Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lead, Learn, and Get Out of the Way.

NJPAECET2 stands for New Jersey and Pennsylvania Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers. The goal was to create an environment where 150 selected educators had opportunities to connect with peers, present/attend multiple hour-long PD sessions, have breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and open bar, a room to sleep in, and an opportunity to do it again the next day in an unconference format. Everything was free: paid for by a Gates Foundation grant and sponsors. This way, attendees could focus solely on their craft. They wouldn’t have to call out sick, make sub plans, or pay anything out of pocket. Just come. We’d take care of the rest. After the two days, I had some time to reflect. Here are my five takeaways:

Educators Need High Expectations for Themselves: During my opening remarks on Saturday morning, I received some applause when I mentioned there would be free food all day. I followed up that statement highlighting that there was an open bar from 5-7 PM. Imagine my surprise when I walked past a couple educators later in the day who saw the beer and wine varieties and said, “He was serious!” Educators shouldn’t feel surprised when they are treated like the true professionals they are. Whether it’s hot food for breakfast (which was another surprise for some attendees), swag in the bag, or adult drinks with dinner, we are worth it. We spend more time with children over a nine month period than their families do. In turn, we sacrifice our time with our own families during that same period. So yeah, you earned that beer, bacon, and swag. Expect it. You’re that good.

Invigoration Isn’t Just for Spas: Invigoration is a word I heard used a lot at NJPAECT2. I can’t tell you how many educators came up to me and said, “I needed this, it was such a tough week.” It’s only September. We’ve been in school for a couple weeks. Nick Ferroni (@nicholasferroni) shared during his Ted-style Talk how easy it is to get beaten down by the system for so many reasons, but there are so many good teachers doing great things. Jimmy Casas (@casas_jimmy) and Dr. Jeff Zoul (@jeff_zoul) mentioned all the pockets of excellence in education, and how putting ourselves out there leaves us vulnerable to people who live outside those pockets, but in our educational system. However, when we continue to strive to get better for our students by taking risks and flaunting failure, we are also bettering ourselves. Of course, trying new things and showing our authenticity leaves us open to criticism, and hearing criticism when in a vulnerable place can be eviscerating. The positives in being authentic and having authentic relationships are exhilarating, better than any spa experience.

Surround Yourself with Greatness: What I love most about PD conferences is the opportunities to connect with other teachers and leaders. I learn more from them and hearing their personal stories than I do from the conference itself. I am a better educator and person from my conversations with Tom Snyder (@snydesn2), Edward Gordon (@principalgordon), Mark Mautone (@markmautone), Matt Rogers (@mrrogerswte), and Cindy Assini (@cindyassini), just to name a few. I’ve increased my PLN by 150 people. I know that if I am confused how to best tier my questions to scaffold instruction to students I can reach out to Jeanne Muzi (@muzilearninglab). If I am unsure about how best to teach a math concept to mastery, I can connect with Manan Shah (@shahlock). And, so can you. A key part of the NJPAECET2 experience, and a reason specific people were identified by their peers, was because of their willingness to share what they know and admit when they don’t. Keep sharing on both ends. We’ll all get better because of it.

You Should Be Following Kathy Suk (@ksukeduc): I’m not asking you to stalk her, but she should never have to ask for people to follow her on Twitter. We should do so because knowing her will make us better people. Kathy may have shown the rest of us her spirit and passion through her Ted-style Talk during NJPAECET2 dinner, but her daily fight on behalf of children is something I always knew. Knowing her backstory only elevated how I view her, because she is a selfless educational servant for families everywhere. No matter how hard her road, she always woke up ready to leave her baggage at the door and shoulder other people’s problems. I also know from a logistical and planning point-of-view, there is no one better. When I needed to get something done, she was my mover and shaker. Just remember, when pronouncing her name it’s Suk as in book, not Suk as in truck. I made that mistake once. Once. As I say, she’s spirited.

