Sunday, October 19, 2014

Donkey Kong

Video games… they were my life growing up and I was hooked from a young age. I remember the first summer my father took me to Greece to visit my family. They lived in a tiny village on a mountain top in Northern Greece - there was no hot water and indoor plumbing was a relatively new thing. Most of the men in my family are lumberjacks and the women tend to the farm animals, children and home. I was an 8 year old boy living in New York City who suffered from ADD so you can imagine how traumatic the summer setting was for someone who was used to having access to anything and everything. 

In preparation for the trip, my dad took me to an electronics store to get a little something. Well, that was the first time I ever held a video game in my hands… it was the flip version of Donkey Kong and after playing for about 3 minutes I was HOOKED! I played that video game for hours every single day that summer (my father had enough forethought to buy extra batteries because it had special batteries) and was really good at the game - the challenge, experience and fast pace spoke to the way I was wired.

Upon returning from my trip, I dove head on into the world of video games. I eventually had various game systems and dozens of games that I spent hours playing and trying to master and win. I was definitely engaged and my focus was hyperfocused on this world of video games. Unfortunately, there was no place for that outside of my home and definitely not at school. School was for sitting in rows, reading from a basal, sitting quietly for hours and only speaking when spoken to by an adult. Needless to say, my attentional issues made success in this context extremely difficult. My parents were contacted consistently and my report card reflected someone who was a failure - both in the academic sections and in the personal growth sections. But I knew I wasn’t a failure - it was just that no one took the time to find out what I was interested in; what I was excited about; and what I was passionate about in "real life."

As you can imagine, these experience as a child definitely shaped my philosophy of education. The role my family played in my life. The fact that my family allowed me to immerse myself in my passions and interests (I think it was more about keeping me quiet than fueling my passions but it’s all good). The fact that my schooling experiences, especially at the elementary level, were extremely frustrating, unsuccessful and challenging for me. All this, and a lot more, is at the core of my philosophy about education and specifically about being an educational leader.

These experiences are what motivate me each and every day. I want our children and staff at #Cantiague to have the opposite type of experiences as I had in my formative years. I want to know about the whole child and adult - what do the lives of our children and staff members look like outside of school and how does it shape the experiences in the classrooms. 

This year, building on what we have done in the past, we have embedded many opportunities to get to know our kids and their passions and interests outside of school. We have experimented with #GeniusHour where children have done everything from creating with play-dough to planning for a passion based research project/experience. Many of the children have also had the opportunity to share their passions, interests and loves through the writing workshop experience where they generate heart maps to help spark ideas for personal writing pieces. We have also tried more Bring Your Own Device Days, which the children get really excited about and cannot wait to collaborate and create. Whatever the case, we have tapped into our children’s passions and interests because we want to support the development of the whole child - we refuse to just focus on test scores and the traditional academic areas!  

I don’t have any hard data to show that this shift in instructional focus at #Cantiague has had any sustainable impact on our kids’ learning but what I do know is that many of our kids are happy, excited and invested in coming to school each day. I am stopped on a daily basis by kids who share how excited they are to experience things like #GeniusHour, experimenting with the flipped classroom (watching videos at home) and sharing their voices through the video updates or classroom blogs. Many of our kids love coming to school because they feel like their voice matters and they know we value their perspectives.

Why do I share this piece? Because I think as educators (especially those of us in leadership positions) we need to think about our children - the whole child - not just the one sitting in our classrooms. Not just the academic learner. Not just the test score. We need to know what sparks the interest of each child and we need to tap into those passions and loves to help shape the academic experience. We need to stop doing things because they have always been done that way. We need to stop focusing on teaching and shift the focus to learning. We need to stop focusing on covering the curriculum and getting through the textbook. We need shift the focus to the children, their voices and learning in general.

Let’s find the Donkey Kong video game loving kid in every child and tap into that love and harness it and unleash it in our schools!


  1. Tony, I agree. We need to keep putting ourselves in the shoes of our children. Using any of our tougher experiences, as former children/students, can help us make sure history we lived through is not repeated. Your students and staff are so incredibly lucky to have you as a Principal. Here's to more Donkey Kong!

  2. This summer I read Tony Wagner's "Creating Innovators" and Ron Berger's "Ethic of Excellence" as PD for an upcoming conference (at which they were keynote speakers)...literally minutes after I finished reading Berger's work, I got e-mail blog notification that included a book of reflections from colleagues/friends of Howard Gardner (get it here: What these three things have in common is that innovation, creativity, looking at the student holistically, is critical! I love my students and I want to find their "Donkey Kong" passion and push them to be who they are inside!