Sunday, December 17, 2017

13 Keys To Nurturing A Readerly Life

My son, Paul, recently turned 13. Yes, I am the parent of a teenager and while I don't love getting older, I do love watching the young man my son has grown into over the last 13 years. One of the things that has always impressed me most about Paul is his ability to read and his love of books. Growing up I was quite the opposite. I only read the passages in our basal reader in elementary school and then in middle and high school I only read the books that were assigned to me for class. I rarely, if ever, read for pleasure. In fact, I recall talking about how much I hated reading because it always felt like a task, chore or just too much work. 

On the other hand, my son could literally spend hours after school or on a Saturday morning reading books. He loved reading picture books when he was little and then got hooked on different series including the My Weird School series, Magic Treehouse and then the Percy Jackson series. We literally had thousands of books in our house because he wanted to be prepared for his next book. As Paul's personal interests evolved, so did his book choices. When he got into Star Wars and Marvel, he wanted books with facts about the different characters. No matter what the interest, there was always an accompanying book, until things changed. Once Paul got into upper elementary school and then middle school, his interest in reading began to shift. Gone were the days where he wanted to read for hours and get lost in a book. Instead, he started to only read for school assignments and meeting the minimum expectations, either in the form of minutes or page numbers to complete a reading log, was the goal. Granted, he was a growing boy and other competing interests began to form - video games, sports and socializing with friends just to name a few. Reading took a backseat and unless it was for a school assignment, it was no longer a priority.

Unfortunately, I don't think Paul's journey as a reader is unique to him. I have heard countless stories about kids who used to love to read for fun but once reading became about a data point or reading log, the love began to fade. This narrative around reading, along with the research that reading in schools is just about test scores, is what sparked this post. From my perspective reading and thinking are almost synonymous and so nurturing readers must be a priority in education. In honor of Paul's 13th birthday, I would like to suggest the following 13 keys to nurturing a readerly life in our students/children:

1) Model the power of reading for children so they can see it as an opportunity to get immersed in a whole new world. Reading can serve as an escape from everything else in the world and sometimes that is really necessary. As educators, we can model and share what reading means to us and how it allows us to get lost in a different world! To that end, as the educators (or adults or parents) we must make it a point to share our readerly life with kids; share what we are reading, what we have recently read and how that experience felt for us. 

2) Share with students that reading is an experience not an assignment. Reading is truly an immersive experience that allows us to see life through a different lens or in a different setting or with meaningful information that informs our perspectives. Reading leaves an impression on us and changes the way we think.

3) Give students choice in what they are reading. The older Paul gets, the less his book choices are his and the more they are predetermined by his school. While I do understand the value of experiencing a shared text with classmates (book clubs, class novels, etc.), there must also be sacred time for students to read books that are of interest to them.

4) Carve out time, every single day, for independent reading in class. Our students need to see that we value reading and that we specifically value their independent reading time to engage with texts of their choice. Richard Allington reminds us that one way to grow as a reader is by reading as much as possible! The more we read, the better we get as readers. 

5) Reading books gives our students the windows and mirrors they need in the world! We need to be mindful of the books we integrate into our classroom libraries so our students can engage in texts that allow them to see themselves (the mirrors) or to see others (the windows). Literature can be a powerful way to build an understanding and appreciation for how others experience the world. For this reason, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our students have access to books that allow them to see the world through a different lens. 

6) Reading is thinking and learning! I have been trained to understand that reading is basically synonymous with thinking. When we are immersed in a text, our minds are always working to process the text by making connections, making inferences and wondering about what might come next. This is the power of reading because it helps us grow our thinking muscles and thinking is what leads to learning and learning is what leads to innovation and that is what changes the world!

7) Share with students the joy of reading just for the purposes of feeling that joy! Reading could be a joyous (even if the contents of the book aren't necessarily joyful) event that doesn't always have an assignment or task associated with it. Let's model for kids that they can read just to read for the joy of it!

8) Make time for read alouds as a way to share a story and enjoy a break from all the other academics. No matter how old the students, a read aloud can be a wonderful way to engage with a text and expose students to different authors and genres. Yes, there could be discussions that unfold around the read aloud book but don't make it all about accountable talk or assessment; allow the read aloud to be a shared experience that helps us escape from everything else.

9) Read alouds don't just have to happen in school! Encourage families to engage in read alouds at home with their children. A shared story can be so powerful for a family to experience so let's encourage our students' families to keep reading aloud at home too! But remember, this shouldn't be about an assignment or a grade; instead, this should be about a joyful experience we encourage our students to share with the ones they love.

10) Incorporate book talks as a daily norm in your classroom or school. One of the best ways to hook a potential reader is by sharing the story of a book that you have recently read and the impact it had on you (or students can share with their peers). Just think about the power of a movie trailer - when all the right highlights are featured, the audience is hooked and cannot wait to see the movie. The same can be done with books! Create a time and space where individuals (adults and students) can share the books they are excited about and watch how the book talks raise the interest levels of other students and the books start flying off the shelves!

11) Leverage digital platforms as a way to share the reading journeys of our students. Maybe they can make a video book trailer or create a digital picture book version of their favorite chapter book. Whatever the platform, we should consider accessing digital platforms as a way to help our students amplify their readerly life! 

12) Reading should be fun and when we make it fun for kids, we increase the likelihood that they will continue to read on their own time. Just think about it - when we experience something as fun or joyful, our brain responds positively and we are more apt to engage in that activity again and again. So, let's make reading fun for our kids so when they think about what they could do during their free time they don't just consider social media or video games but instead chose to read!