It’s When, Not If: Passionate, prideful educators who want to do what’s best for kids know it begins with doing what’s best for educators first. If we create authentic professional and personal development opportunities where educators can learn, grow, and share safely together, we will elevate the profession together. It will not be a matter of if we do it, it will be a matter of when we do it. The #NJPAECET2 planning team and I set out to create an environment that would celebrate all the good things we’re doing in New Jersey and Pennsylvania school districts daily, highlight them so other attendees could benefit, build an invincible connected education network that we can all learn from, and turnkey all learning for those who didn’t get to NJPAECET2. This time: it’s not a matter of if they get to come. It’s when they get invited.

Dr. Irvin Scott (@iscott4) once said to me, “Leadership is what happens when you leave the room.” I left the room a lot during our planning leading up to the convening. Most communication came from emails. Very rarely did we all need to connect. It was more a matter of soliciting who had specific skill sets, asking them to manage a task, and letting them run with it. It wasn’t until the end, when we needed to create an agenda, schedule breakout sessions, and make a timeline for the two days, when multiple people worked together on something at once. Even then, as Glenn Robbins, Kate Baker, Liz Calderwood, and Jeff Bradbury talked on Voxer while using Google Drive to schedule, they only asked me to check in on occasion. I just needed to hand off the ball and stay out of the way.

I was physically out of the way during the second day of our convening. After I made the opening remarks and turned the unconference over to Liz and Kate, my wife called. My son, who complained of stomach pains all night, was in the ER. I needed to come. I talked quickly with Kathy and Chris Giordano, outlined the sequence of events for the day, and Kathy and Chris said, “We got this. Go.”
I left. They did. My son, after three days in the hospital is home. He’s fine.

I missed three closing Ted-style talks by Sandi Paul (@spaul6414), Mark Mautone, and Jeff Bradbury (@teachercast), a guest appearance by a friend (@masauzicanin), lunch, and more raffles for swag. You know who didn’t miss me? Glenn, Liz, Jeff, Chris, Kathy, Steve Figurelli (@mrfigurelli), Andy Curtis (@curtiscoltrane), and Josh Zagorski (@jzagorski1). They knew what to do. I was out of the way.

Until we do it again.

Not if. When.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Slogans Are the New Black

Many school districts open their doors each year to staff with a new slogan, like: "No excuses, just results," or, "Failure is not an option." But are these sayings any more motivating when we see them in a fitness commercial? Do these slogans peter out a few weeks after New Year's Eve, like a resolution to join the gym? Will building staff know to expect a new slogan the following year, since it will follow the same path as a broken New Year's resolution?
If a slogan has merit, it is because it becomes part of the culture of the environment. The slogan holds true over time. Leadership defines, trains, models, and sets the expectation for what they want to see. Staff understand the value and need for what leadership is suggesting because it's been fully explained, and staff know they will receive the necessary resources to embed this practice into what they already do. There isn't a need for a new mantra the following year because the original one holds true. Whatever the expectation introduced, it remains there, regardless of state policy changes, new staff, or board membership dynamics. Do the fans of the Penn State football team change their signature back and forth chant on off years from, "We are -- Penn State," to, "We like -- Chipotle guacamole?"
The same should hold true for a school district, regardless of a change in leadership on any level. If a district has a "Commitment to Excellence," why should this mission statement ever change? New leadership should fit the vision already in place. Committing to a vision means that the mantra accurately reflects the needs of the students and families in the community. The vision is real, dependable, and free of sound-byte rhetoric.
This does not mean that when leadership develops a solid mission statement it then rests on its laurels. The opposite should occur: leadership should continue to investigate ways to meet the bar they've set. If the vision "Commitment to Excellence," "Failure is Not an Option," or "No Excuses, Just Results," is the expectation, and the district is going BYOD, then staff members will expect to return to default mode: professional development on a regular, on-going basis, with scaffolded support, so all have an opportunity to comprehend how the revised expectation is in line with the current mantra, and remains what's best for children.
It is too easy for us as educators to rely on slogans each year with the hope of motivating our staff to perform at a high level. Honestly, if our staff needs slogans to produce, chances are whatever spike in performance that's visible will become as dormant as the treadmill purchased on January 2nd. Truly, most staff value consistency that what's said is what's done, as opposed to yearly catch-all catch phrases. Like the children they teach, staff members want to know the expectation and it's validity, so they can then understand the need to do what is asked on a daily basis. When the expectation is clearly communicated and modeled, it becomes the reality. And, reality is the space in which we live.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Bridge to Whitby

I like Tom Whitby. A lot.

