Saturday, November 23, 2013

My First EdCamp: Epic

From the live #Satchat with Brad, ScottBill & Daisy (live from her home in Arkansas and joining us through a Google HangOut) in the morning to the discussion about reshaping Faculty Meetings with Bruce later on to presenting with Joe (my brother from WI who I just met for the first time this morning) in the afternoon, the EdCampNJ experience was an AWESOME one that reaffirmed for me what PD for educators could be if we take control of our own learning! 

I had been reading about it, hearing about it and scanning tweets from the various EdCamps across the country for the last two years but until today, I never had the honor of actually attending one and all I can say is, BETTER LATE THAN NEVER! EdCampNJ is exactly what PD should be... MY choice, on MY terms, on MY time, in MY way and to help push MY thinking. That is exactly what today did for me. I was able to select from over 20 different sessions throughout the day and my biggest challenge was which learning sessions to attend... should I learn about Mindcraft? Standards Based Grading? Edmodo? Google Hangouts in the Elementary Classroom? Or should I offer a session and share something I am passionate about? The possibilities were endless and for the first time, I wasn't dreading the experience because I got to choose what I wanted to learn and if I picked something that didn't feel right after a few minutes, I could get up and find something else (and continue searching until I found the right fit). I was in complete control of my professional development experience - I had a voice in my learning! WOW - who would have thought that a professional development experience could be so empowering? Honestly, not me! 

I had heard all the stories about EdCamps but in my head I kept questioning the hype... was it really going to be that different than the typical PD experience? The standard workshop with the presenters just going on and on? The "shot in the arm" conference that would fade before I got back to work on Monday? How could the EdCamp model possibly avoid all these pitfalls (and many more I have not listed here)? Well, the answer is quite simple... the experience is rooted in the connections shared between like minded educators who are passionate about learning and doing what is in the best interest of children. That is what made this learning experience totally different than any other conference or workshop. No one HAD to be there. No one was letting PD happen TO them. No one was passively sitting through sessions in a disengaged way. 

Instead, a buzz filled the cafetorium from 7:30am and lasted all day to the last raffle prize was announced after 3pm. People were talking; people were sharing; people were laughing; people were teaching; and most importantly, people were LEARNING! All day, throughout every exchange and interaction, people were being influenced, shaped and informed. From my vantage point, that is another thing that made the EdCamp experience different - it was rooted in connections between people who shared a common passion and interest - the opportunity to LEARN! I was engaged all day and for someone who is impacted by ADHD, that is a big deal. I learned about how I could record a Google Hangout. I learned about how I could do an even better job of making our Faculty Enhancement Opportunities (that is what we call Faculty Meetings at our school) more powerful PD sessions for our staff. I learned about how to better brand our school. I learned about a bunch of tools and web based resources that could support a project based learning experience. 

The common thread that ran through all these learning experiences today at EdCamp? The connections... the connections with my peers, colleagues and friends... the connections that allowed me to discuss the endless possibilities... the connections that pushed me out of my comfort zone... the connections that helped me personalize the learning experiences throughout the day. That, from my perspective, is what made the EdCamp experience so much more powerful... the connections... the choices... the personalized learning opportunities! 

Although it was only my first EdCamp there are two things I know for sure... it will NOT be my last and it was arguably the best PD experience I have ever had in my 17 year career as educator! Thank you EdCampNJ for an EPIC experience!      

Monday, November 18, 2013

My Curved Journey

As many of you know, a few months ago I wrote a post entitled Ode To Paul about my amazing son and the impact he has had on my life. I also used that post as an opportunity to remind my fellow educators that there are many "Pauls" in our schools and lives and we should always keep that in mind when interacting with our students, staff and community members. 

Recently, my son wrote a personal essay as part of the writing workshop experience at school and he decided he wanted to share this essay with the world. The essay is about his journey with congenital scoliosis. Well, I have never been prouder to turn my blog over to someone else... our guest blogger this time around is my son, Paul, and his piece is entitled... 

My Curved Journey

When I was eight months old I was diagnosed with congenital scoliosis. When I started sitting up my parents noticed that I kept leaning to the right. My mom kept trying to sit me up straight but I kept tilting (my dad thought I was still learning to sit up properly but he was in denial). That is when my parents decided to bring me to the doctor to get my back checked out. The doctor examined me, took an X-Ray and discovered that five of my vertebrae were connected on one side. That was the beginning of my curved journey - my scoliosis journey - which includes my first surgery when I was 16 months old and my recent VEPTR surgeries.