13) Reading is not a data point! I am tired of hearing about test scores where our children are lagging behind the children of other countries. I am also tired of hearing about how students are better readers in some states according to recent test scores. Well, what any good educator knows is that high test scores do not mean there are necessarily strong readers in those spaces; instead, often times, high test scores means we have prepared children to pass a test. But the truth is that none of these tests are actual reading tests. Reading is not a data point. Yes, some tests may assess reading skills (understanding unfamiliar vocabulary, determining the main idea or making an inference) but from my experiences they don't accurately assess reading. So, let's stop conflating reading with test scores and instead focus on what matters most - nurturing a readerly life in our students!

Are you ready to join me on this journey to nurture a readerly life in our students?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Education Is Personal

Over the last several years I have had the opportunity to travel the country and speak about everything from educational leadership to culture to the importance of telling your school/district story. The opportunity to work with teachers and administrators from around the country is consistently a source of inspiration for me because I learn so much from the many passionate, enthusiastic and dedicated educators I encounter. Invariably, the conversations always get personal as people share stories about everything from what inspired them to become an educator to what sustains them to do this important work on a daily basis. My personal experiences definitely impact who I am as an educator; my experiences as a father; my experiences as a son; my experiences as a sibling; and my experiences as a partner all affect the way I approach my daily work as an educator. 

After several conferences and workshops I decided to include the following picture in my presentations so the audience could better understand me and the people who shape my work as an educator... 

This picture is generally the opening slide in my presentations so I can introduce the audience to my personal "tribe" - my son, Paul, and my partner, Felix - the people who sustain me on a daily basis. Paul and Felix impact the way I think and feel and when I am making decisions as an educator, my experiences as a father and partner certainly inform those decisions. Including this picture also served a very selfish purpose - I get to take my guys with me whenever I travel and I love talking about them for a couple of minutes.

I never realized the impact this picture might have on my audience. About a year ago I was doing a keynote in the Midwest and after I finished my presentation several people came up to me to thank me for the experience, which is always incredibly humbling. While speaking with this small group, I noticed one gentleman standing to the side. Once I was alone, he stepped over to me and thanked me for including the picture of my family in the presentation. He shared that he rarely talked about his husband in professional contexts because he worried about how people would react because he always assumed he was the only one - the only gay educator in the room. He went on to share that while my presentation on digital leadership was great, it was the first workshop he attended where he knew he wasn't the only gay educator in the room and that changed the whole experience for him. He talked about how he felt comfortable and empowered because he wasn't the only one; and this connection allowed him to engage in the learning in a totally different way than he had ever engaged in the past.

What this educator didn't understand was how much his story impacted me. While including a picture of Paul and Felix was more for me than it was for the audience or the presentation, on that day I came to understand the potential impact it could have on those around me. Sharing this picture, and its story, allowed me to connect on a personal level with my audience; sharing this picture served as a window for some members of the audience and a mirror for others; and sharing this picture was an opportunity to build relationships with people I may never have otherwise had a connection. 

I have presented a few times since then and have received DMs, emails and private FB messages from educators who had some connection to the LGBTQ community thanking me for incorporating my personal story as part of the presentation. These messages have inspired me on so many levels and remind me about the importance of relationships in education. You see, we could have the most robust math program or the most amazing Makerspace or the best professional development but if we don't have positive and healthy relationships with those around us, those "things" won't have a sustained impact on learning in our classrooms, schools or districts. It all comes back to relationships - relationships between teachers and students; relationships between educators; relationships between teachers and administrators; relationships between the community and staff; relationships between students and administrators; and relationships between students. The research is there - see John Hattie's meta analysis - relationships impact learning and achievement in effective learning organizations. No matter what happens we can never lose sight of the fact that education is personal!  

Sunday, September 3, 2017

5 Practices To Support Life Ready Learners

Standards... The Beginning of Standardization

Over the last decade there has been much discussion about standards and the impact they have on education. Initially, for me, it was all about the NYS learning standards, specifically in the areas of ELA and Mathematics, which also informed the standardized testing that shaped the learning in Grades 3 - 8. The conversation then went national with the unveiling of the Common Core State Standards for Learning. Again the focus was on ELA and Mathematics but these standards had even greater implications because not only were they linked to high stakes standardized testing but now the tests our kids were subjected to (ridiculously challenging tests that resulted in way too much learning time being lost) became part of the evaluation process for our educators. This is where the problems really began and the Common Core standards quickly became the Darth Vader of education because they had a death grip on our practices! That's right the same standards that were supposed to be saving education were in fact cutting off the air because our educators were forced to address the standards (some of which are developmentally inappropriate) in their daily learning experiences in the hopes that our students would master them and perform well on the standardized assessments that would be used to assess the educators. That, my friends, is a death grip. It feels like there is no escape and there is only one solution... standardizing our practices or submitting to the death grip. 

That's right... we went from educational standards, which had the potential to impact positive change in education if they were done correctly, to standardizing education. In the end, the victims were our students, our educators, our families, our support staff, our Boards of Education and anyone else with a vested interest in our schools. Many schools were hyper focused on meeting standards for fear they would lose state funding, they would receive a low rating or, even worse, be closed down. The standardization didn't stop there. The Common Core Standards also brought with them a standardized end goal for all of our students by normalizing the idea of college and career ready. So, not only were the standards standardizing what we did in our schools, and how we assessed our kids, but they were basically standardizing the profile of our graduates (I realize this didn't happen in every school but it happened in many). "College and career ready" became the "it" phrase in education for a long time. I cannot tell you how much I've heard that phrase over the last decade - from informal conversations to workshops to Twitter chats to school vision statements - everyone was determined to ensure that all students were college and career ready. But what exactly does that mean? What careers are we preparing our kids for when we standardize education? What about the careers that are still taking shape? What about the kids who are choosing a gap year or forgoing college all together? What about life?

