Monday, December 21, 2015

12 Steps to #GeniusHour

From HaikuDeck

Over the last year at #Cantiague we have made a concerted effort to meaningfully integrate the Genius Hour experience throughout our building. We were looking for a way to continue to amplify student voice and act on their input and feedback. As Genius Hour slowly trickled into the classrooms at the beginning of last year, the feedback was incredibly positive and the children wanted more of it. They were excited, passionate and they were owning their learning. 

The other thing that happened as a result of the genius hour movement at #Cantiague was that the children were no longer just learning to please their teachers; instead, they were learning because it mattered to them and they were passionate about the subject matter!

From Edutopia

With that in mind, our amazing second grade team decided to refine the process last year to better meet the needs of the children and be more "faithful" to the Genius Hour experience. Nancy, Carly, Adam and Carolyn are the guest authors of this post that offers 12 steps to implementing the #GeniusHour experience in any school and any grade level!

Genius Hour Experience (#Cantiague Second Grade Style)

Last year, we launched our Genius Hour experience in second grade.  After the first “go around” we reflected on our experience.  We realized what we loved, but also what we wanted to make better.  This year is off to a great start!  Here is what Genius Hour looks like in our room the second time around...  

1.  We started our first session by discussing our passions.  We gave each child a piece of paper with 2 dots. We asked them to draw something from those two dots that they love.  Students wrote the topic of their drawing/idea on an index card. Each student filed the index card in their Genius Hour index card box.  Some topics included beaches, nature, American Girl Dolls, hockey etc.

2. In our next session, we gave each child a piece of paper with a squiggly line and challenged them to turn that line into something they love or feel passionate about, completely different from the last session.  Students drew cars, Pandas, Hawaii, diamonds etc. Just like the last session, students wrote this new topic on a different colored index card and filed it in their Genius Hour box.

3. In the next session, we revisited their drawings and cards. We asked them to make a decision about which topic they would like to stick with for this round of Genius Hour.  They spent some time thinking and deciding. Students selected the card they chose to further research.  We collected this card.

4. In the next session, we gave back their topic index cards and asked students to brainstorm what he/she already knows about this topic, in the “K” section of KWL.  They had to really think about everything they knew and jot it down. 

5. Next session, we asked students to generate questions he/she has on their topic of choice. It was a great lesson to show students that we may still have questions on things we already love. They wrote down everything they are curious about or want to know more about! We also explained that “good” questions are not yes or no question; it needs to be something that you can find lots of information on. 

6. After that, each child needed to reflect on all their questions and pick the 5 they wanted to take through the process of researching.  We spent a lot of time focusing on the kinds of questions they should ask.

7. In our next session, students wrote down their five questions (one on each index cards) and teachers stapled their topic card on top, followed by the five index cards into a booklet. Students filed this booklet into their Genius Hour box.

8. Before the next Genius Hour, we sent a note home to each family with their child’s topic and asked parents to help us prepare students by sending in materials that their children can use for researching. We also encouraged the kids to check out books for the library on their topic. We asked for things like books, magazines, websites, articles, apps, or anything else that would help his/her child learn more on this passion topic.

9. After that, the kids were ready to start their research in class.  Students were provided with several sessions to find answers to their questions.  Some students realized that the materials they brought in were either very helpful or not helpful at all for the questions he/she have on their topic. Students were given opportunities to look for other materials in school or at home before the next Genius Hour session.  At this point, most students have completed their research and are ready for the next step! 

10. Future sessions: From there, we will give children the opportunity to pick how they would like to present their information and findings.  Last year, we had students make books, scrap books, dioramas, posters, video presentations, PowerPoints, Sock Puppet, and Show Me presentations.  This year, we have so many more ideas on ways for the students to present.  QR codes, Google Slides, new Apps, coding, and so many other cool ways to present findings.  We tell the kids…..The Sky is the Limit!

11. Finally, we will allow time for each child to share their passion project with the class.  This is such a wonderful opportunity for the students to build confidence and feel proud of all their hard work.  We can’t wait to see how it all turns out this year! Stay tuned on Twitter to see the final presentations! 

12. Have fun... Genius Hour is another way to amplify student voice and empower our learners to take ownership of their learning by incorporating their passions and interests as described in the following graphic...