He is honest, caring, passionate, and thoughtful.

I read his posts, see him at EdCamps, and value his opinion. He made it a point to get to know me at one of the first EdCamps I ever went to. Every time I see him, he asks me how I am and how my children are. I've even drank wine with him at a bar in Washington, D.C. (Ask him about throwing Jolly Ranchers at teachers).

If at the end of my education career people say to me, "I put your career in the same ballpark as Tom Whitby's career," then I did my job well.

However, in Tom's recent post about the parallel universes of the connected and disconnected, there's one concept I think he missed: the cliques that exist within both worlds. It's not as if we're inviting each other in to one another's world. Our worlds aren't colliding on their own, like George Constanza's famous phrase. Our worlds are insular from each other, and even insular to one another who inhabit said worlds.

What do I mean? Within the sit-n-git, one-shot, make and take professional development world, many educators don't talk to one another. They do not connect on a personal level to those they do not know. They sit with whomever they came with, maybe make lighthearted talk with someone else at the table, and leave. There's no follow-up. The end result is all of the people at the table grow at a slower rate comparative to what it could be if they engaged in authentic discussion about pedagogy and practice before, during, and after the conference. It's this lack of dialogue within the traditional disconnected world that slows their growth. But, is it so different compared to how connected educators behave at unconferences?

If you've been to enough unconferences, you start to see a pattern, very similar to those at conventional professional development conferences. Unconference veterans tend to be with only each other. They attend the same sessions, sit together at lunch, and hang out afterwards. How does that help the people who aren’t connected to those connected learners? It's too easy to say that newbies need to be bold: introduce themselves, strike up conversations, be friendly. Not everyone is wired that way. That's like saying children who are bullied should just stand up to the bully and tell him/her to stop. If you've ever been bullied, you know that doesn’t work. Asking people to step up when they’re new (or newer) to an unconference is asking them to move even further out of their comfort zone, putting no onus on veterans.

Now, I’m not making blanket statements. I’ve met some great educators I learn from daily from unconferences. They’ve been to my birthdays, held my kids, and won money in my monthly Texas hold ‘em game. But, not everyone has my experience. And, fences don't get cut down just because someone holds a saw. If we want to knock down the fence that separates the connected from the disconnected, and the cliques within both, we’re going to have to genuinely reflect about whether this applies to us or not. While we don’t have to tell people to be something they’re not, we all do have an opportunity to learn from each other if we take it. Our worlds and the worlds within them don't necessarily have to collide, but we can build a bridge between all of them that intersect so people can freely move between them as they’re comfortable.

We can even name it after the person who makes sure people who are at unconferences don’t feel uncomfortable.

Tom Whitby.

Friday, August 8, 2014

REMINDing Me What's Important

Sometimes a small reminder goes a long way.

For example, a simple text message sent from one caring college friend to remind him to get to class can spur a startup company. Called, Remind.

Brett Kopf, the co-founder of Remind, has dyslexia and ADHD. He benefited from a routine schedule in high school. However, when he got to college, the staggered class times, the infrequency in attending class, the transition from high school to college, all of this was too much. Brett needed someone to help him. By having a friend text him to remind him of due dates, Brett was able to graduate college and start his own company. Remind, a free mobile messaging service that teachers around the world use to connect to students and parents, currently has 10 million users. These 10 million users get reminders of due dates daily because of an idea based off one text message with a singular goal in mind -- let me help someone who needs it.