LIFE READY: The Birth Of a New Goal & Standard

I recently began the next phase of my professional journey when I was appointed as the superintendent in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. As part of my work, I developed an entry plan that helped me learn as much about Hastings as possible by interviewing various key stake holders in the community. The process is still unfolding but thus far I have heard from parents, Board of Education members, district administrators, staff members, community members and some students. During these many conversations (there have been over 40 thus far) there was one recurring theme... supporting our students by educating the whole child so they could be ready anything they encountered. The discussions went way beyond test scores, transcripts and college and career ready. In fact, while chatting with one of our teachers, she brought up the question about who our Hastings kids would be after they graduated 12th grade - how much of their identity would be shaped by their learning experiences in our schools and how would they use those to inform their next steps? That is when it came to me - we want our kids to be LIFE READY (this informed my opening day remarks in Hastings and you can check it out here)! We know that each learner is different and that trying to standardize the learning or the outcome is not sustainable. Instead, if we focus on empowering our students through meaningful learning experiences that go beyond the academics and nurture the ability to think critically, be reflective through high levels of self-awareness while also respecting and appreciating others we might just be preparing learners who are ready for life no matter what their college or career choices might include.

5 Practices To Support Life Ready Learners

In order to support and nurture life ready learners and make that the new norm I recommend the following 5 practices, which I have embraced. To be clear, I am suggesting that life ready not only be the goal for our students but that we model these practices as the adults. Here we go...

1) Life Ready is about Relationships! I have said this time and time again but building positive, healthy & respectful relationships must be our primary focus in education. When people feel connected, respected and valued the level of engagement changes and learning thrives. In order to make healthy relationships the norm, we must model that in our behavior through the relationships with kids, colleagues, families and the broader community. And when it comes to our kids, we need to explicitly teach them about how to develop and nurture healthy relationships. We can teach them about everything from the brain research as it relates to relationships and the research around social learning theory, which speaks to the effects of relationships on learning. Relationships matter!

2) Life Ready is about Being Learners First! Relationships and learning go hand-in-hand because relationships impact learning. We know that learning is a social construct and learning generally occurs as a result of experiences with other people. And in the end, learning permanently changes us. If we can understand and embrace this definition of learning we will be able to broaden how we enact learning in our schools and classrooms. Learning is also about being able to critically consume information and understand its impact on a broader scale than just our classrooms. Again, we must model being learners first for our students, colleagues and families. If education is about learning then the educators must be the lead learners within our schools and classrooms. And when it comes to our kids, we need to share our learning with them so they can see us as the models for being learners first. Additionally, we can teach our kids about the concept of learning and how it unfolds in an effort to empower them to track and drive their own learning. Being learners first is how we will change the world! 

3) Life Ready is about Nurturing & Embracing Curiosity, Creativity, Risk Taking and Failing in our Schools! In thinking about this idea I kept coming back to this idea... Curiosity is what piques our interest; risk taking is what inspires our learning; failing is what helps us iterate and creativity is what changes our world! This how our world changes; this is innovation (thank you George Couros for informing my perspective on innovation) - curious people who pursue something and then take risks (and likely failing repeatedly) to creatively address/solve a problem or issue. This is how we could structure learning our schools - solving problems through curiosity, creativity and collaborative efforts (again, the importance of relationships). And when it comes to our kids, we need to model this for them and make it the norm from the day they walk into pre-school. Their lives before school is all about curiosity, creativity, risk taking and failing in an effort to learn. Whether they are learning to walk, talk or ride a bike, it happens because they need to change their world on some level (communicating or traveling) and they will keep trying until they do. We need to build on this natural curiosity in schools, which means a total redo on how we define learning, homework and assessment and shift from a focus on the destination to instead a focus on the journey. 

4) Life Ready is about Having High Levels of Self-awareness and The World Around Us! This practice is critical because it involves both understanding of self and understandings of others. Aside from learning, there are many other social constructs that impact us each day and some of them, such as racism, are destructive and prohibit us, as a nation, from achieving our next and better iteration of self. In order to deconstruct and rebuild social constructs such as racism, we must begin by developing high levels of self-awareness while also understanding people and groups who have consistently been "othered" or marginalized. If we are going to change the narrative in our society we must focus on the power of education, empathy and inclusivity (another reason why relationships are important). And when it comes to our kids, we must explicitly teach them about concepts such as racism, hatred, bigotry and biases so we can inform their perspectives to prepare them to deconstruct long-standing social constructs. This important work starts with us as the educators and we must model high levels of self-awareness and speak openly about how we are changing the narrative. 

5) Life Ready is about Finding The Joy In Our Learning! When we find our joy we also rediscover our happiness and happiness leads to endorphins being released in the body. These endorphins change our experiences in positive ways and they allow us to take our learning to a whole other level. Yes, joy is critical to our work in education for both our educators and our students. Relationships, curiosity, learning and changing should all be sources of joy in our classrooms and schools. And when it comes to our kids, we should teach them the brain research around joy/happiness and the impact of endorphins on learning. We could also empower our students to pursue their passions and interests through sacred times like Genius Hour. As the educators, we should also have the time to pursue our own passions and interests as they relate to our personal and professional development. Finding and protecting our joy will make the world a better place in the journey towards creating our LIFE READY IDENTITY!