From TeachThought

So, are you ready for the Genius Hour experience? If so, try the steps above and share any feedback with us on how we can enhance or refine the experience!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

11 Things Paul Taught Me About School

Today Paul turns 11 years old! That's right... it has been exactly 11 years since that first time I met him and held him in my arms! He changed my world in an instant - Paul defined unconditional love for me and taught me what it feels like to be willing to give your life for someone else. It is hard to believe that this funny, opinionated and brave young man once fit into the palm of my hand. But, here he is, in middle school. He has his own passions and interests, his own circle of friends and his own strong set of beliefs... he thinks a meal isn't complete if there isn't a dipping sauce or something fried, he thinks Justin Bieber is overrated and he thinks the less sleep, the better. 

The list can go on and on about his likes and dislikes but the thing that stands out the most to me is his opinion about school. I think the word HATE might be too strong but let's just say that he is not the biggest fan. Paul has been making an argument for 2 months of school and 10 months off for the last couple of years; he is the kid who dreads Sunday nights because Monday means school; he is the kid who counts down the days to the next break; he is the kid who remembers nothing about his school day except for what he ate at lunch and what he did in gym; he is the kid who only looks forward to school because it's a chance to socialize with all of his friends; and of course, he is the kid who would like to do away with HW! Does his disdain for school upset me a little bit? Yes because I love being an educator and am inspired each day at Cantiague by our kids, staff and families! But, do I understand why he dislikes school? Yes. Did I view school in the same way at his age? YES! Do I wish I could change things for Paul, when it comes to his school experience? Yes! Ugh... school is a touchy subject in our home!

Fortunately, when I push past the negativity, I realize that Paul loves a lot of things about school (even if he doesn't admit it) and that over the years, Paul has given me tremendous insight into school, teaching and learning. In fact, Paul has taught me a LOT about school. 

So, in honor of Paul's 11th birthday, here are 11 things I have learned about school from my most epic son...

1) Kids want to know what the point is of the work they are doing in school. They need to be able to answer the following questions as it relates to their learning... What are you learning? Why are you learning it? (Thank you Joe for sharing these questions with me). Learning and teaching shouldn't be shrouded in mystery! We need to be explicit and clear with our kids. Paul will often say... "Dad, I am not sure what the point of school is!"

2) Whatever is being taught in school should matter to kids and help empower them with some type of knowledge that will contribute positively to their lives. Knowledge is power but only if our kids understand the value of said knowledge. Paul is developing a whole skill set outside of school that he sees as more valuable than what he is learning school - that has to change!

3) Something changes around 3rd grade... and the change isn't necessarily good. Paul said school was fun up until that point but then something changed and school became more about busy work and "getting through the curriculum" (his words). Learning and fun used to be synonymous but by fourth grade they became two separate and not necessarily equal things within school!

4) Kids want to feel loved, valued, safe and respected within the context of their schools and that comes as a result of investing time in healthy and positive relationships. The teachers who Paul qualifies as his "favorites" are the ones who took the time to get to know him as a person... not just as a learner! 

5) Our kids come to school with a lot of knowledge, experiences and abilities - let's access those and give our children opportunities to be lead learners in school each and every day. Our kids are not empty vessels to be filled with information... they are forever evolving, growing and learning - let's capitalize on that reality. Paul always talks about the experiences in school when he got to share his passions and interests with classmates because his teachers saw them as valuable. 

6) Kids need time to socialize in school because they learn a lot through these interactions. Paul often talks about conversations he had with friends and what he took away from these exchanges. He also shared how much he loves sitting in groups because if he doesn't understand something, he can ask a classmate. Socialization isn't only about discussing the latest Minecraft update but it's also an opportunity to learn from peers. So, no more desks and rows - let kids sit together so they can learn.

7) Kids, even in MS and HS, love lunch and even some recess! Our children need unstructured time to talk, laugh, play, decompress and have fun! Paul may not recall much from his school day but he can always give me a play by play of lunch and recess. So, NO MORE silent lunches! NO MORE taking away recess as a consequence (unless something happened at recess)! Let kids talk (maybe even loudly) and have fun!  

8) Sometimes just using technology in place of a worksheet is totally fine because the device itself makes the activity more fun. Yes, we want meaningful technology integration (check out the SAMR model if you must) that pushes our children to further develop 21st century skills but sometimes, the device in itself is enough. Paul raves about the school days where he has access to technology, even if it is not in the most meaningful way.

