Giving Kids Their Just Des(s)erts

Throughout the summer, I often keep my eye on experiences that could serve as inspiration for ways in which I could think differently in the upcoming school year.  In fact, I evaluate each experience for its potential presence in my future leadership decisions.  Last week, at my block party on Sesame Street, I was reminded of four essential attributes of successful classrooms and schools.  Yes, I do live on Sesame Street. These reminders did not take place on the countless trips I took on the inflatable slip and slide or while I was throwing a baseball at the dunk tank’s target (although I do believe that fun should saturate teaching and learning).  Yet, the ice cream party for the tens of kids (and adults who stopped by for a taste and some awesome coffee) hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Bradshaw (Mr. and Mrs. Bradshaw, Sr.) motivated this blog post and a look at key elements of great schools

 

PATIENCE

One can imagine the scene when an ice cream party in a neighbor’s gazebo is announced at a block party after kids spent hours getting dunked in a dunk tank, sliding down water slides, eating sno-cones, and filling up with as much sugar as they could find.  “What? Ice cream? Where? How do I get there? Up that hill????”  I was one of those kids.  I quickly grabbed my son, Max, so I would have an excuse to get a bite of chocolate.  Well, I knew he would want ice cream, too.  Of course the expected scene ensued. Kids were grabbing, yelling with excitement, asking to try flavors (as if it were an ice cream shop), etc.  I looked up to see the Bradshaws as calm and cool as can be.  Speaking to a five year old, “Can I help you young man? Sure, coming right up.”  Mr. Bradshaw even went through each topping choice to ensure kids made the right choice.  AMAZING!  As educators, we need to model this same patience.  Let’s allow kids to be kids and in the midst of bursting energy, still make students feel as if they have as much time as they need to make the right decisions.  Due to the Bradshaws’ patience, there was personalization in this gazebo.  All kids should get this in their ice cream sundae and more importantly, in their education as well.

CHOICE

In hearing the adults’ comments as I was enjoying my chocolate ice cream (see above), many people were impressed that there were choices for ice cream flavors, cones, and toppings!  This ice cream social could have been simple.  Chocolate or vanilla ice cream.  Chocolate syrup and maybe a cherry. Nooooo…not in the Bradshaw Ice Cream Gazebo.  I was even able to grab my favorite topping…gummi bears.  With many flavors and toppings to choose from, kids were able to create their perfect dessert.  This should be our same guarantee for students in schools.  Choices.  When we dedicate our schools to our students’ needs, we know we must provide options and different paths to success.  All kids learn differently.  Let’s make sure we provide spaces where all kids can have a voice.  Let’s imagine schools where students drive the details of their coursework.  Schools where teachers and school leaders make their way into students’ classrooms (it should be THEIR space not ours).  Let’s think about ways in which we can gain students’ input before we plan our instruction.  Students should be able to create their own process and product.  Perhaps we could finally hear why a gummi bear in ice cream makes sense!   My mother still can’t understand it.

ENVIRONMENT

In taking all of this in, I immediately knew I was going to be writing about this experience.  I took notice of the Home Goods-like signs that were precisely hanging in the gazebo.  Ice Cream Cones 10 cents.  Twisted Licks Frozen Custard.  Was this added touch necessary?  Did it impact the kids?  Absolutely!  Just like the environment that was established in this gazebo, the walls in our schools can talk.  What do we put on the walls in our classrooms and hallways?  Do the walls speak to the culture that we aim to create? Let’s think about these important questions despite these details sometimes being overlooked.  Let’s have kids fill the walls with artwork.  Let’s provide students opportunities to play their original films on televisions spread throughout the school.  Let’s have chalkboard walls where students can leave inspiring messages.  Or questions.  And let’s answer them…one by one.

CULTURE

If I had to guess, the Bradshaws served sixty to seventy kids ice cream.  Maybe even more because I caught some of my guests getting seconds.  Of these children, it would be safe to say that they didn’t know eighty percent of the kids.  It didn’t matter.  All kids were given the highest level of respect and treatment.  The Bradshaws were friendly.  They asked questions and invited everyone into their space.  Race, class, gender, history, and every other social construction that people put into play never took a role in the gazebo.  Can we make sure the same is granted in our schools?  Can we strive this year to raise complete awareness so this culture exists between kids as well?  The culture in the gazebo was open. It was positive and it was welcoming!  Let’s keep our eyes wide open so we pick up on the intended and unintended actions that establish relationships, culture, and community in our schools.  It could be the difference between students wanting seconds and others needing them.