In The End... 

We aren't just looking for the next Ivy League grad or Fortune 500 CEO because we know our kids will be prepared to achieve those goals through sound instruction. We are looking for the global citizens who are going to rewrite the narrative through their actions; Who are going to change the world; Who are going to deconstruct and rebuild the social constructs that impede us from moving forward as a society. Racism, biases, hate, and marginalization can only be eradicated through high levels of self-awareness and an understanding and appreciation for the world around us. We are going to make the world a better place because of the explicit and intentional learning that will unfold in our schools. We are going to work together to define what it means to be LIFE READY! 
That is our charge. 
That is our goal. 
That is our future!   

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Looking At Learning Differently

At the start of the summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative book writing retreat with 10 other authors. The project, otherwise known as #EdWriteNow, was organized by my good friends and professional colleagues, Jeff Zoul and Joe Mazza. Jeff and Joe approached Routledge Educational Publishing with the idea of having educators from across the country get together to write a book for a cause. What happened after that is history!

While the thought of participating in this retreat just days after starting a new job gave me some anxiety, in the end, I knew I couldn't pass up the opportunity. This was about participating in a project that would contribute new ideas to the educational landscape. This was about engaging in reflective practice with professional friends as we fleshed out ideas, opinions and beliefs. This was about changing the way we think about practices we encounter and engage in each and every day within our profession. This was about writing a book where all the proceeds would go to the Will To Live Foundation. This was about making a difference with a group of people who I respect and have learned so much from over the years. To get more information about the project, check out Jeff's blog post from last week that frames the experience and spotlights the work he did in the first chapter where he reflected on changing the way we look at change!

For my contribution to the project, I was tasked with changing the way we look at learning. While I had studied the notion of social learning theory as part of my dissertation study, I hadn't really thought about the way I defined learning in school. Yes, I often think and talk about what learning could and should look like in our classrooms but I hadn't pushed myself deeper to think about how I defined learning. What is learning? How does learning happen? Who is involved in learning? And how can we determine that something was actually learned? These were just some of the questions that I wrestled with as I considered the construct of my chapter. 

This was a whole new realm for me because while I consider myself a learner first and educator second, I never wrote about learning in a way that connected to my daily practice and went beyond the surface. I began my writing journey by trying to flesh out a definition for learning that resonated with me and spoke to my experiences as a learner. The quote above speaks to my understanding that learning is a social construct that affects permanent change in an individual based on their experiences. The following is an excerpt from my book where I offer my answer to the question what is learning? You can check it out here... 

"... What is Learning?

Defining learning is like asking someone to define the concept of love - it is a somewhat abstract notion that we have all experienced, we can all probably talk about the feelings associated with it, and we might be able to describe what it looks like but, actually defining it is a whole other story. Fortunately, there have been dozens of psychologists, sociologists and researchers over time who have taken on the task of defining learning. While there are many variations of the definition, here a couple of examples that capture the essence of learning as it is defined in most spaces:

“Learning has been defined functionally as changes in behavior that result from experience or mechanistically as changes in the organism that result from experience.” De Houwer, Barnes-Holmes, Moors, 2013

“Learning is about any experience for a person that leads to permanent capacity change and not necessarily biological in nature or related to age.” Illeris, 1999

The common threads are immediately visible - learning is about a change in behaviors; learning is about experiences and subsequent changes; and learning does not happen in a silo or as a result of someone’s biological makeup. Learning is a process or journey that a person embarks on that then impacts their thinking, actions or opinions moving forward. Learning is about a permanent change in a person. Learning is about being informed and doing things differently because of what was learned. Learning is about social interactions. Learning is about thinking and then thinking differently. Learning is about living and changing over time. 

Learning is not a straightforward process that simply revolves around information provided by others. Learning is not passive or easy. In fact, learning is a lot of work - a lot of hard work that pushes educators to a point of discomfort. Alison Eyring, CEO of Organisational Solutions, recently developed a powerful analogy between learning and an oyster when she said, “The challenge of learning by experience is like sand in the oyster; it’s irritating and uncomfortable at the time, but you can end up with a beautiful pearl.” What an amazing analogy - learning isn’t mindless or uncomplicated or momentary; instead learning is a time consuming journey that will likely be irritating and uncomfortable, both literally and figuratively, because the end result will be change. Whether a change in behavior or a change in thinking, learning will lead to change and change can be unsettling and difficult for people. But, learning can also yield beautiful results, much like when the pearl emerges from the oyster, because learning can provide people with opportunities that, while inconceivable at the start of the journey, are pregnant with possibility. Learning, when allowed to unfold in a meaningful way, can help people change, evolve, and develop into a better version of self.      

Eyring went on to connect the notions of learning and development because ultimately learning is about someone’s ability to develop and grow. The research about development speaks to the fact that 70% of people’s development comes when they have certain experiences that present a challenge, like reviving a failing project/student/lesson, implementing new procedures, structures or processes, handling a challenging parent/educator or stepping into a more comprehensive role. What about the remaining 30%? Well, 20% of development is support provided by educational leaders or colleagues, and the last 10% of development is actually formal, structured learning. This is it - this is what learning looks like in life. Learning is development and it is a lot of work that requires the learner to be actively engaged and have ownership over experience. Learning can be annoying, beautiful, messy, without answers and life changing all at the same time if we create the conditions to let our students and educators actually learn."

