characters or less! You should create the account and monitor it but let the kids do the Tweeting! Maybe the day can end a couple of minutes earlier than normal and the children could be pulled into a circle on the rug for an end of day meeting where they could specifically discuss what they have learned, done and accomplished for the day, where they may even include their own personal reactions and Tweet them out!

4) Start a blog... either oversee it as the adult in the space or give the children complete control over the blog and let them communicate about what they have learned and what they are passionate and excited about moving forward. This could be AWESOME... critical thinking, collaboration, creating and then sharing with the world - what could be a better example of 21st Century Skills in action??

5) Create a Facebook page or Edmodo page as a way to extend the thinking, learning and collaborating beyond the school hours and the confines of the school building - there is a LOT of potential here so check it out!

6) SKYPE a parent or family member into the classroom so the children can interview them and find out about their role in the community (or something more general); the person SKYPing in can also ask the children specific questions about what they are learning!

7) Do a weekly or monthly newsletter (either online or one paper - whatever you prefer is fine with me) so that the parents know what is going on in the classroom - this is so important! If we want parents to support their child's learning and development, we have to let them know what their child is learning and how they are developing (at least from our perspective)!

8) Invite the parents and family members into the school and classroom as much as possible for various activities - math games, writing celebrations or PARP - whatever the case, make sure the parents feel welcome in the space where their child learns!

9) Send home a handwritten note commending the child on something positive they did on any given day - the idea of positive reinforcement is critical!

10) Establish an open door policy where parents feel comfortable coming in to see you - without transparent communication, we will not meet with success!

So, take a small step towards turning those brick walls surrounding our schools into walls of glass - our kids and community deserve this level of transparency!