Sometimes we find content for our writing and for our leadership in uncommon spaces.  The Bradshaws funding and hosting an ice cream party in their backyard gazebo is not a common practice.  It was so kind and humble.  It was pleasantly unique.  Pleasing kids was at the core of every question, statement, and intention.  Similarly, in the words of Dr. Bill Brennan, let’s be INTENTIONAL about our ATTENTIONS when we deal with our students this upcoming school year.  Let’s give all kids what they deserve…their just des(s)erts.

 

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#ISTE17: An emotional journey of Innovation, Inspiration, and Interconnectedness

3:15 a.m.: Alarm clock wakes up the house

4:00 a.m.: Car arrives for pickup

6:30 a.m.: Board plane for Dallas to connect to San Antonio

8:30 a.m.: Land in Oklahoma City……yup.

Well, getting to ISTE certainly did not go as planned.  I will leave the travel story for another blog post because I don’t want to spend too much time on how a plane running out of gas can change your plans.  We eventually landed in San Antonio and every minute spent was worth every ounce of initial frustration.

With 21,000 in attendance, I am confident that this conference had a dramatic impact on all those who were lucky to spend four days at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center.  Of course, the time spent away from the convention center was equally fantastic.  If 21,000 attendees wrote blog posts, we would certainly hear 22,000 stories.  This I find to be the power of ISTE.  Despite the level of collaboration and networking that exists in every interaction, we were all able to find our voice in the countless sessions, poster conversations, Expo Hall competition, and dinners on the Riverwalk.  This blog post will focus on four key pieces of my emotional journey.

#1: We presented at #ISTE17.  Yes, we PRESENTED at #ISTE17 on the powerful ways educators on all levels can leverage digital tools to amplify voice within school culture.  You can find the presentation at bit.ly/ISTEVOICE.  Emotions ran through all of us as we walked into the large room (217D), as we thought about the audience that would fill the seats, and knowing the immediate power we had in potentially impacting the hundreds of educators (and their students) who chose to visit our session.  Deja Berry, Patrick DiClemente, Danielle Mammolito, Bob Schilling, Tania Willman, and I shared ways in which technology can help build community, culture, and relationships through amplifying voice.  I am so honored to have these passionate colleagues as friends.  Based on feedback from educators from Bellmore-Merrick to Australia, we succeeded in our prime goal: be ourselves and present six perspectives how diverse roles in schools (Assistant to the Superintendent, Executive Assistant for Technology Integration, Principal, Assistant Principal, and Technology Learning Coach) have an impact on students, teachers, parents, and the entire community.  Yet, the one hour presentation is not what had the biggest impact on me.  The monthly and weekly meetings with this dedicated group discussing, reflecting, providing honest feedback, brainstorming, and evaluating instructional and leadership pathways were invaluable in my growth as a leader.  In discussing how we effectively use digital tools, we spoke about authentic audience, digital leadership, the naysayer in building culture, professional learning networks, instruction, learning, and the decisions that propel students to the next level.  Once again, the process is worth more than the product.

#2: Robert Joyce.  For his dedication to providing students opportunities for innovation, Rob Joyce was selected as ISTE’s Outstanding Teacher for 2017.  This international selection speaks to the work that Rob has guided in his classroom.  It also is evidence that when teachers and students are provided with tools for creation and independent learning, we see a redefined experience with no boundaries.  When you read through ISTE’s standards for educators and students, it becomes quite apparent that Rob is the perfect choice.  In getting to the conference center early on Sunday morning, I was first to see the tribute to Rob.  A wall-sized plaque and a drawing of his face (picture below).  I stood there in awe of him, our middle school, our district, and our lucky students.  I had to witness Rob see this representation of himself.  Precisely placed, all 21,000 attendees were able to see this masterpiece.  I waited for Rob to get to the convention center so I could be there when he first walked past this wall.  Standing behind Rob as he looked up at his picture, I was on the verge of shedding a tear.  Rob found his voice when we provided Berner Middle School 1:1 access to endless possibility.  He deserves this highest recognition of his hard work, his willingness to take risks, his passion for student-centered learning, and for allowing his students to experience something different.