Scoliosis is when your spine curves abnormally. Instead of your spine going down in a line it looks more like a "C" or an "S." Some kids get scoliosis when they are 12 or 13 but I was born with it, which is why it is called congenital scoliosis. Congenital means to be born with something. Congenital scoliosis is tough to deal with because for the kids who have it, they have many years to grow, which is why it is a curved journey.

After I was diagnosed the doctor kept an eye on my curve for a few months. When the curve got worse, it was time for my first surgery. When I was 16 months old I had a partial spinal fusion, which means that the doctor stuck together 5 vertebrae that were causing my spine to curve. Even though I don't remember it, my parents say I was strong and I recovered quickly.

My spine remained steady for a few years but by the time I reached first grade the curve was back and worse than ever!! This time the doctor put metal rods in my back called VEPTR. VEPTR stands for Vertical Expandable Prosthetic Titanium Rib. These rods have to be expanded every six months as I grow. Even though it is not easy, I am thankful that this surgery exists to help me and other kids. One of my dreams is to grow up and become an inventor and create the "No Back Surgery" injection to cure congenital scoliosis with one shot.

Although I have been through a lot, I live a normal life with lots of friends, lots of fun and a loving family. I know I can do anything because my past experiences have made me the strong person I am today! 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Take a Day and Visit Your School

Today I had the honor of hosting my friend, John Fritzky, at Cantiague Elementary. John and I first connected on Twitter over a year ago, met earlier this year at #ParentCamp and then got paired up as part of the #SAVMP started by my friend George Couros. A few months ago we discussed the possibility of John coming to visit us at Cantiague and we were finally able to work it out. The opportunity to connect with one of the members of my PLN in "real life" always helps me learn, grow and enhance my craft as an educator and leader so I was looking forward to the opportunity! 

John just began in his first administrative position this fall as an Assistant Principal at a Middle School in New Jersey and was interested in checking out the instructional practices in our school. Although I guess John was hoping to learn something at Cantiague, in the end, the experience ending up teaching me a lot. We spent the entire day walking around our school, visiting classrooms, talking to teachers and engaging our kids in different conversations and discussions. How was this different than any other day? Well, today I took the day and visited my school and it was a game changer. 

I usually spend a lot of time in our classrooms on most days but today was different. Today I was trying to share information with John, answer his questions, spotlight various content areas and check out what our kids were doing. As we visited the classrooms and walked around the building the visit took on a whole other meaning for me. I wasn't really thinking about whether or not John was seeing anything "good" but instead I found myself smiling more and more and shaking my head in agreement with all the things happening in our school. I took the day, stayed out of my office and visited my school and this is what I learned...

  • The people in our building are happy. There were staff members, students and parents in the building throughout the day and their sense of pride and joy was clear!

  • There is incredible vertical alignment in the instruction in our building from Kindergarten through 5th Grade! The alignment was visible in writing workshop where all our children experienced publishing their first piece in the last week or two. The alignment was visible in reading workshop where all our children are learning various reading strategies and skills that are helping them grow with their independent reading. The alignment was visible in mathematics where our children are exploring all four operations within problem solving situations!

  • We value 1:1 instruction at all levels and in all subject areas. Many of our teachers were engaged in 1:1 conferences in the areas of reading, writing and mathematics. Our 1:1 experiences allow us to differentiate instruction, guide future instruction and best meet the needs of our kids!

  • We have come a long way in our six years together as a team! We have dedicated a lot of time, passion and effort to enhancing our craft and the results are evident.

  • We spend time planning for small groups as a way to further differentiate instruction! Our children experience guided reading groups, strategy groups, book clubs, group writing conferences and small group math stations just to name a few. There is a lot of research that speaks to the importance of proximity as it relates to learning and through the small group experience our teachers are able to keep a close eye on our kids and support their growth!

  • We love our kids and devote a lot of time to the development of their self-confidence and happiness. Although we have implemented the Common Core State Standards we are not defined by standards - we are more than a number! We devote time to the development of the whole child and the data comes in the form of smiles, laughter and genuine enthusiasm about being in school!

  • Technology has permeated our building as a way to facilitate and enhance learning! iPads are being used by staff and kids. One classroom was having a BYOD experience. One of our first graders created a story using a web based augmented reality site. One of our fifth graders is using Evernote to develop his own digital portfolio. Many of our teachers and kids are blogging. Our SMARTBoards are truly interactive just to spotlight a few examples!