As Brett did, it’s important to remind ourselves of what we really need from other human beings. Whether it be text, tweet, email, or phone, we need someone to support us and who we can be open, honest, vulnerable, and trusting with. Who won’t expect anything in return for their help, because their validation is knowing they helped someone else be in a better place.  

Clara Galan did that for me today. She works at Remind with Brett. We met through a mutual friend. I shared with her my dilemma: some of the funding for a free, overnight professional development event  I’m working with 14 educators from New Jersey and Pennsylvania on fell through. Our goal is to provide a forum for 125 selected teachers and teacher leaders from our two states to have good educational conversations, share best practices, empower each other, and turnkey new learnings when we return to our home base. Food and lodging (and even some swag) will be taken care of by sponsors, everyone builds their PLN base, students benefit, and everybody wins.

But, no one wins if we can’t make up the funding difference. “You need to call Clara,” my friend, Nick Ferroni, said. “She’s great. She’ll help you.”

When Nick told me Clara was great, he didn’t define in how many ways: she listened to our situation, offered advice, promised to provide introductions to potentially interested sponsors, and didn’t want anything in return. When I asked her what I could do to support her, or Remind, she said, “We all want the same thing. We just want to help kids. That’s all that matters.”

I thanked her, not for her knowledge of how to help my team and I as we search to recoup our missed funding, but for the positive place she put me in. Her energy, enthusiasm, and selfless nature made me feel better -- not just about the project, but about the good within people. With all the hard work my passionate teammates put into securing sponsorships, finding a location, selecting lodging, and creating the right atmosphere for learning, I felt like I’d let them down as I told them we could do it.

Clara’s genuine kindness reminded me of what was truly important: that whether we pulled this event off was unimportant compared to the shared vision my teammates and I had, and the singular focus we had to create an event that would help our peers improve their practice to be more successful. I think Brett Kopf, and his friend from college, would approve.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Ferroni Matters

How far would you go to make sure learning matters for your students? Would you make a promposal to model Brittany Mason? Create a Vine to send to soul singer Maxwell? Mass tweet Chipotle? Share with your students that you glued your ears to your head when you were twelve and never went to prom?

How about turn down a six-figure salary as Susan Lucci’s love interest to teach high school social studies?

If you’re Nick Ferroni, that was your Friday of last week.

I met Nick through Twitter. Both of us are New Jersey teachers, went to Rutgers, and are around the same age. But, that’s about where it ends on its surface. Nick was a three-star high school athlete, a scholarship division I football player, made some money underwear modeling, and had walk on roles on a soap opera. I wear underwear, played sports, and hated soap operas.Nick, me.jpg-large

If you look at our picture together, there’s me on the left, and the man who Men’s Health called “One of the 25 fittest men in America” on the right. Nick’s biggest takeaway from this picture? His forehead looks shiny. My biggest takeaway: my body looks like Mr. Potato Head and it’s time for me to get a personal trainer.

Where Nick and I are similar is where we matter: we’ll both go to any lengths to make sure students learn, and how we define learning is much deeper than what’s in any textbook, teacher’s guide, or curriculum. We’re looking at students long-term: what impact will they have on society, and what impact will society have on them? What can we do to aid students so they have a positive experience in life, bouyed with a skill set transferrable to any situation. Can we teach them to solve problems, collaborate, advocate, compromise, and think creatively? Can we get them to push their boundaries from what they think they can do to what we think they can do?
Nick will buy gym memberships and train students who need a positive emotional release. He has a stack of protein bars in his desk in case his students get hungry. He leverages his experiences in theatre and the arts to invite in Maxwell, Brittany Mason, Brian Leonard, and more, to talk about their life experiences. Then, Nick weaves these experiences to draw parallels to the subject he teaches. Because, when he shuts the door, Nick is the curriculum. And, he takes that job seriously.

