Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bucket Filling Bonanza

Cantiague Elementary School has been a Bucket Filling School since 2008! After the Shared Decision Making Committee Meeting decided that the book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? would be the anchor for our school theme the following year things have exploded at our school. Although Bucket Filling was intended to be a one year theme, it has evolved into a philosophy and way of life at our school. Every child has read the anchor text during their time at Cantiague and each September we kick off the year with an assembly for each grade level where I read a picture book that supports or extends the Bucket Filling philosophy (see the picture below). Bucket Filling has become a way of life at Cantiague and as a result of being a Bucket Filling School we have seen an improvement in our students' self-esteem and a decrease in incidents of bullying and harassment. This way of life has provided us a common language that is simple enough for every child to understand yet powerful enough to convey a strong message. Additionally, as a result of being a Bucket Filling School here are some of the things that have happened in our school (first check out some pics & then read about the activities that have taken place)...

Our 2nd Graders writing about ways to be a Bucket Filler & avoid being a Bucket Dipper

Bulletin board in our Main Lobby that spotlights Bucket Filling & the Big Five

One of the banners we had made featuring the winning slogan from our contest

These posters hang up all over the school as a reminder

Displays like this are found in many of our classrooms as Bucket Filling is a way of life

This display is featured in our Library

One of our 2nd Graders included Being a Bucket Filler on his Heart Map for Writer's Workshop (upper center on the right side)

These are some of the books we have used to kick off each school year!

Some ideas we have implemented to further support the Bucket Filling way of life...

1) We implemented the Positive Behavior Referral Form (would be happy to share it with anyone who is interested) - each teacher in our building is given a bunch of these forms at the start of the year and they are encouraged to fill them out when they observe a child being a Bucket Filler (list of suggested things are at the bottom of the form). Our goal is to get one form completed for every child in our school. After the teachers complete the form, they give them to me and then I call the parents and tell them that their child was a Bucket Filler for whatever reason. Then I keep those forms in my office and each week a few of the kids are announced as Bucket Fillers of the Week (I get through every form before the end of the year) and they come down and get a pencil, wristband and their picture is taken and put on our website. This then gets emailed to the parents.

2) One year we had a slogan writing contest and the kids were encouraged to create their own Bucket Filling slogans. We narrowed it down to 10 slogans and then had a school-wide vote. The top three slogans (i.e. - At Cantiague Elementary we are Changing the World One Bucket At a Time) were put on banners and they hang around our building.

3) Another year we had a song writing contest and each grade level created lyrics about being a Bucket Filling school set to the music of Don't Stop Believin'. We then had a school-wide assembly and each grade got on stage and performed the song. Then we had a vote and the winning song is now our school theme song!

4) Two years ago the 3rd, 4th and 5th graders worked in small groups and created Public Service Announcements about Being a Bucket Filling and how to avoid Bucket Dipping. These PSAs were videotaped and shown across the school over a period of time.

5) We have little buckets in the lunchroom - one for each lunch table - and when tables are showing exemplary behavior they get paper drops and the table with the most drops at the end of the month gets extra recess. 

6) Each day we celebrate the Big Five (which have become the pillars of our Bucket Filling philosophy)... Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Safe, Be Positive and Be Kind - it is announced every morning and every afternoon when we remind children to be Bucket Fillers!

This is just a quick glimpse into the world of Bucket Filling at Cantiague Elementary School where we are Changing the World, One Bucket At a Time! 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Power of the Written Word

After being appointed Assistant Principal of a local elementary school in the spring of 2005, one of my first purchases was the book What Great Principals Do Differently by Todd Whitaker (if you are on Twitter, Todd is a MUST follow @ToddWhitaker). Although I wasn't a principal yet, I heard this book would offer some wonderful suggestions for things I could try as an administrator. Well, I will honestly admit that I tried nothing that first year as an administrator because I was completely overwhelmed and I imagine that I generally looked like one of those images of a chicken with no head running around in all these crazy directions... nothing really prepares one for that first year as an administrator, but that's a whole other post.

