Reading: A TA’s Life’s Work

“Show me a family of readers, and I will show you

the people who move the world.”

-Napoleon Bonaparte

I am often impressed by the work of the teacher assistant within the school community. He/she works extremely hard, is often underpaid, and goes about his/her work in a quiet yet successful manner. Although I always thank them for their hard work, I never thought it would be a teacher assistant who would help validate my work and leadership. But it happened!

It was the week following NerdCampLI, an unconference dedicated to book geeks led by the passionate literacy diva (she will hopefully be fine with me calling her that), JoEllen McCarthy (@joellenmccarthy), and I was still on a nerdy high from the conversations and presentations that took place the previous Saturday. On my way out of the Massapequa High School library, a teacher assistant stopped me, “Oh, Ed! It is great to see you. Give me a hug! I keep meaning to contact you. Did you choose Fish in a Tree for Berner’s book initiative?” Honestly, based on her tone, I thought she was going to tell me that I made a poor choice! Although, how could anyone not love Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s work!?!?! Considering I just met Lynda at NerdCampLI and was raving about her, I spiritedly answered, “Yes! Isn’t it amazing? We all need a Mr. Daniels in our lives.” The teacher assistant responded, “It was unbelievable. I really enjoyed it. You know I am familiar with many authors.” For this teacher assistant, Hunt’s book provided evidence of her importance working with students with special needs. After explaining how books have changed the way she sees the world, her job, and her relationships, the conversation took a different route.

With tears in her eyes, she spoke about Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Jacqueline Woodson and their presence at her son’s girlfriend’s wake. Unfortunately, her son was dating the daughter of two well known authors when she recently passed away. She spoke about Jacqueline Woodson’s speech at the services, her book Brown Girl Dreaming and its wealth in all communities, the power of an author’s words, and the impact that Hunt/Woodson/Paulsen/Palacio and others have had on her as a reader…as a person. Wow! I was speaking to a reader. A geek. A nerd. And I never knew it. I then shared with her, “I didn’t know you were a reader. I love it.” She seemed annoyed at that comment (in a good way). She didn’t want her admiration for written text to be a secret.

Although I had to leave, I wish I had hours to spend with her to hear about her experiences. Listen to her perspective of the same books that I read. She deserved it, and I wanted that opportunity as well. It would recognize her work and pay tribute to what I hoped to accomplish through literature. I now realize that the community of readers that I thought existed was even bigger. In fact, Berner Middle School’s One School-One Book Initiative extended the invite to all members of the community. They have all accepted. The student. The teacher. The secretary. The custodian. The administrator. The TA. What validation! An #eduwin for me and for Massapequa.

I wonder who else out there is waiting for the next Fish in a Tree, Brown Girl Dreaming, or Wonder to speak to their life’s work. How would an author’s words connect people personally and professionally? And, who will help me “move this world.”

From Server to Leader to Learner…a sprinkle of each.

“Hi.  My name is Jen, and I will be your server today.  I am new here so please be patient with me.”  It was the Labor Day BBQ at The Greens in Melville (my mother’s complex) and everyone seemed to show up to get their last bite (well, many last bites) before summer was unofficially over.  With a packed restaurant of hungry residents who wanted their $21 worth and a fairly new staff due to a change in ownership, the place was mayhem.  Yet, this server’s words struck a chord with me as I was about to start a new school year with Mindset as the district’s theme.

 

Reflection.  Growth Mindset.  RELATIONSHIP BUILDING!  Despite her inexperience, our server realized that she would develop her craft with the patience of her customers and managers.  Patience which she expected.  It made me reflect on my practice as an instructional leader.  Our practice.  How patient are we with the development of new staff?  How long is too long for a “newbie” to get it? Should they fake it or should they ask for help? If they ask for help, is it a sign of weakness or strength? If they ask for help and struggle at the beginning, can they recover?  I suspect these questions run through the heads of many leaders who reflect on their leadership.  I thought about these through most of the lunch.  I evaluated and measured this server’s skills.  She was fantastic.  In fact, if she didn’t tell us she were new, I would have thought she were a veteran.  But, it was her mindset that was impressive.  It was her reflection and ability to recognize her need for more experience that spoke to me.  All wrapped up…the relationship she was able to foster with her customers was genuine.  Leaving the Greens that day, I thought about the new role I was given this year.  How would I build genuine relationships and mutual patience?  I found my answer during a Sprinkle.