Which is why, when I have an opportunity to hang with a high energy, humble, creative rockstar educator, I’m going to do it. Even if it means waking up earlier than usual, driving an hour, and going to another school when my district is closed. This is probably how Nick’s students feel when they come to school: that there’s something worth coming inside for. And, that is half the battle.

Nick allowed me to live tweet the charades his students did to prepare for the US History 1 exam they had coming up. The energy, enthusiasm, and engagement I saw from the students and their teacher made me want to join in. Here are a few of them, as well as the class Twitter feed:

When I left later that day, I learned two things about Nick and his students: they have a real desire to eat Chipotle before their lives are over, and I want to spend more time with them. I hope both happen soon so we can cross them off our bucket lists. Maybe we can all go to Chipotle together? (FYI, still waiting for a tweet-back from Rusty).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What Are Your Non-Negotiables?

The Common Core State Standards tell us what students should know and be able to do academically at the end of a school calendar year. They are, in essence, non-negotiables. But, what about you? What are your non-negotiables?

What should your students know and be able to do when they leave your classroom, your school, or your district? What’s most important that you can pass on to them?

Early in my teaching career, one of my non-negotiables was being a content and control specialist. I knew my material and loved to share it at the front of the room. I orated and did my best Dead Poets Society and Stand and Deliver impersonations. The content was dry, so I needed to make it fun by being ‘the fun teacher.’ I thought that was how teaching was done: by replicating what I’d been through in public education, what I learned in college courses, and what I’d seen in movies. But, I wasn’t teaching: I was wasting our time. Students were bored because I was teaching them that learning is boring. No wonder they passed notes, talked while I was talking, and made poor decisions. I put them in that position by keeping them isolated in their seats all day. I would have done the same thing if I were a student in my own class.

As I’ve grown as an educator, I’ve changed this non-negotiable. I’ve moved from a teacher-centered environment to a student-centered one. I’ve learned that I can’t control the learning outcome. Students control that. I can’t make students learn. Students control that, too. What I can do is create an environment that is conducive to student learning occurring: short mini-lessons and active student engagement, while embedding cooperative learning and character education in each lesson. I can make the learning environment fun, and through that, I can teach students that learning is fun. Because, when learning is fun, students will stay engaged in the process, even when it gets hard.

The Common Core State Standards are hard. There is a lot to cover, and the depth is tremendous. I can see why teachers get overwhelmed and scared. This is why I believe it is so important to know our non-negotiables, and fall back on our personal mission statements: what do I want my students to know and be able to do at the end of a school calendar year? What are my non-negotiables as an educator and a person. What is my role?

Even with the advent of the Common Core State Standards, my role as an educator hasn’t changed: if anything it’s become more important to stick to my moral compass. I need to work with students to create an environment that is safe, so they are comfortable learning and taking risks. I want to help build creative, outside-the-box thinkers of strong character, ones who use rejection or failure as opportunities to grow. My objective at the end of the year is to help activate the problem solving and skill set necessary within my students so they will be successful when they’re adults. Because, they will learn from this failure and rejection, and work harder by growing from it. But most of all, when students leave at the end of a school calendar year, I want them to know I didn’t teach them anything: we learned it together.

Now, I don’t want people to think I’m down on the Common Core State Standards. I believe in them. I think there’s a lot of good stuff in there. I work with different education constituencies to assist educators in understanding the instructional shifts brought about by the Common Core. However, at our core, it is important that we always remember why we are educators, and what the most important thing we can do as educators -- and that’s too build the next generation of society with the skill set necessary for success in college, career, and life.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Impressions Leave a Mark

Zig Ziglar once said, “It’s not where you start that counts, it’s where you finish that matters.” As my students and I begin the last stretch of our almost ten month journey together, I don’t want them to lose sight of their own personal growth as people and students. If school ended today, I’d want them to be proud of their development as citizens and lifelong learners. They are on their way to making their mark on society. But, our school year isn’t over today. We have five weeks to continue to grow, develop, reflect, hold ourselves and each other accountable, and be better than we were the day before.