#3: Jennie Magiera.  WOW! In her keynote, Jennie Magiera validated everything that I have been pushing in my current role in Massapequa.  She examined the danger of a single story, the untold story of limitless potential, and the magical power of teachers.  After listening to Jennie Magiera share her personal experience and the words of Chaminanda Ngozi Adichie, I reflected not only on the importance of telling our students’ stories but how it is imperative that we share the successes of our students.  All of our students have limitless potential.  We need to remind students that they ALL can innovate and reach the highest peak of their unique genius.   It is for this reason that we opened makerspaces in our school buildings so all students, regardless of test scores, could dig deep into their passions.  Jennie is right.  Our teachers are wizards. They have this magical ability to make every student feel special.  The ability to inspire all students to think the education we offer is made for their individual needs.  For this, I am entirely grateful to work with Massapequa’s teacher librarians.  As Don and Danielle Gately shared in their session at EdCamp Leader 2016, we need to provide a personalized learning experience for all children.  When we do that, single stories turn into realized potential.

#4: Walks along the riverwalk, laughs at dinner, exploration of the Alamo, a water taxi ride to dinner, excitement at the Ignite session, and the list goes on.  In addition to our Massapequa group, we were lucky to be joined by Audra Beberman and Bonnie McClelland for this awesome journey.  I am certainly better for their presence in my PLN.  Bonnie ROCKED the stage for her Ignite session on the gingerbread man and the four Cs.  We sat in the audience happy for her success and thrilled that we are part of her story.  Like me, Audra is a techie geek.  I enjoyed our conversations of different tools and how they could impact student learning.  “Have you seen the new features of BrainPop???” Love it.  Having Bonnie and Audra with us every step of the way pays tribute to the power of networked intelligence.  Those who learn together, grow together.

Now back to the airline.  Eh…who cares about airport delays when the time spent at your destination turned out to be a perfect blend of innovation, inspiration, and interconnectedness.

“Hello/Is it me you’re looking for?”

Her voice grew in strength as she told her friend, “With this technology, kids are able to create documents and share it with other kids.”  Sitting on this line at the Commack Shoprite, I was thrilled to hear that parents were happy about the collaborative power of Google documents.  She then continued and shouted indignantly, “And these documents!  Nobody knows about these.  Kids can create hidden notes to each other.” I laughed.  Out loud.  As in LOL.  What is with this fear of technology? Should we just freeze time to prevent change?  I couldn’t believe how upset this woman was getting with the possibility of her son or daughter writing to another student.  I mean, he/she wasn’t asked to log it and get it signed?  I was immediately thrust into a similar situation that Danielle Mammolito analyzed in her blog post, “Dangerous Territory.”  She wrote, “Surely the people commenting were mistaken.  If they only knew the opportunities afforded to all children through technology.”  I felt as if I wanted to ease this woman’s pain and share my positive experiences with technology integration.  Yet, I also wanted to whisper, “Secret Google documents have the best voice.”  I remained silent, but I almost felt the need to soliloquize about how technology is often misrepresented and misread by those who truly believe in the phrase: “We have always done it this way.”  In a way, we have.

The brief exchange on the Shoprite line forced me to think about my teenage years and the culture that these mothers were bashing.  What did we do before hidden Google documents? How did we get away with writing in secret? Love notes. I smiled in reminiscing the passion that lived within writing a love note to a girl, folding it up tightly to prevent others from seeing my drawn hearts, getting it to her in class through a process of four students passing it without the teacher knowing, glancing up to see her reaction, and praying that a return note would be on its way.  Although fun, the process was slow and required too much risk! Imagine having access to collaborative documents with a timestamp and a revision history?! I could have even saved five dollars on the New Kids on the Block poster and just pulled in a picture of Donnie/Jonathan/Joey/Danny/Jordan/Mark using the Explore feature.  By the way, the poster didn’t work.  I was sent home from Shopper’s Village crying.  If only emojis existed to express and assuage my sadness.