 

I don’t know how I went from a 22 year old English teacher living in a waterfront rental house with two friends to having a Sprinkle, but hey, I will be a father of two come December.  It has been an interesting year getting ready for the baby’s arrival and leading two new departments…instructional technology and library media.  The two should certainly be married so I love this new role.  But, “I am new here so please be patient…” Learning the life of the library media specialist, especially at the elementary level since it was really new, has been awesome.  I always thought the library could be-should be-has to be the hub of a school since research, technology, trust, a secure corner for a student, and a safe space for a reader all live there.  Seamlessly at the same time.  I knew I had a lot to learn from my colleagues.  I knew I had to build relationships.  And reflect.  And grow…with them.  With a technology lens, there would be a library remix of sorts this year with me as their leader.  Three months into this relationship, I knew I was ready to hold a Yay or Nay session with them (PC version of the EdCamp classic) so we could expose our perspectives on hot button issues.  I couldn’t wait for the discussion.  I was excited to present my Haiku Deck with five library-centered topics.  Just as I was set to go, I get ushered into another room where cakes, pink tablecloths with matching cups/rattles/utensils, picture books, a Keurig, gifts for Max (my son), “Olivia,” and one to share with my wife all saturated the room.  A Sprinkle.  The Yay or Nay would wait.  Relationships took the stage again.  Camaraderie.  It is our business. Thankfully.

 

What Does Learning Look Like…on a Saturday?

While driving to Howitt Middle School on Saturday, March 28th, my phone kept beeping that sound that delightfully reminds me of my passion for learning…the Twitter notification.  Trying not to tweet and drive (it was tough that morning), I glanced down at my phone whenever possible to check out the anticipation for CELI15 led by Dr. Bill Brennan.  It was my Christmas morning for professional development.  I couldn’t wait to get there and open the present of learning.  Check out the room where I would lead a conversation on growth mindset and instructional technology with three amazing colleagues and friends.  Eat a bagel (of course) and gulp down some coffee.  Get my Chromebook ready so I could tweet to the conference’s hashtag.  Find a spot in the cafeteria for the nearly twenty Massapequa colleagues who were joining me on this learning venture.  Meet up with educators and friends from former districts.  Check in with my EdCampLI all-stars.  Engage in a conversation with the student who welcomed me.  And focus on the dynamics of learning.  Just learning.

Seeing the smiles, hearing the laughter, and witnessing the hugs/kisses/handshakes/awkward hellos, I reflected on two questions: What does it mean to be a learner in 2015?  What does a learner really look like?

  • The students who gave up their Saturdays to open doors, work the registration table, escort participants to the various rooms, and make us feel at home?  I can see their excitement–almost as if they knew our learning would impact their educations.  Their futures.  We are their heroes and they are our inspiration.
  • Dr. Bill Brennan who worked tirelessly to put together another amazing free conference to impact leadership and learning on Long Island?  His passion saturated the building and will have an everlasting effect on teaching and learning across the island.
  • Dr. Joan Ripley, assistant superintendent from Farmingdale, who took the time to welcome and introduce herself to participants over lunch?
  • JoEllen McCarthy whose book love and passion for reading and writing always seems to push our thinking?
  • The Gatelys and the EdCampLI planning team wearing stickers with a QR code linked to a Google form so educators could sign up for EdCampLI in October to continue the conversation of connected learning?
  • The custodial staff keeping the building in shape while getting the chance to listen in on conversations on pedagogy?
  • The group of Massapequa teacher assistants, teachers (and spouses), building and district leaders who truly enjoyed learning together?  I witnessed their excitement through their questions, their own presentations, and of course, their tweets.Lunch
  • Tom Whitby in his Hawaiian shirt inspiring the audience to question the power of being connected?
  • The #nyedchat geniuses who engaged those in attendance and those online in a discussion of best practices?
  • Tony Sinanis who always finds a way to get the conversation started?
  • The participant who got on Twitter for the first time and felt very connected…with only two followers?
  • Bonnie McClelland whose dedication pushes kindergarten students to learn at the highest level?
  • The hundreds of other teachers, administrators, parents, school board members, student teachers, students, and support staff who all learned on the same playing field?

