Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Connections Change The Game

One of our goals as educators in New York State is to ensure that as a result of a faithful implementation of the Common Core State Standards our students are on the path to being college and career ready. What constitutes being college and career ready is debatable but one thing many educators agree upon is that our children need practice employing and mastering 21st Century skills, which have been identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills as being able to create, innovate, think critically, communicate and collaborate. When considering how we might best scaffold our children in their efforts towards mastering these skills, the idea of connectedness must be at the core. The power of connectedness is clearly communicated in the story of Clarissa’s journey within an online community that helped her develop her fictional writing skills as a result of the connections she established with peers who shared the same passions and interests. Connections, and developed networks, can facilitate learning for our children and as such must be part of the educational experience in our schools today. Our schools must also embrace the 21st century, as it relates to technological resources, and help our children refine the skills necessary for networking and establishing connections beyond the school walls. 

One resource that has yet to be incorporated in many of our schools, as a powerful tool with the ability to foster connections and networks, is Twitter. Twitter is a tool that could help “flatten the walls” of our schools and allow children the opportunity to make local, national and international connections and take the idea of pluralism and diverse perspectives to a whole other level. These connections will allow students to develop their own Personal Learning Networks as a resource that can shape one’s skills and make the act of creating, collaborating and problem solving a global experience.

As an educator, I have experienced the power of Twitter firsthand over the last year (@Cantiague_Lead). In my time using Twitter I can say that my professional life has been transformed in ways that I could have never imagined. From the personal connections I have developed through those I follow and those who follow me, I have learned more in the past eighteen months on Twitter about instruction, student engagement and leadership than I have learned in the last eight years as an administrator from any professional development opportunity or workshop I have attended. If I am struggling with an issue or have a question about a resource, I send out a tweet and within minutes, thanks to the thousands of connections I have established, I am flooded with different perspectives, opinions and viable resources that come from trusted colleagues. The experiences on Twitter have pushed me out of my comfort zone and have exposed me to ideas and approaches that have revolutionized the way I lead our building. My connectedness is at the core of my evolution as the Lead Learner of our school.

With the power of connections being able to transform the way we teach and learn, as evidenced by Clarissa’s story and my personal journey, it is clear to me that we must start an educational revolution and join the 21st Century before it is too late! 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Dear Arne Duncan

Dear Arne Duncan,

I hope this letter finds you doing well and that you are enjoying the start of summer! I am writing to you because I am extremely concerned about the current landscape of public education in our country. Late last year I wrote a similar letter to Dr. John King, Commissioner of Education here in New York State, about my concerns but he never responded. I hope my efforts in writing to you won’t meet with the same fate.

As the Lead Learner (principal) of Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, NY, which is a public school on Long Island, I have the honor of serving a community of about 400 amazing students, 80 passionate and dedicated staff members and 300 invested families. My primary responsibility as the Lead Learner of this community, which I think is the same with every other Lead Learner, principal and assistant principal in our country, is to do what is in the best interest of children - children are our focus and meeting their needs (academic, social, emotional, psychological, etc.) is our collective goal.

Unfortunately, with the tremendous emphasis on high stakes testing, the push to connect a significant portion (40% here in NYS) of teacher ratings/evaluations to student scores on standardized tests and the budget cuts we are all facing (many schools are losing classroom teachers, mental health staff and specialists due to cuts) I am worried that the focus is no longer on children but instead, is all about numbers. These numbers come in many shapes and sizes... student scores on tests (poorly constructed tests that do not assess what students know but instead test their stamina and ability to pick out the right answer without getting distracted by the other tricky choices); points out of 100 for all educators’ end of year evaluations (teachers and principals); dollars in the form of incentives based on Race to the Top (where it is debatable if the schools that really need the money in each state are actually getting the money and then being held accountable for how they use that money); number of students in a classroom as districts cut positions and these numbers continue to grow. The list can go on and on but from my perspective, the message is quite clear - children are not the focus; numbers are the focus.