While this is just an excerpt from my chapter, it captures the central message - what learning is and how can we reimagine the way it looks in our schools. The change journey continues in chapter 3 of the book written by my new friend Kayla Delzer who offers her powerful perspective on changing the way we look at relationships in schools! Check out her blog here because she will be sharing her experience in the coming days. 

In the end, I know that the #EdWriteNow writing retreat was a meaningful learning experience for me because it is one that changed me forever. Not only did it help me better understand the structures that should be in place to nurture collaborative learning experiences but it pushed me to flesh out my thinking around learning (and I made a bunch of new friends who I respect and appreciate). I was uncomfortable throughout the retreat because I wasn't sure of my destination but when I allowed myself to appreciate the journey, I quickly realized that is where the learning was happening. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Power of Hope and Education

As an educator who values the power of the PLN and all that I have learned from professional colleagues and personal friends from around the world (my PLN is the first place I go to learn), I wanted to share the following email that I sent to our entire community today. The contents of the email were in response to the events in Charlottesville. This was an opportunity for me to express my thoughts on racism and hatred while also communicating the power of hope and education. It may contain some information that other educational leaders, educators or families find useful when discussing the topic with their children...

Dear Hastings Community,

As a college student, one of the things that led me on my journey towards becoming an educator was the profound sense of hope that permeated the classrooms and schools I visited and worked in. Hope surrounded the daily learning experiences; hope inspired our students to dream aloud about the possibilities of the future; and hope anchored the decisions of the educators who were dedicated to doing what was in the best interest of children. It all came back to this sense of hope.

As I watched television over the last several days and learn more and more about the events that unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia, hope has been the furthest thing from my mind. While I am still trying to process and understand what happened myself, I have also been trying to answer the many questions from my 12 year old son. There are feelings of anger, confusion, and frustration as we are trying to unpack the events. In the end, there are no perfect words to explain the “whys” of what had occurred, but my son’s questioning and perspectives quickly reminded of the hope that still exists in our world, especially in our children. His interest in understanding what happened and why also reiterated the importance of education.

While we cannot avoid the fact that we live in a world where hatred, racism and discrimination are realities, in our Hastings schools we will continue to focus on the power of education and the importance of hope. We will empower our children through education so that they can leverage their innate sense of hope to make the world a better place. Our educational experiences will not only be academic in nature but will also be dedicated to supporting the development of the whole child. Whether through explicit social emotional learning experiences or conversations around racial justice, our children will be informed and knowledgeable about the role they have in the world and the responsibilities that come with being educated.

If you are looking for ways to have some of these important conversations at home, I offer the following links that I found helpful as an educator and parent…

While there is no singular solution to addressing the many issues plaguing society, such as racism and hate, we can focus our energies on our children and the impact they can have in the future as a result of their educational experiences and their innate sense of hope!


Tony Sinanis

Some additional resources that educators might want to explore, which were not included in the above communication, can be found here... 

Social Media Crowdsourced Google Doc with resources on addressing the events in Charlottesville

Google Doc I created with resources to support learning about race and racial justice 

Please feel free to use any of the text above or contribute other relevant resources in the comment section below. Together we are better for all of our children! 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Please Stop Staring

The Types of Stares

To stare means to look at someone or something in a fixed way with eyes wide open. Sometimes it can be an incredibly positive and amazing look because people are staring in awe. Individuals cannot believe what they are seeing and can't shift their eyes away. We see those stares when an acrobat performs an amazing flip or a magician makes something disappear. We can call those the AWE stares. Then there are the stares that are accompanied by a smile and sigh where people can't look away because whatever they are seeing makes them happy and fills their heart. We see those stares when we encounter an unexpected marriage proposal or see a baby take their first steps. We can call those the HAPPY stares. Then there are the other stares. The stares that are not only fixed on someone or something but are often vacant in nature and are generally accompanied by a look of shock. We see those after a terrible accident on the highway or a heart breaking story on the news. These stares do include a level of awe but not the positive type of awe; instead, these stares are often filled with pity and perpetuate a feeling of negativity. We can call those the BAD stares. The bad stares don't make anyone feel good - not the person staring and certainly not the person being stared at. Yet, the bad stares are real and pervasive in our world and we must work together to address them.

Please Stop Staring

Recently my family and I went on vacation to Aruba where we had an amazing time hanging out at the pool, enjoying the buffet and being surrounded by family and friends. The overall experience was a positive one and I cannot wait to go back to Aruba. Unfortunately, during our travels I also encountered the BAD stares and they left me feeling disappointed and disheartened. 

While I have been on the receiving end of this type of stare (I have had my share of fashion faux pas or have done something in public that I regret) this time the stares were directed at my son, Paul. Paul was born with arthrogryposis and congenital scoliosis, which have impacted his physical development and have led to certain atypical characteristics in regards to the way he walks and the shape of his spine (I have written about his journey here and here). In the end, Paul is a miracle because in the most important ways he is a typically developing and functioning kid (including possessing the attitude of a middle schooler but that is a whole other post) and he has exceeded the expectations of every doctor he has ever seen. He is smart, funny, engaging, empathetic, compassionate and, from my vantage point, pretty perfect. And while his norm may be different than others, he is a "normal" kid. Of course, when you see him you can't help but notice that there is some sort of physical issue because of his gait and the curve in his back. Fortunately, Paul does not allow himself to be defined or limited by those issues, instead he accepts them as part of who he is and realizes that they are just physical limitations not life limitations. 