9) Worksheets with "fill in the blanks" or an infinite number of math problems are not fun and are generally not necessary. Our children can show us their understandings in so many other ways and often times, all worksheets do is decontextualize the learning and reduce it to mindless guessing. Our kids deserve better - let's push them to access their critical thinking skills with less worksheets and more open ended activities. Granted, sometimes Paul prefers a worksheet because they are easy and don't challenge him to think but that is not ok - our kids deserve more!

10) Opportunities to innovate, create and pursue passions within school need to be the norm, not the exception. We have to build the curriculum around these ways of thinking - not try and force them into the curriculum we have so carefully planned in advance. We need to give our students (and teachers) the space to collaboratively solve problems and create their ideal learning environment - these are at the core of a space that values and appreciates innovation (thank you George for helping me develop my innovator's mindset). 

11) HW stinks... it is that simple and it is the one thing I have heard consistently from Paul. HW is meaningless, useless, and doesn't necessarily help our kids learn anything better. In fact HW takes up time when our kids just want to unwind after school, spend time with family and friends and pursue their personal passions!

Of course, Paul has taught me a lot more about life over the last 11 years but these are the lessons about school that stood out. These lessons are the ones that guide my daily work as an educator and often inspire me to create an amazing space for kids here at Cantiague. I share this list in the hopes that other educators will join me on this journey where student voice is heard and changing the narrative of public education is the goal! 

Will you join me?  

Monday, December 7, 2015

Let It Go

Gradual Release of Responsibility For Learning...

One of the things that I have been reflecting on over the last couple of weeks as I have been doing formal classroom observations at Cantiague is this notion of the gradual release of responsibility for learning from teacher to student. This is the method that the reading and writing workshop models are built upon where the teacher slowly relinquishes control of the learning from her/himself to the students. Although we focus heavily on this philosophy when talking about literacy instruction it is clear to me that it is an instructional model that could apply to any and all content areas... math, social studies, science, engineering, etc. From my perspective, this approach to instruction validates the importance of the teaching while keeping the emphasis on the learning... both student and teacher learning.  

What does it look like?

Here are a couple of graphics that helped me visualize and better understand what that might look like in a classroom...

From Xenia Public Schools

Modeling To Start...

At the core, the philosophy is based on this idea that the teacher possess some level of expertise and thus begins the lesson with modeling or direct instruction. The lesson generally comes as a result of data that has been collected in previous lessons or a unit that has been planned with outcomes carefully considered. This is where the expert (usually the teacher but even a student can teach the lesson) models for the novice.... it mirrors an apprenticeship. This portion of the model should be short and direct - really no more than 10 to 15 minutes. Mantra for this portion... "I, the teacher, shows you, the students."

Guiding The Learners... 

The learning experience then shifts to guided practice where the children begin to explore the concept that was just taught by the teacher but the teacher now does the work with the students. This could be done independently or in partnerships or even small groups. Typically the guided practice portion of the model unfolds with the teacher in close proximity so they can monitor student progress. Proximity really matters throughout instruction so keeping the children close together allows for constant informal assessment and data collection. So, for example the children might stay on the rug for this portion of the lesson. This portion of the model should be no more than 10 minutes - it's a quick guided practice. Mantra for this portion... "I, the teacher, and you, the students, do this together. "

Empowering The Learners... 

The final component to this instructional model involves the students doing the work independently so the teacher can assess whether or not the strategy or skill or concept has been mastered and which students need more scaffolding, support or are ready for the next step. This is a prime opportunity for the teacher to either pull a small group or conduct 1:1 conferences to informally assess the progress of the group and begin planning for future instruction. This portion of the model could be anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes depending on the content, routines and independence of the children. Solidifying routines during this portion of the model will help maximize the teacher's time so they can have contact with as many children as possible and support the children's journey towards independence. Mantra for this portion..."You, the student, do the work while I, the teacher, assess and support."

Let It Go... 

I share this overview as a reminder for how any and all instructional periods could look from reading workshop to genius hour because our goal should always be to move towards student independence and always keep the focus on the learning! In the end, it behooves us to LET IT GO and empower our students to own their learning!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Is Our Culture?

A Faculty Discussion...

We recently had a transformational afternoon at #Cantiague thanks to an important conversation during our Faculty Enhancement Opportunity (it's our term for a Faculty Meeting because no one wants to go to a meeting... but that is a whole other post) about our school culture. Although we have had many discussions about our collective vision for the school, conversations about the things we stand for as non-negotiables and talks about the things we believe in philosophically, we have never directly reflected on the culture of our school. What is our culture? What makes Cantiague, Cantiague? What feelings and emotions are evoked when thinking about Cantiague? These, and many more, were the questions that helped frame our discussion about culture.  