As luck would have it, the principalship in that building became available the following year and I was appointed after a lengthy interview process. The first thing I did during that initial summer as a principal was re-read What Great Principals Do Differently and made a list of all the things I wanted to implement ASAP in our school. Number 1 on my list was the weekly staff newsletter, which seemed like such an easy way to spotlight all the wonderful things happening in our school (especially within the rooms of all our Superstars) and also keep the staff updated on important upcoming events, activities and deadlines. The initial incarnation of our staff newsletter was the Monday Morning Message and one side contained the newsletter portion and the other side contained a weekly schedule of events broken down by day of the week. The initial feedback I received about the newsletter was quite positive-- unfortunately, most of the positive feedback was about the schedule of the week and not so much about the content of the newsletter but at least I knew it was being read and that was an important step 1 in the process. Over the course of the school year the newsletter started to gain traction among many of the staff members and people actually started inviting me into their classrooms to see different lessons or activities in the hopes that they would be spotlighted in the Monday Morning Message. There were also those people (you know the ones who come to you and say, "A lot of people in the building are uncomfortable with..." and in the end "a lot of people" really equals somewhere between 2 - 4 people) who complained to me that the newsletter was having a negative affect on the building because people were hurt and offended for not being spotlighted. Although my intention was certainly not to hurt anyones' feelings, I was happy to know that the newsletter was being read and that people wanted to be spotlighted... the Power of the Written Word was clear and this little staff newsletter was accomplishing a lot. Not only was I able to spotlight the sound instructional techniques and approaches taking place in our building but I was also able to subtly communicate a vision for our school... that is the Power of the Written Word!

Well, here I am seven years later (in 2008 I moved districts to become the principal of Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, NY) and the staff newsletter is still an active part of my weekly routine. Initially there were mixed reactions to the newsletter at the news school -- some were excited to be reading it each week, others never pulled it out of their mailboxes, and yet some others had concerns that maybe this newsletter was unnecessary. Fortunately, over a short period of time the staff at Cantiague became interested in the newsletter and the schedule of the week -- but more excited about the newsletter. Not only did people want to be spotlighted but the staff loved reading about the exciting things that their colleagues were accomplishing and trying in their spaces. Our profession can be such an isolating one and this newsletter broke down the walls on some levels and encouraged the development of a Professional Learning Community. People used the newsletter as a jumping off point for conversations about instruction, for an exchange of ideas and for the informal scheduling of visits to each other's spaces to see all the great things that were happening. Once again, the Power of the Written word became crystal clear!

In 2011, the Monday Morning Message was reborn as the Fast Friday Focus and just last month I officially turned the paper newsletter into a weekly blog. Below is a sample of our weekly staff newsletter, which has become much more collaborative now that it is in the form of a blog -- people are commenting, sharing and collaborating even more!

Sample Fast Friday Focus...

Curriculum Connections...
Happy Friday to everyone as we close out the first full week of the school year! It was a busy week that featured our annual Meet The Teacher Night extravaganza, which was a huge success once again. Thank you all for working so hard to not only prepare such wonderful, thorough and informative presentations but also for making our building look so beautiful for the parents on their first official visit of the year. Between the pictures, writing samples, works of art and everything else, our hallways looked better than those of a museum - BRAVO Team Blue Ribbon!!

This last week has allowed me many wonderful opportunities to visit classrooms and different learning spaces and I cannot tell you how much fun it is to hang out in your rooms! First off, I am completely blown away by the launch of Writing Workshop in our building this year. I have seen it in almost every 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classroom and I am in awe of the work being done. First off, the kids are actually sitting and writing for extended periods of time and it is only the 12th day of school - that is unheard of! Not only is the quantity of their work impressive but the quality is awesome too. When visiting Karen's room, I could literally hear a pin drop because every kid was engrossed in their piece (check out a sample from Lindsey in Karen's class in one of the pics below). The kids had learned how to write off a picture on their notebook and the work was impressive. As if that weren't enough, Risa's kids jumped right to generating entries after her mini-lesson on special holidays and family memories - they were all so excited to share and generate entries. While visiting the third grade classrooms, I also saw some awesome stuff. The Heart Maps in the Montonelli's classroom were the most rich and impressive ones I have seen in a long time. Also, Janine had students sharing entries and she modeled how to offer positive and constructive feedback, which was so powerful. She used an entry from her own notebook and allowed the students an opportunity to share for the purposes of modeling the skill of offering feedback in appropriate ways. The importance of modeling for our kids had never been more apparent to me than what I have seen in the last couple of weeks. I have never experienced this type of Writing Workshop launch and I think this success is a credit to our collective efforts to implement the workshop in every classroom so now our kids are writers and are comfortable writing in a notebook and generating entries - it is so awesome! Thank you to all classroom teachers, Lisa D. and Team Literacy for making this happen!