Yes, numbers matter. Accountability is important. Results are critical. Data is imperative in helping guide instruction and charting student growth. Yes, numbers are extremely important but they should never matter more than our children and the educators dedicating their lives to our children. During this school year, from about the last week of February to the last day of school, the focus for us was on numbers. Whether it was trying to figure out how much time to dedicate to test prep or how much homework to give so we felt our children were “prepared” to sitting with teachers during the last couple of weeks of school and reducing them to a number/category during their end of the year evaluation meeting. This is what is happening in our schools today Mr. Duncan and in my opinion, that is not right. Our kids should have time to create, think critically and collaborate to solve important problems (as a former basketball player, you know how important collaboration is to the success of the team and the individual). Our kids should not be spending their time trying to find the “right” answer. Our kids need more. Our kids deserve better. Our kids should be the focus. This has been crystallized for me in my role as a father. Not only am I seeing the terrible impact of all these numbers at work but I am also seeing how they are affecting my son. His joy for reading, writing and school in general is starting to fade and that concerns me on so many levels.  

Fortunately, after hearing you speak last week at the National Association of Elementary School Principals Conference in Baltimore, it seems that you feel similarly on many points. You agree that our children should be the focus. You expressed your concern with things like AYP and high stakes testing (there are those darn numbers again). You spoke about the importance of educating the whole child. Hearing you say these wonderful things gave me hope. Not much hope, but just enough. I started to wonder if you could take those words and turn them into action.

Near the end of your talk, you suggested that as principals we should make the time to get our local politicians and legislators into our schools so they can see the direct effects of “reform efforts” including NCLB, RTTT, high stakes testing and the never ending budget cuts. This is where I started to lose that small glimmer of hope. Mr. Duncan from what I can see in your bio on the US Department of Education site, you have never been a classroom teacher or building leader and so maybe you just don’t understand how things work inside a school. Most of us don’t have the time to try and get in contact with our local politicians so we can lobby for the things that our kids deserve (I agree we should make the time). Instead, we spend our days teaching, learning, handling various crisis, making hundreds of decisions in the span of an hour, being surrogate parents, serving as psychologists, making sure our children eat lunch and have all the tools they need to learn, grow and become college and career ready. On a typical day, most educators don’t have time to use the bathroom. On some days, we don’t even have a bite to eat because we are trying to maintain our focus on what matters most. Our time must continue to be dedicated to what matters most - our children. Our time cannot be wasted on a bunch of disconnected numbers.  

This is where you can help Mr. Duncan! As the United States Secretary of Education here is an opportunity for you to support your words with actions that are critical to the success of our children. You could start by reaching out to our local politicians. You could arrange visits to our schools and you could spend the entire day in the different classrooms to understand what our children do well and where they still need to grow. You can see what resources are lacking. You can begin to understand how much the high stakes testing has affected the self-confidence of our children and educators. You can begin to see that the joy of teaching and learning is being tested. You can see the “reform” efforts (NCLB, RTTT, etc.) are not closing the achievement gap - instead, the gap is becoming wider and seemingly unmanageable. You can see that the focus seems to be on the “stuff” we are using to teach - the resources, textbooks, instructional modules, etc. - and not on the educators who are doing the teaching. You can see that the focus is shifting away from our children and heading toward the numbers. Hopefully, in your position as Secretary of Education in this great country, you can help affect change in our schools so that the current landscape of public education begins to shift back towards the positive; back towards our children.

Please know that I welcome the opportunity to work with you to bring about the changes our children deserve and need - and I am sure that many other educators feel the same way and would join our efforts. I am not trying to dump this problem in your lap but I am hoping to raise your awareness so that we could work together to advocate for our children and ensure that they have the education they deserve and need to be ready for whatever they encounter in the future.

Tony Sinanis
School Leader, Public School Educator & Father       

Friday, July 12, 2013

Twitter: Getting Started

Over the last week I have had several opportunities to engage with other educators who are relative tech novices about the power of Social Media - specifically how Twitter has changed my world! Twitter has allowed me to personalize my professional development; Twitter has helped me establish connections (create a PLN - Personal/Professional Learning Community) with some incredibly dedicated, passionate and knowledgeable educators who are willing to share, collaborate and help stretch my thinking (see the list below for some of the people I have learned a lot from); and Twitter has allowed me to make the walls of our school transparent for the community - we are proud of what we do and we want to tell our own story!

After the many introductory questions and conversations I thought I would put together a quick resource for getting started. Here we go...

1) Download the Twitter app on your iPhone, Droid, iPad, tablet, etc.

2) Create an account - you have to come up with a username/handle (write down your password somewhere - this important). This is an important step so think about how you want to be identified on Twitter as you develop your PLN. You can use your personal name, school name or something that identifies your professional world. For example, my Twitter handle is @Cantiague_Lead because I am the Lead Learner at Cantiague Elementary School.