What is Culture?

From my perspective, culture is rarely a tangible "thing" but it is made up of those things you feel... sometimes things you see, hear and can even touch but ultimately, culture is about feelings and emotions. You get a sense of a school's culture from the parking lot and the exterior of the building - a dimly lit exterior versus a brightly lit exterior tells you something about culture. You get an even better sense of a school's culture from the way you are greeted by the Main Office team - a warm smile and greeting versus no one looking up to acknowledge your presence tells you a lot about the culture. And your understanding of the school's culture is solidified after you spend about 30 minutes with the principal - someone who has positive, healthy and compassionate relationships with all members of the community versus someone who doesn't leave the office and complains about the staff tells you a whole LOT about the culture of a school. 

"A school’s culture can be defined as the traditions, beliefs,
policies, and norms within a school that can be shaped,
enhanced, and maintained through the school’s principal and

teacher-leaders." (Short & Greer, 1997). Although I do agree that traditions, beliefs and norms impact a school's culture, we have to be careful about not letting traditions, beliefs and norms become code for... "This is the way we have always done things..." and an excuse for not embracing innovation and evolution as part of a school's culture. I see culture as a living thing that is constantly evolving and going through iterations - not in a rapid way but over time, the culture of a building can be changed, can be nurtured, can evolve - for better or worse. 

Culture is not a fixed thing or entity. I think if culture had a mindset it would be a growth mindset or innovator's mindset. I think culture is result of the feelings and emotions that are experienced within a school and we know those evolve over time based on what is going on within a school community. Unless they don't change. And then, they won't evolve. In that case, the culture of a school will be fixed. Culture will be so entrenched in tradition that there will be no change. Culture will be stagnant. I would argue that in that case, culture would also be negative. 

The culture of school can look quite different depending on the school but the one common denominator in every school that always impacts the culture, in positive or negative ways, is the principal. 

School Culture: Perpetuated by the Principal

Yes, a school's culture evokes emotions and feelings in people within and outside of the organization and it is my belief that the principal has the biggest impact on a school's culture. The principal doesn't necessarily single-handily create the school's culture but that one person has the greatest impact on the way a school's culture feels. Yes, the actions of many make up the culture of a school (students, staff and families) but the tone and leadership style of one (the principal) will dramatically impact (positively or negatively) the trajectory of the school's culture. A horrible manager will perpetuate a negative culture. A confident, informed and compassionate instructional leader will perpetuate a positive culture. Either way, the principal directly impacts the culture of a school.

So Now What?

Regardless of how you define culture or whether or not you agree with my belief that the building principal has the greatest impact on culture, the fact remains that a school's culture is something we must be aware of and must attend to for the sake of our entire community. We must know how people feel and what they think when they are in our schools. We must know how our kids feel. We must know how our teachers feel. We must know how our families feel. We must know how members of the community feel because those feelings and emotions will tell us a LOT about our school's culture.  

That was my starting point recently during our F.E.O. (Faculty Enhancement Opportunity) at Cantiague. I thought I had a pretty good handle on our school's culture but then it occurred to me that we had never discussed it as a team - how do the rest of the adults in our building define the culture of our school? So, I posed the question to our staff and asked them to work in groups of 2 to 4 to define our school's culture in 3 words or less. They were then asked to work collaboratively in a Google Slides presentation to share their words and this was intentional because a group of 4th graders taught our staff how to use Google Slides at an F.E.O. earlier in the month and I wanted to reinforce the resource. 

This is what our #Cantiague staff came up with...  

So, now I challenge each of you to go back to your schools and ask the question... What is Our Culture? 

Monday, November 23, 2015

That Moment

Being Marginalized Today...

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

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

That Moment...

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

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


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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Heart of a Keynote

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

#MiamiDevice: A Learning Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2015


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Listen To Kids

Making The Time To Listen... 

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

Our Kids Have A LOT To Say... 

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

Lunch Takeaways...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Observations Aren't Enough

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

My Pitfalls

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

Not Just Any Talking

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

Intentional Conversations

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

Literacy Check-Ins

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

YouTube: Informational Text Hotbed?

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

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

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

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

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