This week has also provided me the opportunity to observe the launch of Shared Reading in many classrooms. I specifically spent extensive time in Rande's and Melanie's classrooms where they started the experience by introducing the Preview and Prepare process. I was so impressed with the sophisticated language used in both classrooms and with the knowledge our kids possess - they were able to identify text features, explain what they could gain from scanning the page and other such strategies and skills. The implementation of Shared Reading is such an important component to the Reading Workshop experience for many reasons but most importantly, it allows us the opportunity to "tuck" content area material into the literacy block. Use the Shared Reading experience to incorporate social studies, current events, science, non fiction, etc. because not only will it expose our kids to a bevy of genres but also helps them build schema when previewing new texts.

Finally, I saw some awesome math work happening in many of our classrooms! I spent time in Joe's room and I was so impressed with the fact that the children were able to dissect numbers and represent them in different ways. For example, they took 124 and expressed in words, expanded form, pictures, etc. I was so impressed by the strong number sense that permeated the room and the students' ability to explain their thinking and show their work - BRAVO JOE! (Check out a picture below of one of the whiteboards used during this group activity).

Please know that there are at least ten other things I could have written about here (doing Prezi with the Alites, the amazing independent reading conference I watched Tali do, the great math activity I watched in Meryl's class, the fun Spanish/English read aloud I saw Ilene do with 2nd graders, the awesome Fundations parallel activity I saw with Team Sanderly, etc.) but I don't want to overwhelm everyone with too much text...  :)

Tech Tip of the Week...
In last week's blog I spotlighted Wordle, which was being used in the Library and many of the classrooms around the building. Jeanne also uses some alternative Wordle like sites that you may want to check out (thank you Jeanne!!)...

abcya - which has a lot of resources but the Word Clouds are the Wordle-like feature; check out some of the games on this site too - really kid friendly and broken up by grade level!

tagxedo - this one costs money but worth checking out

tagul - this one allows you to create word clouds in different shapes

Schedule of the Week...

Wednesday, September 19
CST at 1:20PM

Thursday, September 20
Board of Ed. Meeting - 7:30PM at MS Library

Kids' Korner...
During recess a second grader, who was working with a bunch of other kids to construct something in the sand, came over to me and said, "Mr. Sinanis I am like the principal of this construction company." My response - "Oh yea, cool! How are you like the principal?" He says, "Because I walk around and tell people what to do!" LOL! I laughed out loud and he was totally confused why I was laughing!  :)

Pics of the Week...

               Alites graphic organizer for                              3rd Gr. whiteboard showing
              describing a character's                                     the break up of the number 124
               personality with text evidence

      Writing sample from Karen's class          Students offering feedback in Janine's room

Although the newsletter doesn't allow me an opportunity to spotlight everything I see over the course of the week, it has helped give me a platform to share, reflect and encourage... what else could I ask for as the lead learner of our building? Please feel free to use any portions of the newsletter structure (don't use any of the pics please) and feel free to contact me with any questions!    

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Blue Ribbon Staff

On Friday, we were informed that our school was being honored as a 2012 National Blue Ribbon School by the United States Department of Education. This recognition was being bestowed upon us because our students have performed at very high levels for the last several years (the data is based on scores from NYS ELA and Mathematics Tests). 