CELI15 reminded me of the power of learning and connecting in an effort to ensure students in all spaces become champions of their own paths.  The learner was all of us.  No race.  No social class.  No gender.  No orientation.  No first language.  No title.  No score.  On a snowy Saturday in March.

Changing the Conversation in our Heads

During a recent professional development focusing on the power of hope, grit, and growth mindset, Kevin Sheehan prompted our entire staff to think about the moments that shifted the “conversations in our heads.”  He asked us to consider how certain people impacted our careers and our futures.  He challenged us to document these moments and share with those who had the courage to make us rethink our own mental models.  I am dedicating this blog post to the person who changed the “conversation in my head” while a student at SUNY Geneseo.

In late August of 1997, I met with my freshman advisor from the psychology department (my chosen major) to choose my classes for the fall semester.  My sister, a junior at Geneseo, forced me to take a course titled English 142: Picaresque.  She claimed that although I planned to be a psychology major, I would find the professor, Dr. Maria Lima, to be engaging and life-changing.  She was absolutely right.  Not only did Maria Lima inspire a heightened love for literature, she forced me to think outside of my comfort zone.  I quickly fell in love with literature that empowered characters who found themselves on the outside of the mainstream.  I became obsessed with post-colonial literature with a main love for Caribbean writers.  I adored Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat, Sam Selvon, and others who begged me to reflect on privilege and the impact of experience.  Although this genre, which was so foreign to my experience as a high school student on Long Island, captured my attention, it truly was Maria Lima’s absolute passion that intrigued me.  Her energy.  Her honesty with closed minded students.  Her drilling of our hegemonic ideologies.  Her precise power to make us undergo a process of unlearning.

Intersession of my freshman year. I remember walking into the Sturges building to find my psychology advisor, Dr. Terrence Bassett, to inform him that I no longer could consider a major in psychology.  The teaching of reading and writing would saturate my life.  I knew the answer to the question that burned inside me throughout the entire semester learning under Dr. Maria Lima.  I was a future English teacher.  My life would be dedicated to teaching and learning.  My walk into Sturges that day is still clear as day in mind.  It was my turning point.  The point when I  realized that someday, maybe, I could be Maria Lima.  That someday I could use an author’s words to inspire curiosity and conviction.  The opportunity to prompt a student, a reader, to see himself and his future in a text.

Four years later, just before graduation, I walked into Maria’s office to try to put her impact into words.  I needed to tell her that my teaching would follow her guide.  I needed to tell her that teachers do change lives.  I wanted to express to her that because of her, like the characters that she shared with me, I found my home.  Before five words escaped my mouth, I couldn’t contain my tears.  She knew what she had done for me.  She knew I appreciated her.  She knew I was the character in my own text.  She looked at me and stated with her smile, “Ed, you are going to be a fine teacher.  You don’t need me any more.”

Thank you, Maria Lima. Your impact continues to write my story.

Kings Park Brands…and I Lucked Out

My newest obsession is the analysis of the ways in which schools/teachers/administrators/community members sell their brand.  The importance of telling our story has never been as important…as crucial in this era of education!  We can either tell our own story or invite the misinformed outsiders to stake a claim to what they believe happens in our schools.  Every time I get the opportunity to hear Tony Sinanis, @tonysinanis, speak about school branding, I am inspired to document the top notch environment that exists at Berner Middle School in Massapequa.  Each of Tony’s parents at Cantiague Elementary in Jericho is able to see into his/her child’s classroom and capture the fantastic teaching and learning that happens each day.  Through Tony’s lens (and his teachers who have bought into this necessary practice), parents are digitally invited into the building and embraced in what truly has become a school community.  In a recent conversation about effective school branding, a colleague asked me, “But, Ed, is it too much?  Should parents really be able to log on to Twitter and supervise all that goes on?”  Immediately, I wanted to shout, “OF COURSE!”  Halloween made that answer even more definitive for me as I truly became a school parent for the first time.