In the end, Paul walks through life with a good amount of self-confidence and positivity, which serves him well but isn't necessarily visible to everyone else - especially to those who don't know him. Instead, what is visible is the curve in his spine, and the way that he walks, and these are the things that bring on the stares... the BAD stares. Now I am not sure if Paul notices the stares and just ignores them or is completely oblivious to them but I notice them and they break my heart a little bit each time. The stares bring on a range of emotions. I feel everything from anger to sadness to indifference to frustration to disappointment. And while I understand why people might glance for a moment, I don't understand why people stare - literally eyes fixed, mouths wide open and looks of shock. One time, I actually watched a person walk into a wall because they couldn't stop staring. I think the stares that I have the hardest time with are the ones that come from adults. I can't help but think - wait, you're a grown up and someone must have taught you that it is not ok to stare. Yet I see it over and over again. People stare and literally can't stop themselves; unfortunately, those stares only evoke insecurity and negativity and the time has come to stop the staring.

What Can We Do To Stop The Staring?

While I don't think schools and educators alone are the silver bullet to "fix" the societal issue that manifests itself in the form of staring (I think the issue here is a reflection of much a more systemic and pervasive issue in our world impacting people who are marginalized), I do think there are things we can do within our schools to help our students be positive global citizens. Here are 3 ideas that I think can help stop the staring...

1) Put empathy and inclusivity at the center of our work in schools - and not just during SEL time! Our curriculum can no longer be just about academic skills with a special period of social emotional learning; but, instead we must place the importance of empathy and inclusivity at the center of our work whether we are doing a read aloud, completing a science experiment or solving a math problem, we must expose our students to what it means to be an empathetic individual and citizen of the world. Just think about the whole 21st century movement - both collaboration and critical thinking skills are central to this work and are also important when thinking about developing empathy and believing in inclusivity.  We must also be mindful of our actions as the educators because we can model (and even do a "think aloud" to show kids the what and why of our thinking) empathy and inclusivity. While I do believe some people are more inclined to be empathetic and inclusive (a lot to consider in the whole nature vs. nurture argument) I think we could equip all of our students with the skills to be able to exhibit empathy and be inclusive of those around them who might be different. It is another skill set we can expose kids to through inquiry and discussion if we focus on empathy and inclusion with intentionality. Ultimately the work we need to do is about emotional intelligence and high levels of self-awareness (for students and staff) and by building those capacities, we can take the conversation beyond tolerance and acceptance and help nurture empathy and inclusivity. This is not easy work but so important because when we nurture the ability to be empathetic and inclusive, we take learning to a whole other level.    

2) Use digital platforms to connect our students to people from every walk of life - we can no longer contain the learning to the four walls of our classrooms or schools! There are so many digital platforms (new ones spring up each day) that remove all barriers (geographical, SES, gender, etc.) and allow us the opportunity to learn from the world; yes, literally learn from the world beyond our classrooms. By accessing digital platforms, we can accelerate our learning because we can engage our students with people who are different than them and the result will be an informed perspective and appreciation and respect for what makes us different. We can have our students learn from people who have a different skin color, people who speak a different language, people who subscribe to different religions, people who live a different lifestyle, people who are living with disabilities, people who aren't like our students. This type of exposure and interaction will help support the development of global citizens! 

3) Incorporate literature, texts, blog posts, articles, etc. that feature characters and people who can serve as windows and mirrors for our learners. Much like the use of digital platforms (which may not be for every community), texts can serve as the gateway to an understanding of how others experience life. To that end, we must ensure that the literature, and other text based resources, available to our kids are rich, diverse and inclusive. Ultimately, empathy is about understanding, respecting, and potentially appreciating, the experiences of others. 

In The End... 

These are just three possibilities of what we can do in our schools today to help nurture the development of global citizens who are empathetic and inclusive... and don't stare. I am sure there are better ways to accomplish this goal but the problem is real and we must address it sooner rather than later because our kids, my kid, deserve better. In the meantime though, to all the adults out there, please stop staring.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017

5 Leadership Lessons From Dad

My Dad...

It took me many years to realize this but my dad has had the singular greatest influence and impact on the man I have become today. While growing up I spent most of my time with my mother and grandmother, it was those quiet moments with dad that I treasured; it was those deep discussions with dad that impacted me; it was watching my dad that helped me understand what kind of man and father I wanted to be. Unfortunately, I didn't quite realize this until I met my partner. As I got to know my partner and grew to love many aspects of his personality it clicked that the thing I loved most was that he reminded me of my dad. They are both kind, patient, quiet, supportive and humble beyond words; yes, my partner reminded of my dad! My dad, who is my mentor; my dad, who is my best friend; my dad, who is my role model; and my dad, who is my hero!

My dad left his home, in Greece, alone at the age of 17, and came to the land of opportunity where the streets were paved with gold. My dad was the chosen one to take that journey because his family saw possibilities in him. In fact, many people in my dad's village chipped in to pay for his travel expenses so he can come to the United States of America and begin a new life. Not only did my dad begin a new life but he started a family, he persevered to connect with others in a country where he had little understanding of the language, and, in the end, after being here for over 60 years, it is clear that he thrived on many levels. He thrived as a husband (my mom has always been the strength behind many of his successes), as a dad, as a grandpa, as a friend and as a business man. Yes, this man, who came to our country with a few dollars in his pocket and no English, thrived as a successful business man and leader!

Leadership Lessons From My Dad...  