Needless to say, we were thrilled about this incredible honor and we officially kicked off the Blue Ribbon celebrations just the other day with Blue Day, where all staff and children came into school wearing every shade of blue - it was an awesome sight to behold. Over the last few days I have received many congratulatory emails, texts, Facebook messages, tweets and phone calls, which mean so much to me. One colleague in particular asked me to share, in five words or less, the main reason I thought we won this prestigious award. Well, if you know me, you know that five words or less is a challenge in itself but to try and explain why we received the Blue Ribbon honor in five words or less seemed like an impossible task. That's when it hit me... I had the answer in two words (that's right, I had three words to spare)... our staff! We were honored as a 2012 National Blue Ribbon Award School because of our amazing staff at Cantiague Elementary School. I am blessed to be the Lead Learner of the 2012 Blue Ribbon Staff!

What makes our staff so special? What makes them a 2012 Blue Ribbon Staff? Well, it is hard to capture everything in writing but I am going to give it my best shot...

  • Everyone is always smiling. It is the truth - whether staff members are talking to each other or greeting a child or engaging a parent, people are always smiling. I think this is critical because it sets such a positive tone in the building - everyone feels welcomed and our kids and families feel valued and safe in the environment - it is simply AWESOME to watch! (Ok - so sometimes we don't smile but those moments are few and far between and we are able to pull each other through those moments).

  • The staff is united and connected. Classroom teachers and specialists; veterans and rookies; traditionalists and progressive folks; no matter what the different group a person might fall into, in our school, there is no distinction; no separation; no division! Instead, the classroom teachers and specialists collaborate to strengthen and deepen the learning experiences for our kids; the veterans and rookies enjoy each other's company and support each during the highs and the lows; and the traditionalists and progressive folks share ideas and try the things learned from each other in their own spaces. No one strives to be better than anyone else... instead, we all join together and strive to be the best school in the world for our kids!

  • Everyone is proud to be an educator in our school and that sense of pride permeates the building! We don't necessarily take ourselves too seriously but we take our profession and responsibility to our kids and families quite seriously!

  • Our staff is always willing to step out of their comfort zones and try something new and different that may enhance their craft or the learning experiences of our kids. For example, four years ago when we began shifting to a Balanced Literacy approach, rooted in both the reading and writing workshop models, although it took a lot of work, training and trial and error (and yes, some frustration along the way) there was never question of IF we were going to make Balanced Literacy work for us it was always a matter of HOW we were going to make it work for us and our kids! As if that wasn't enough, today at our Faculty Meeting we started talking about the possibilities of some Flipped Faculty Meetings - check out this post by my friend Peter DeWitt (follow Peter on Twitter) about Flipped Faculty Meetings. Although we haven't officially started the process and we are not exactly sure how it will play out, I know that we will all be dedicated to taking control of our professional development and making this a positive experience!

  • Collaboration is the norm - not the exception! There is never a day that goes by while I am walking around the building that I don't see a group of staff members huddled together and working on something. People come in early, stay late, eat lunch together and meet during common preps to share, brainstorm and plan because there is this unspoken feeling that we can do things better by working together!

  • Our staff believes in every kid no matter what the readiness level! Every child in our school will get exactly what they need because their teachers will work together to make it happen. For example, if a child seems to be struggling in the area of reading, and the classroom teacher has done extensive lessons and the child is still not getting it, no one ever throws their hands up and says, "Oh well - I taught it but he just doesn't get it!" No, our teachers will consult colleagues, specialists, parents, etc. to come up with different instructional techniques that might be worth a shot in helping that specific child learn. Last year, when we officially started implementing our Instructional Support Team (I.S.T.) as part of our RtI plan (Response To Intervention), the work accomplished was amazing. One teacher would bring up a child who was struggling and come to a meeting the following week to discuss that child. The team would be comprised of different specialists and at least one other classroom teacher. Well, the amount of suggestions, tips, resources and intervention strategies shared at that table blew me away - this team, working collaboratively and going above and beyond, solved EVERY problem it encountered! Furthermore, at this point in the school year (only about 10 days in) every teacher has made some form of positive contact with the families of their students - this is what sets the tone for an awesome year!