In addition to risky note writing, I remember the process of placing two pieces of paper in the top holes of a blank cassette tape to make a mixtape containing songs that would speak to my teenage feelings.  I would throw in Lionel Richie, 112, some Mariah Carey, NSync, Celine Dion, and Jewel. Jewel…she always seemed to work.  A mixtape. Somebody reading this blog post is saying, “A mixtape. Ha! We had eight tracks and we walked six miles to school.”  That is the point.  Although culture shifts, the same acts that we all did as teenagers still exist today.  Just on another platform. Maybe even on a shared Google document.  How do we embrace it?  Why would we try to deny and defy it? Let’s brainstorm ways to be fine with being techie. Perhaps this mother just wanted reassurance that her child would be fine.  Next time, I will break out in Lionel Richie. I will now use Pandora for practice.

At least Graze

On my way to work each morning, my phone’s various alerts signify that I have a mention on Twitter, a message on Voxer, a like on Facebook, a text, etc.  The conversation loops in which I engage are constant and delightfully flowing.  So are the funny pics, gifs, and sounds that are shared.  The majority of these conversation flows are focused on enhancing my craft and my work as an educator.  Within the digital walls of these chats, we continue to discuss grading practices, the problem of homework, reasons why principals should have their doors open to the hallway, mobile principal stations (how awesome is that idea from Dennis Schug), bottle flipping, the power of the mannequin challenge, and a recent tweet from Dennis Dill that really has me thinking.  He tweeted, “If you’re a teacher and you won’t do 30 minutes of PD every night, why would you assign homework to your kids.”  Hmm.  Wow.  His analysis of PD and homework is very interesting.  If we see homework as a way in which students can enhance their skills so they can better perform in class, shouldn’t we as educators do the same?  If we see homework as a way in which we can flip instruction so instructional time is maximized, shouldn’t we collaborate with others at home to maximize our workflow?  If we see homework as a way to add a grade to the gradebook, shouldn’t we…shouldn’t we…shouldn’t we…shouldn’t we.  And it is through this comparison where we see why graded homework is flawed.  We don’t learn on our own for a grade.  We don’t practice our skills on our own time for a grade.

Life is busy.  It sure is.  In fact, my nights are saturated with so many tasks that usually surround having two children under the age of four.  I always aim to join a Twitter chat at night, especially #nyedchat and #hacklearning, but recently with the busy holiday season, I haven’t logged on.  But, I still graze.  By grazing the chats when I have time, listening to the Voxer messages while on the go, clicking the Twitter notification as I walk, I am able to stay connected and remain committed to growing because I know this commitment will eventually make its way to our students.  I know we all have time to graze.

As educators make their New Year’s resolutions a week from tomorrow, I hope they add connectedness to that long list of things they know they should do.  Unlike the gym (I plan on joining the tenth gym of my life this coming week with probably fewer than 100 visits), this resolution is realistic and one that we all can and should sustain.  #KidsDeserveIt.

A Firehose of Leadership

I remember my entrance into the Twitter world during an LIASCD workshop titled “Accelerated Learning” which was led by Bill Brennan and Tony Sinanis.  In speaking about the power of being connected and developing a network on Twitter, Bill or Tony commented, “There is so much to learn.  It is a firehose of information and you just need to know what to swallow.”  I always think back to this comment as it is so on point and real.  The connections I have made and the learning that has saturated my daily life is invaluable to my craft.  In fact, the time I spend learning heightens my enthusiasm for educational and instructional leadership.  I let my excitement drive my decision making.  But…