As I start to prepare for my new professional endeavor, as Superintendent of Schools in Hastings on Hudson, I started to reflect on the leaders and leadership lessons that have had the greatest influence on me. Yes, I have been influenced by the likes of Whitaker, Senge and Fullan but the one person I kept coming back to was my dad. My dad has had the greatest impact on who I am as a leader because of these 5 leadership lessons he taught me... 

1) Listen more than you talk... a lot more! My dad is the best listener on the planet. No matter what anyone is telling him, he always listens attentively, patiently and supportively. There is no judgement. There is no overreaction. There is no dismissing of others. There is only listening for the purposes of understanding and appreciating someone else's journey. This was crystalized for me when I came out to my dad at 40 years old. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do and I was pretty certain that as a traditional and religious Greek man, who grew up in another time period, he would not be able to understand or support me. But, that was the farthest from the truth. He listened patiently and when I was done he asked if I was happy and when I said yes, he responded with, "That is all I care about because your happiness is more important than my own!" I had never appreciated my dad more than I did at that moment. I also realized that my dad had modeled one of the most important leadership skills... listening without judgement! So as I get ready for my new journey, I am going to try and listen a lot more than I talk!  

2) Understand and respect your professional context! My dad owned and ran a service station (he was an auto mechanic and his station did repairs and sold gas) in a community that was comprised predominately of members of a conservative religious group. While my dad had little understanding of the community when he opened his shop, he immersed himself in the community and got to know the people, their beliefs, their values and their needs. My dad used this information to tailor the experience at his station to best meet the needs of his community - he closed the station on days of religious holidays that were important in the community, he learned some of the language spoken in the community and he connected with the people; everyone that came to his station knew that Paul would take care of them because he understood and respected them. As my journey as an educational leader has unfolded, I have called on this lesson many times and it has served me well in connecting with members of a community because I took the time to get to know them and understand their values. I am especially mindful of this lesson as I prepare to begin my journey as a Superintendent because my father has helped me recognize that leadership is as much about context as it is about the skills of the leader.    

3) Be supportive and don't judge, even when you don't understand or agree! My dad is the most supportive and encouraging human being on the planet. No matter how serious the problem or complicated the situation, my dad always stays calm and supports those in need. When my son was born with various medical issues, I was a mess because I couldn't wrap my head around what the future may hold for Paulie... would he walk? Would he be healthy? Would he be independent? Would he be happy? The questions and fears flooded my mind and the only thing that made me feel better was talking to my dad because he calmed me down and reminded me to keep my focus on what I could control because that is what my son needed. This is a leadership lesson that has guided me hundreds of times over the last decade whether dealing with an anxious staff member or a fragile child or an irate parent, I try and remain calm so the person knows they are supported even if I don't understand or agree with them. Support goes a long way because it challenges us to keep the focus on the issues and avoid passing judgement.   

4) Find balance in your personal life because people in your professional world are watching! While my dad worked 20 hour days when I was a baby, as I got older he began spending less time at work and more time with our family. And when I turned 8, the unthinkable happened... my dad, who had worked every single day from the age of 17, took the entire summer off and traveled to Greece with me. We went on road trips, visited family and spent time connecting. There was no work and no late hours - it was just quality time with family. While his employees and customers were shocked that he was away from his work for over a month, in the end, they developed a whole other layer of respect for him because of the value he placed on family. This lesson has been an important one for me because when I first entered educational leadership I spent many hours away from home and missed a lot of time with Paulie. As I have grown older, I have become much more conscious of the importance of balance and so now, when I am with my family, I am with my family. While this means that I have to stay up late and wake up early to get work done, this balance helps me amass the emotional deposits I need to sustain myself in both personal and professional worlds. In fact, this balance has also made an impression on those in my professional world who have commented on how much they appreciate my attempts to maintain balance. This lesson has reminded me that balance in my personal life doesn't only have a positive impact on me but it could also have a positive impact on those in my professional world who are watching.

5) Be humble! My dad spent his life introducing himself as an auto mechanic but what most people didn't know is that my dad is an incredibly successful business man. Not only did my dad fix cars but he also owned and managed several successful service stations at the same time. My dad is a lot more than "just" an auto mechanic but in the end, it is his humility and ability to remain humble that always strike me and those who know him. As I leader, this is something I always keep in mind - I stay humble by taking my work seriously but not taking myself seriously. So, while I may have a specific title in front of my name, I will always be a humble and proud educator! 

Words cannot capture how much my dad means to me but as we prepare to celebrate Father's Day, I hope sharing his story with the world means that many other people will benefit from the 5 leadership lessons my dad taught me! Thank you dad - I love you!

So, if you have a few minutes after you read this post, please feel free to leave a comment below and tell my dad (Paul Sr.) which leadership lesson resonates most with you.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

Redefine The Roles, Not The Whole System

McIver Institute

Education Reform: Is It Necessary?

Does our educational system need to be reformed? While I think many people would answer a resounding YES, I am a bit more skeptical, cautious and honestly, uncertain. While the word reform speaks to making changes to improve a specific institution, when it comes to education, it seems to be synonymous with a complete overhaul; an implosion of the current system and a entire rebuild. While that may be necessary, that is an awesome task that would require a coordinated effort behind a clear vision and goal in the best interest of all learners. An effort that would be dedicated to providing all learners a meaningful academic experience (not to only be defined by the adults) regardless of SES, geographical location or race; in the end, the reform effort would be about equity for all learners. Unfortunately, in my opinion, I don't think those clear goals and vision exist at this time and that is one of the major stumbling blocks impacting the reform movement. 