  • Our staff works harder than any other group of people I have ever had the honor of working with in my professional career. Walking around our building each day is the gift that keeps giving. I learn so much because I see all the incredible things our kids are doing and learning as a result of our dedicated staff. I find myself thinking two things... WOW - I hope my son has teachers and teacher aides like this during his academic career and WOW - I wish I was this good of a teacher when I was in the classroom! Our staff works tirelessly to make everything great for our kids and the community as a whole. When were officially nominated for the Blue Ribbon, we had to complete an enormous application, which involved a lot of essay writing (maybe about 15 different essays). Initially I thought I was crazy for taking this on because I would never be able to get this thing done on my own. Well, I didn't need to get it done on my own because once I shared the application with the staff at a Faculty Meeting, they broke up into small groups, and on their own time, tackled most of the questions and in the end, our application was AWESOME because of their efforts.

Well, the truth is, this list could literally go on and on and on because the staff of Cantiague Elementary School is really that incredible. From the Main Office team to the Custodial Staff to the Teacher Aides to the Teachers, each "part" comes together to make up an amazing "whole" that deserves to be honored as a 2012 Blue Ribbon Staff!      

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How NOT What: Doing Dewey

As we kicked off the school year last week, I really started to think about learning, teaching and instruction in general. During my 15 years in the world of education, I have always struggled with the ideas of the "best" instructional strategies to reach our kids and enrich their learning. Although I don't think there is ONE answer, I have come to one conclusion that has been proven to me over and over again during my years as a teacher and lead learner (thanks to my friend Joe Mazza for introducing me this term - follow @Joe_Mazza on Twitter) and that is, our kids learn best when DOING! A special thank you to John Dewey for inspiring this post... his words were uttered almost 100 years ago but they are still so relevant and important! 
In order to execute a successful educational experience, which would be personalized for each child to best meet their needs, we must shift the focus from the “what” to the “how.”  Too often, the focus in our educational institutions is on what the children are learning, how much of the curriculum is being covered and what materials are being used to teach the various concepts. Although these are important points to consider because they do impact our children, they cannot become the focal point of said educational experiences. As Dewey repeatedly points out in Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education , we must always be mindful of what we give our students to do as opposed to what we give them to learn. We cannot merely communicate information to our students, lecturing for example, and expect that the students have learned everything just because we talked about it or “taught” it (teaching does not always result in learning). We cannot continue to “pour information in” or expect our children to passively absorb information as a result of our teaching. Instead, we must employ a variety of creative, active and hands-on instructional approaches and techniques that raise the level of student engagement and challenge our children to construct their own knowledge and understandings based on what they are doing in the classroom. We must remember that education is about constructing understandings, not just being given a lot of information. Dewey states, “They (educators who employ methods that are successful in formal education) give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is such a nature as to demand thinking, or the intentional noting of connections; learning naturally results.” This statement needs to be the crux of every educational vision or mission statement if we are to ensure that all of our children learn in a meaningful way. Our educational institutions need to challenge our children to think because thinking is the basis for all intelligent learning and development of understandings. We must move away from this current push of standardized tests that assess low-level comprehension skills through multiple-choice questions (and we must disconnect these results from teacher evaluations) and challenge our children to employ higher level thinking skills where they synthesize and apply knowledge in different contexts and settings (and we must connect these results to teacher evaluations).
Furthermore, in order to maximize the learning experiences for our children, we must arouse and maintain their interest because they will then actively participate in their learning. This is where the idea of personalizing a child’s education comes into play. We must move beyond merely differentiating instruction (i.e. – harder work for the smarter children and easier work for the needier children) and look for ways to personalize instruction. If a child exhibits certain strengths, interests or significant background knowledge in any given area, then we must ensure that our schools tap into these strengths and interests to help our children learn in the most meaningful ways possible. Again, the focus must shift from how we teach to how we make sure that our children learn. The rich and meaningful learning experiences that our children will carry with them for years, which will ensure that they are educated individuals and will shape their life’s trajectory, will likely come as a result of the “how” and not the “what”!