I woke up this morning and immediately grabbed my phone as I do every Tuesday morning.  Like a kid rushing out of bed to find where the elf has been strategically placed by his/her parents (we go crazy to inspire compliance), I look forward to seeing if my fantasy football team has won.  I didn’t catch the end of Monday night’s game and I wound up losing.  I shouldn’t have started Wentz.  That is another story. Back to the blog. So, I grabbed the phone and opened the Twitter app instead of CBS Sports.  I guess I do this unconsciously now.  I see a tweet from Don Gately as part of last night’s #nyedchat and it opened my eyes!  Don tweeted, “I have to be careful–my enthusiasm can drown out dissent/other voices that need to be heard.”  WOW!  This comment is the mark of an amazing leader.  I agree with Don.  We have to be cognizant of allowing all voices to be heard so our leadership matches our audience’s needs.  I couldn’t stop thinking about my last post on evaluation.  Do I allow others to freely comment and speak their minds?  Do I provide a safe space so dissent can have power?  At my last meeting with my librarians, I used Andy Greene’s commandment, “No parking lot conversations.”  Are my enthusiasm, passion, and learning providing a spark for these parking lot conversations that have no power and no true impact? Am I allowing the supposed Debbie Downers, Negative Nellies, and Raincloud Johnnies to speak?  How many times do I hear, “I hate to play Devil’s Advocate, but….”  Why should an apology preface an opinion or perspective?

I have been asked the following question on ninety percent of all interviews for various jobs for which I applied: “What is your biggest weakness?”  When I ask this question of potential candidates, I always get the planned answers.  The answers that weaken a candidate’s position.  How many of you have heard one of the following–I am a perfectionist, or I work too many hours, or some similarly contrived response?  My answer is going to be that I sometimes swallow too much water.  Of course, I will explain it.  But, maybe I do.  Am I so saturated with networked enthusiasm that I am drowning out the voices that need to be heard?  Is that even a bad thing? The firehose that fuels my learning is growing…each minute.

I kept this post short to hopefully get honest reactions.  Gulp.

Flipping the EVALUATION Cycle

“Many conversations that I hear from administrators focus on

how to deal with educators, yet often don’t focus

on reflecting what they can do different.”

-George Couros

Three years ago, I sat and listened to Glen Eschbach, Superintendent of Schools in North Babylon, at the Literacy Leaders Forum speak about the power of reflection, evaluation, and self-assessment in leadership.  Sharing a document that would assist the audience in evaluating whether or not they are true lead learners, Glen discussed how our own reflection can inform future practice.  I left that conference energized and inspired to allow the teachers who I supervise use this rubric to assess my leadership.  I was interested to see if my own evaluation matched their perspectives.  In fact, as George Couros noted in his description of the power of Hacking Leadership by Tony Sinanis and Joe Sanfelippo, I wanted to know what I could “do different” to serve their needs and essentially, the needs of our students.  This practice prompted my analysis of the following aspects of leadership:

  • Is it possible for effective leadership to take place if a solid relationship is not in place?  What if the leader believes a solid relationship is in place but the others do not?  It was Rita Pierson in her TED Talk who shared James Comer’s statement, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”  She goes on to talk about how kids do not learn from teachers who they do not like.  Does the same go for leadership?  I pay close attention to developing relationships with the educators with whom I work.  I agree with Tony Sinanis that relationships are the absolute key to developing strong culture and morale.  Yet, what if some perceive your relationships with others to be richer than the one you have with them? I never thought of this as part of my work until the Eschbach evaluation (if I can coin it that).  Yet, they were right.  I had to adapt and be conscious of my connections.
  • Do we ever check in with others when it appears they are sad or simply not themselves?  In trying to find a quote for this blog from ratemyteachers.com (see bullet five), I just came across something written this past July from someone who went to school in West Islip in 2008.  He/she wrote, “[He] cared about well being and grades of course. I went through a lot my senior year and he pulled me out of class to see if I was okay and ask me how he could help.”  Wow. In reading this comment, a smile immediately found its way to my face.  Did this leak its way into my leadership? Developing this personal connection is the foundation for any positive professional relationship.
  • If a leader expects something new from those who he/she leads, does it matter if some do not agree with the change?  As the new leader of two middle school departments when I shared the aforementioned evaluation tool, I expected that my comments and suggestions on digital lessons plans would not get positive reviews. It was a far different practice than what they were used to under previous leadership. Yet, I was shocked. Those who commented on the practice loved getting the feedback.  My comments and suggestions provided guidance for some and inspiration for others.  These educators were passionate about their craft and they respected my time and effort in assisting with the teaching and learning in their classrooms. What if teachers didn’t agree with the practice?  What if it didn’t even develop their work? Should it continue?
  • Do leaders thank those around them to show their appreciation? Glen Eschbach shared a story with us to highlight the importance of praise in leadership.  I needed to hear from my teachers that I did this enough.  In this era of education, this level of recognition is necessary in building culture.  Through the evaluation, I learned that I often thanked those for their hard work.  But, maybe I thanked others more often.  See bullet number one.
  • Are we unwavering in our decisions to support our students first? Are we sometimes too strong in our convictions?  Can that be a bad attribute?  As a former English teacher, I remember a student writing on the ratemyteachers.com site, “Great teacher, gives many extra opportunities, very opinionated though, and defends his opinions with his life even though most of them are far fetch’d.”  I remember the day he walked into my classroom and said, “Mr. K., I put a comment about you on ratemyteachers.com.  Just to clarify, I think your idea that we should all be feminists is crazy.”  What about leadership?  Are we sometimes blind in our opinions? But, what if our convictions are warranted?

