Thursday, February 19, 2015

Dear Governor Cuomo

Dear Governor Cuomo,

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Learning In The Digital Age


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

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

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


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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Tech Amplifies Student Voice

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

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

Our vision is that children leave school with: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

from likeateam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Student Led PD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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