My son attends day care at New Beginnings in Kings Park which is housed in a former elementary building.  His first Halloween parade was on Friday and since my wife and I both work, we were unable to attend.  However, with Twitter and a committed superintendent, I was able to get a glimpse of the costume march around the property.  After logging into Twitter, I saw Dr. Tim Eagen’s post through the district’s Twitter account (@kpschools), “New Beginnings Parade at San Remo today :)” with a picture of the infants and toddlers proudly sporting their costumes.  See, I knew that Max was going to be a farmer for Halloween.  I knew the specifics of his costume.  Yet, I zoomed in, zoomed out, focused on the right corner, the left corner, etc. to see if I can see my son happily marching.  To perhaps see if he is smiling and enjoying his walk down his red carpet.  How awesome!  How lucky.  Sitting nearly 40 minutes away in my office, I was able to capture the moment of my son’s first parade.  A year ago in Kings Park, I would have been left in the dark.  The impact of committed and digital leadership is simply invaluable.  Branding the district and highlighting the events of a school community should not only be a choice but an expectation of a 21st century school leader.  Thankfully, Kings Park has put our district in the hands of a leader who understands transparency and the benefits of marketing.

The five minutes of trying to find Max on the screen made me reflect.  We no longer have to suffer through the sound of AOL trying to log in, jump through hoops to wait for the available dial tone, or navigate through different sites to get connected.  It is easy.  It is too easy to not use.  Or ignore.  As we progress in this age of digital leadership and digitally saturated instruction, school branding and telling our story shouldn’t even be a question.  Parents want to join us in this journey of educating their children.  They are curious learners and leaders as well.  They deserve it.  For us to not provide this awesome opportunity is careless.  I welcome the future opportunity of potential candidates to show their branding during the interview process.  Put aside those binders!

I think back to that conversation I had a couple weeks ago and realize that too much is never too much.  At some point when they can’t get to the building, our parents and community members will be eager to see why our reputation is so great.  Whether it is seeing their son in his first costume or getting a glimpse of their daughter in front of a green screen, the ability to get connected is priceless.

The Power of Reflection

I received a text message from a friend who wrote, “I found your 2nd year portfolio in the book room, do you want it?”  I immediately responded, “Yes!  Thank you!”  I took a few minutes this morning to quickly review what is in this 2nd year teaching portfolio that helped persuade the administration of West Islip Public Schools that I deserved to be awarded tenure.  I quickly switched my focus and decided to look for answers the following question: What in this portfolio highlights the importance of reflecting on one’s craft?”  The three artifacts noted below prompted my own reflection and will guide my leadership this year.

#1: My first paragraph of my portfolio reads:

“The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.” -Carl Rogers

Every September marks a time for change for teachers and students.  For students, it is a chance to achieve higher grades than in previous years.  For teachers, September is a chance to alter their delivery, practices, and mental models.  Seeing the lines at CVS and smelling the crisp September air immediately forced me to reflect on last year’s success.  In that reflection, I questioned how I could bring my students to a greater level in their open-minded journey to excellence.  I am anxious for this opportunity.

————————————————————————————————————————————————–

In looking at my chosen quote and the first paragraph of this portfolio, I realize that students and teachers understand the importance of a new school year.  The possibilities are endless.  Change is inevitable.  Yet, I wonder how much of this thinking is targeted?  Is there an evaluation of previous goals and future ones?  Is this reflection conscious? I sit here on the Sunday following the first week of school and think about the timeliness of finding this portfolio.  It is only September 7th, we can model the art of reflection for our students. Bring them back to their accomplishments from last year.  Were they good enough?  Did they live up to our individual expectations?  What are specific goals for this year?  The future?

As an instructional leader, I reflected this summer on my leadership and my goals for this year will certainly guide my staff to even greater success.  As I noted in my second year of teaching, I am anxious for that opportunity.

#2: A letter to the parents of my baseball players

I wrote in this congratulatory letter that I believed their “sons’ priorities should be in this order: family, school, and baseball.  My philosophy of coaching will guarantee the best possible future for the West Islip High School baseball program.  My job as the freshman coach is to get the players ready for the varsity level.”  