3) Create a short bio and include a profile picture (no one wants to follow the "egg") so others can decide if they want to establish a connection with you. The picture is IMPORTANT because it allows for a more personalized virtual connection!

4) As a starting point, pick about 10 different people to follow - check out the list below for some awesome people you can learn from!

5) Start slow... Lurk... scroll through your feed and click on links that interest you, follow new people who are actively sharing resources that enhance your world. Search for hashtags (i.e. - #kinderchat, #edchat, #educoach, #NYedchat, #ptchat, etc.) that are related to topics of interest.

6) Jump into the deep end of the pool and start sending some tweets... share resources, thoughts and perspectives and begin to build your PLN... and your world will change!

So, go for it... enter the Twitterverse and have some fun learning and growing!

People to Follow on Twitter

Jerry Blumengarten - Jerry's AWESOME Site

Todd Whitaker

Friday, July 5, 2013

Safe Haven

Safe havens - this is what every school needs to be for children! When children feel safe, they feel confident; and when children feel confident, they feel good; and when children feel good, their brains release endorphins; and when the brain releases endorphins our children are primed for learning! 

Regardless of what curriculum, standards, resources or materials we use in our schools if our children don't feel safe, valued, respected and appreciated, they will have a very difficult time availing themselves to learning. Our children need to know that the educators in school will support them; push them to learn and grow; be fair; advocate for their needs; motivate them when they cannot motivate themselves; be just; help them develop all aspects of themselves; be consistent; and, in the end, love (or at least like) and respect them. This is what our children need; this is what our children want; this is what our children deserve!

While doing reading for my graduate courses (a LOT of reading) the same issues impacting public education keep presenting themselves - inequities due to class, the long lasting and cyclical negative impacts of poverty on the education of our children, the fact that our neediest students generally have some of our least effective educators "teaching" them, etc. - and although it seems we have been struggling with these issues for decades (look at the many failed attempts our federal government has made to "fix" the education problem) there is no silver bullet to correct the many problems. There is no curriculum that can be implemented in every school that will definitely make things better. There is no teacher education program that all aspiring educators could attend to mitigate these issues. There is no book we can all read to suddenly rectify all the problems plaguing some of our schools in this country. 

So, what can we do? Where should we focus our energy? What resources can we rely on to start addressing these problems? Are the Common Core State Standards the silver bullet (I don't think so but it seems that there are people out there who believe the standards will close the achievement gap and make things better in our schools)? Will Race To The Top foster a healthy competition and help make things better in our schools? 

I am not sure about any of these "things" but based on my experiences as an educator, the one thing I am sure about is that when our schools become Safe Havens for our children, there is progress, learning, growth and positive results. My goal, each and every day, while at school, is to make sure that my students know that I value them, respect them, appreciate them and will do whatever necessary to facilitate their learning. I love my students and they know it. 

How do they know? I am able to identify each child by name. I greet each student on most mornings and if I miss them, I try and see them at some point during the day. I visit their classrooms each day. I hang out with them at lunch. I play handball, basketball, tag and soccer at recess with them (even though I am not really athletic, they think I am pretty good - sometimes it pays off to be the big guy in an elementary school). I have lunch with them in small groups. I facilitate book clubs. I teach lessons - especially ones featuring some sort of cool tech resource. I support our teachers so they can accomplish their goals for each child. I am present. I am invested. I am visible and my kids know it and feel it. Fortunately, it doesn't end with me - that is only the beginning. Each adult in our building makes the same efforts I do because each of us is invested in the education of every child - we believe it takes a village! The best part about this approach to creating a Safe Haven is that it doesn't cost a thing; it doesn't rely on any one resource or curriculum; and it doesn't take extensive training. It takes investment, passion, compassion and devotion to a singular and shared goal - doing what is in the best interest of children.

In the end, I am not sure if turning each school into a Safe Haven is that elusive silver bullet but I do believe that it could address some of the issues plaguing our schools - especially those labeled as "failing schools" by whatever standards. I believe that schools, when functioning as Safe Havens, regardless of where they are located and how much they are affected by obstacles such as poverty, are inherently successful on some levels and there will be growth, even if it is minimal. I do believe that when we invest the time (in my opinion, that is all it takes) into transforming our schools so they become Safe Havens, we have set the stage for our children to learn and to feel good about themselves while learning. 

I have no scientific evidence or research to back up my theory at this point (aside from personal experiences) but I do believe transforming our classrooms and schools into Safe Havens should be a priority because our children need it and deserve it!