There are hundreds of questions that we can reflect on as leaders.  Yet, there is so much power in flipping the normal evaluation cycle.  Start with a few prompts to amplify your teachers’ voices.  The responses I received were powerful in my growth as a leader.  The fact that teachers trust you to share their honest perspectives is the first sign that you are doing something right.  I think.

reflecting and DOCUMENTING

It always seems that a free Saturday in October motivates my wife to grab her camera, put our young children in adorable outfits, and demand that I drive to a perfect setting to take pictures.  Well, not really demand but strongly request.  I guess you can never pass up an opportunity to capture that ultimate moment for the Christmas card that will hopefully gain an audience when it is posted in the main office.  Let’s face it–the holiday card display in schools in December takes over the conversation. Well, last Saturday we were successful.  Successful in getting my kids to simultaneously smile with a glimpse of the water backdrop in the San Remo section of Kings Park and successful in finding the inspiration for my blog on the letter D–DOCUMENTING.

While making funny faces behind my wife to get Olivia to smile and admiring this serene setting that overlooks boats, calm north shore water, and pure zen, I witnessed documented love.  On a wood bench, two lovers (or just one lover who assumed the carving role) carved their initials in a prominent heart, G + B.  Cute.  I think I was actually jealous because I can’t remember the last time that I could have just sat on a bench with my wife and potentially carved, E + L.  Next to the deeply dug G + B, two other couples marked their love, J + K (which probably stood for just kidding) and Joe + Syd.  I started to analyze these engravings.  Oh, I was still jumping, clapping, laughing, screaming, making bird noises to get a smile. But, I began to make judgments on these three couples.  G + B were either really in love to dig so deep into this bench or were just fifteen and thought their love would last forever.  Ha!  Regardless, they wanted this moment to last forever.  Well, at least the engraving did.  What about J +K or Joe + Syd?  They barely got into the wood.  In fact, it almost looked like they just used a pen to write on the bench it was so faint.  Their love would certainly be washed away by the salt from the water, the constant use of this bench, or through the analysis from other bloggers (well…).  Do they care though?  Does it matter to them?  Who knows!  Yet, I do know that this bench is symbolic of the power of documenting the reflection of one’s craft.  It is those who go the step further to dig deep in documenting their thoughts who reflect and learn the best.

Even further, joining this blogging challenge with Audra Beberman, Danielle Gately, Danielle Mammolito, Dennis Schug, Don Gately, Hillary Bromberg, Scott Garofola, and Tania Willman (others will join this list once their blogs are shared) has been transformational for me as a leader.  I was already extremely reflective of everything that I do.  I really work hard at it.  I think about how every decision that I make can build relationships, culture, and morale. Or, potentially tear them apart.  But thinking about it is simply not enough.  It is the J + K and Joe + Syd.  Eventually, the thinking will be washed away and the reflection will be gone.  Blogging has heightened my level of reflection and has documented my thoughts so I can truly assess my ability to lead.  Using Voxer, our group has discussed the process of blogging at length.  Similar to teaching and learning, the process is by far more important than the product.

If you are wondering, we will most likely be taking pictures again.  Hey, maybe I can analyze others’ intent to document their love in another setting.  Or, as I look at my two awesome children, savor the moment and find inspiration for my next blog post on E.