My message in those brief statements highlight our job as educators.  It is incumbent upon us to prepare students for the next level.  Their next level.  I believe in the state’s goal that we need to make our students college AND career ready.  And we do.  Preparing our students for the important steps in life is what needs to saturate our craft.  When we focus on the future, our present seems to find success.  I still search for ways in which  the rushed testing program fits into this recipe.  My baseball team was undefeated that year.  Two years later, the varsity team won the Suffolk County Championship.  There are ingredients to success.  Setting priorities, reflecting, and seeing the future are three keys to becoming the best.  

#3 The handwritten note

I added a section to this portfolio titled, “Evaluations/Observation Reports/Professional Notes,” and in it, I put artifacts that had an impression on me as a new teacher.  My favorite is the handwritten note from the assistant superintendent from West Islip, Lou Zocchia.  He wrote, “I just completed reading your teacher observation dealing with The Great Gatsby.  It was a lesson that intrigued me.  Your style is exemplary-great work.  Thanks for all your dedication to West Islip.” – Lou

Wow!  Reflecting on this note brought me back to that day.  Finding this handwritten note in my mailbox from the assistant superintendent validated my hard work, my fierce passion, and the importance of reflection.  Not only did he read an observation written by the Director of English, but he was moved by it and felt the need to let me know of his appreciation.  I love how it wasn’t typed- it was too genuine to be.  This short note forced me to reflect.  Do my teachers know how much I appreciate them beyond writing nice sentiments in their observations?  Do they really know how much I value them?  This year, I am going to add this piece to my growing leadership.  Handwritten notes.  Perhaps one day a teacher will reflect back on his/her portfolio and come across it.  It will force the art of reflection and make another’s craft that much better.

To Use or Not to Use: There is No Question

In reading my educator friends’ Facebook posts this week with the arrival of the first day of school, I came across the following statement from a friend who teaches in a highly successful school district (according state exam data):

“Amazing teacher moment on the first day: When handing out index cards to get student information, students no longer know their home/parents’ numbers because they have them saved in their cellphones.  I think that will be my first homework assignment.  I don’t care what subject I teach, that’s unacceptable!”

The following thought immediately popped into my mind after reading this comment: It is 2014, why are you still handing out index cards?  The students are probably looking at her wondering why they are writing their information on cards when something called Google exists.  

So, I had to comment on her post.  I wrote, “Lol.  I think the index cards are so old school.  Create a Google form and have the kids fill in their info from their cell phones.”  After a few comments from other friends basically stating that students should be on our platform not the reverse (ugh! time to provide comfortable paths for the students), my friend with the index cards responded to me, “They’re not allowed to have them in class.”  I sighed.  Bewildered.  What a paradox! Successful on state exams but not allowed to use their own technology and be “college and career ready.”

This situation is indicative what is questionable about our system. Success on a three day exam gets positive press, accolades from those informed and uninformed, and rewarded titles that are here one year and gone the next.  Yet, students are not allowed to use their mobile devices/Smartphones/computers in their pockets.  Where is the value in that?  Aren’t we supposed to prepare students for the next level?  Model for them what digital responsibility looks like?  Allow them to make positive decisions?  Or, should we keep standing over them while curbing their use of their current understanding and reality? Or better yet, think it is enough to provide them apps that they MUST use because navigating away to the world wide web could be dangerous.

Technology saturates my school.  Students are given chromebooks, motivated to use GAFE whenever possible, teachers are infusing technology into their daily instruction, students are on their cell phones submitting answers to polls and surveys, using green screen applications to film Shakespearean plays at the Globe theater, participating in The Diary of Anne Frank film festival, and the list goes on and on.  The majority of this work is done on those evil cell phones.  I thank Bob Schilling and Jenny Steigerwald for their trust and knowledge! This simple Facebook post reminds me about true teaching and learning and how that is assessed.  We can be given any state score imaginable.  In the end, our students will be the movers and shakers of the future.  Trust your students, for their knowledge is more networked and responsible than we even know.