Those involved in driving the reform movement are not deeply connected to what is happening in classrooms today; they are not seeking input from students, families and educators; they are not trying to change the behaviors and philosophy of those directly involved in learning and teaching; instead, they are trying to overhaul the whole system, from a macro level, and the results have been inconsistent, at best. 

Do things in our schools need to change? Yes, they do but not just because the system is "broken" but because the world around us is constantly changing, iterating and evolving. I have been immersed in discussions, readings and debates about the reform movement over the last five years and what I have come to realize is that there is no silver bullet to change the whole system. The charter school system is flawed; the school voucher movement is questionable at best; and the privatization of our public schools has literally polarized our nation. What we know today is that none of the major reform movements have proven to be effective in a sustainable way. Yes, there are pockets of success but in the end, no singular reform movement has been the silver bullet because the task is too awesome to happen in a vacuum without changing the behaviors of those responsible for the change... our kids and educators.  

Redefine The Roles, Don't Focus on Reforming The Whole System

If we want our kids to be able to navigate the world around them then we need to meet them where they are and change the way we do things in school. I don't mean by implementing a scripted curriculum or buying a bunch of stuff to throw into the classrooms; I mean by investing in the people within the organization (kids, families & educators) and make a concerted effort to redefine the roles in education as the starting point for improving our schools and reform our practice. If we want reform to be pervasive and sustainable on a greater scale than the current "pockets of success" then we need to make the following happen...

1. Change behaviors and actions of the students, educators and families, which lead to a... 

2. Change in thinking and philosophy within the students, educators and families (according to Dr. Stangor), which lead to...

3. The development of a shared vision and common goals through intentional work, which are...

4. The beginnings of positive change... aka, REFORM!


Redefining The Roles: What Should We Do?

When thinking about the major roles in education, we find ourselves thinking about the children, their respective families and the educators (including teachers, support staff and educational leaders). For the purposes of this post, I am going to focus on ways we could redefine the roles of teachers and building/district administration but also offer some possibilities for children and families. Here we go:

Children (if your schools permit)... 

1. Drive the learning in your classroom by asking questions, offering ideas and collaborating with those around you.

2. Find your passion and pursue it... but not just on a surface level, instead, immerse yourself in the subject and learn everything you can so you become an expert.

Families (if your schools permit)... 

1. Be actively engaged in what your child is learning in school; this doesn't mean do their HW or enable them but instead just be aware of what your children are learning and why they are learning the content. 

2. Communicate with your child's teacher or building leader for both positive reasons and with any questions and concerns; educating our children is collaborative effort and a strong home/school partnership is critical.


1. Engage families in the learning that is unfolding in the classroom in a current, dynamic and relevant way (blog about it, tweet about it, post pictures about it).

2. Don't focus solely on covering content and curriculum; instead, teach the learners before you. Teach the readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists, etc. sitting before you because if you focus on teaching the reading, writing, math, science, etc. you are going to miss an opportunity to empower kids to take ownership of their learning because you will end up simply "covering" the curriculum.

3. Focus on the journey of learning and give your learners opportunities to be immersed in the inquiry process. Encourage your student to drive the learning in your shared learning space (classroom is so 1971). No, this doesn't mean the teacher isn't necessary; in fact, it means the teacher is even more necessary because they frame the parameters, they facilitate/support the learning and they meet each child at their readiness level and help them grow. It is not easy work.

4. Give rise to agency in your shared learning space so children can act with some level of independence and make decisions about their learning.

5. Talk to kids to find out how things are going and how your teaching is impacting them and their thinking; don't be afraid of this feedback because our kids are our most important "customers".

Edu Administrators/Leaders...

1. Be a lead learner, which means model being a learner first and empower those around you to take ownership of their learning. Being a learner is step one but then you should share your learning in a public way (possibly through a blog or through tweets) because you want people in the organization to know you are a learner first and that you value learning.  

2. Be present and engaged because you cannot effectively lead people, systems or change from your office. As a central office administrator this year, I made it my goal to spend at least 40% of my time in classrooms (apparently this is not the norm for central/district office leaders). While it meant staying up late to get caught up on the administrative work, it informed my practice in ways that I never could have imagined. Not only did I nurture relationships with those around me, but I came to see, with my own eyes, what learning and instruction looked like in our district. These new found understandings, rooted in people, came to inform decisions about everything from professional development to furniture purchases. 

3. Communicate with those around you and be transparent in what you are doing and why you are doing it. Instead of having administrative meetings behind closed doors in an office somewhere, make them a walking meeting and 

4. Make feedback a norm because one of the best ways to reflect, change behaviors and shape philosophy is through objective feedback on practices based on observations. Feedback doesn't just become a norm by saying it is a new norm - there must be practice and professional development around the work of giving and receiving feedback. In the end, we must always be mindful of the intent of our feedback and the actual impact it has on those around us because they may not always align.

5. Don't look at data in a vacuum and don't use said data to purchase stuff to address student needs or fix perceived problems. Want to fix a problem? Invest in the people affected by, and possibly affecting, the problem. Yes, research based programs are valuable but research based instructional approaches and techniques carried out by our teachers, who we should support through meaningful personal and professional development, trumps every program, resource or curriculum.

What Does It All Mean?

Yes, the lists above could go on and on (feel free to add to them in the comments section below) but, in the end, if we want to see sustainable change in our schools, we have to focus on shaping and changing the behaviors of the people within the organization. That is the first step to meaningful reform.