Which is why, one day recently, as my students gave their worst impression of ball toss during Morning Meeting, it was time to talk about our lasting impressions, and the legacy they leave.

Our class has Morning Meeting at the beginning of each day. We begin with a whole class greeting, making sure we’ve all said hello to one another. Our current favorite greeting is Ball Toss greeting. In this greeting, a student verbally says good morning to another, tosses a tennis ball to them, and is greeted back by the student who caught the ball. This student then greets another student and tosses them the ball. Over the course of the greeting, each student has been greeted, has greeted another, caught the ball, and tossed it. Everyone is involved. As we’ve become more proficient doing this over time, we’ve added more balls to the greeting. Each ball continues the same pattern as the first ball, being thrown and caught by the same ordered people pattern until the final person has all the tennis balls. As an additional challenge, the last person who caught the ball during forward ball toss reverses the direction. We then do ball toss backwards and non-verbally, so the ball travels back to the person who began the greeting, but no one can speak as we do it.

However, what happens when everyone is involved in Ball Toss but not engaged? The students were not holding themselves accountable to the guidelines they set for themselves. The start didn’t look any better than the end: students and their peers dropped balls, made errant, no look throws, giggled, and wayward tennis balls lightly hit peers in the face and stomach. I could have chalked up our approach and execution to the Monday morning blues. Or, that standardized testing had finished the prior Thursday. But the combination of our foibles, and our reaction to them, made me feel that this was something different. We needed to talk about it, not excuse it away.

I asked the students to stop the greeting and sit down. I asked them to reflect on why they thought we stopped. They identified our errors, citing busy weekends, the end of standardized testing, being a Monday, and a plethora of other reasons why our minds weren’t in the greeting. Would they have used these reasons if we were taking a quiz today? A standardized test? If their parents were here? Would these reasons have been acceptable then? When prompted, they all shook their heads no, and explained why it wouldn’t have been acceptable.

“Why is it okay for you to do it now and why will you accept less than your best?” I asked. “How do you want me to remember you? How you want to remember each other, and our year together?”

They were staring at me. They were engaged. They wanted to explore these questions. Now, how was I going to drive this moment home? How would I help them see that this wasn’t about ball toss anymore. It was about how we carry ourselves, how we hold ourselves (and each other) accountable. And, how we bring our best effort every day and expect that of others. Because, we’re worthy, they’re worthy, and neither of us should accept anything less. Ever.

When I want to reflect, I write about it (see this post). It provides me with perspective. I asked the students to do the same: write a letter to themselves explaining what they did and why they did it. On the back of the paper, they were asked to write down their personal goals for their final 28 days as fifth graders. “People are going to remember you for the first impression and last impression you make,” I reminded them. “How do you want to be remembered here in your final year in elementary school? What should your legacy be?”

After five minutes of writing, I cooperatively grouped students. They were asked to speak to their group members about their writing. I would circulate, but I was a silent observer. This wasn’t about me. This was about students sharing their thoughts, listening to their peers share theirs, and discuss how they would learn and grow from this experience.

When students returned to their seats, they were invited to share a synopsis of what they wrote. They didn’t have to, but many did: “I want to be remembered as a good student and a good person.” “I want my classmates to know I gave my best effort.” “I am going to enjoy these last 28 days the way I enjoyed every other day by doing my best.”

I thanked the student sharers for their honesty. I then asked them to keep the paper in their classwork folder. This paper wasn’t for me to collect and use to remind them of the deal they made with themselves. This was about each student holding what they wrote close to them, and referring back to it until they didn’t need to anymore. Until they began to do these things naturally, consistently, leaving a positive impression wherever they go. Because, that’s what people will remember. And people should remember the good that’s in all of us.

Most importantly, that’s what I want my students to carry with them as they go through life: a positive lasting impression that leaves a never-ending mark, and a willingness to reflect when they haven’t. Both will be more powerful lessons learned than anything else I will ever teach them. I hope that my impressions will leave a mark, and we will consistently learn from each experience begun, whether we finish each one or not.