  • We value community and collaboration! Our children are consistently offered opportunities to work together, "turn and talk", discuss their ideas and share strategies. We see the value in facilitating learning experiences between children - the theory of social learning has found a place in our school. 

  • Our kids tell our story. Whether through our Weekly Video Updates or just conversations in the hallway, the children of Cantiague can tell you what Cantiague is all about - what we stand for - what we believe! Check out a sample of our Weekly Video Update...

  • We still have a lot to explore, try and experience as we look for opportunities to innovate and push ourselves out of our collective comfort zone!

So, although I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to spend the day with John and "show off" our school, in the end, I am grateful for all that I learned today and all that I was reminded about in regards to the awesomeness of our community. With that in mind, I challenge all my fellow educators and Lead Learners to Take a Day and Visit Your School... it will be an experience that will change you and your community! 


Saturday, November 2, 2013

It Does Take A Village

Families. Parents. Community. Our children. Without these groups of people, none of us who have dedicated our lives to the world of education would have a career at this point. Our children are shaped, impacted and educated by the people in their lives, in their homes and in their communities. Our children's social experiences before and during the schooling years can very much dictate the trajectory of their lives and as educators we must respect that, appreciate that, consider that and value that. I know that our son, Paul, is who he is today because of the way our family - his mom, grandparents, aunt, uncle and me - has influenced his thinking, shaped his beliefs and devoted our lives to his happiness and well being. As a parent, all I can hope is that his teachers will understand and value that Paul is my heart and soul and everything I do, I do for him. As an educator, I must remember to step back and look at every parent through that same lens!

Recently I read a post by Matt Gomez stressing the idea that we must Start Believing in Parents Like We Do In Kids and it resonated with me for so many reasons and on so many levels. First off, as a dad, I found myself shaking my head and thinking, "YES Matt - AMEN - THANK YOU!" But it didn't end there because as the Lead Learner of Cantiague Elementary I couldn't agree more with Matt. In fact, I have devoted myself to serving the community and specifically dedicated a lot of time to "flattening the walls" of our school so the community knows exactly what our children are experiencing and what we believe in as an institution. I believe in the concept of servant leadership and it is my goal each and every day to best serve our children, staff and community at large.

Well, after reading Matt's post and thinking about my role as a dad coupled with my career as an educator, I remembered that the families of our students are our support, our allies and our partners in doing what is in the best interest of our children. Our families are dedicated to their children - their education, their development and their well being. That may not look exactly the same for every family - not every family can donate something for the Bake Sale; not every family can come to the Book Fair; not every family can make a parent/teacher conference; and not every family can help with homework. There are families who are struggling to survive financially. There are families who are battling illnesses or addictions. There are families going through divorce. There are families who are uncertain about their next meal. There are families who are navigating situations and problems that we couldn't even fathom. But, every family is dedicated to their children; every family lives for their children; and every family will do whatever they can for their children (I agree with Matt- I believe 99.999999% of our families are good people who are trying to do right by their children). We, as educators, can never forget these realities. We must remember that a strong home/school connection that is focused on meeting the needs of all children should always be our goal. We must work together to help our children achieve their hopes and dreams. We must embrace the idea that it takes a village to educate and raise a child. 

Below is an excerpt of an email I recently sent out to our families at Cantiague thanking them for their tireless efforts in supporting our school because without them we would not be successful...

"Although we are all consumed by our incredibly busy lives and our many obligations and responsibilities, I wanted to take a moment to thank each of you, on behalf of the Cantiague staff, for your unending support of the children and our educational community as a whole.
Over the last month, between the Car Wash, the Book Fair, Red Ribbon Week and most recently our successful PARP Week, many of you took the time out of your busy schedules to be at Cantiague supporting these special events and most importantly, spending time with our children. As a working parent I know how difficult it can be to juggle everything to be there for our children and still attend to the many responsibilities in our lives. Yet, somehow over the last month each one of our families have been involved and present at Cantiague for one event or another and we cannot thank you for these efforts.
The longer I work in education the deeper I appreciate the importance of a strong home/school connection – a connection that is unhindered by physical walls; a connection that keeps our children and their best interests at the center; a connection that speaks to the idea that it takes a village to raise and educate a child. Thank you all for your presence, your support and your active role in our children’s development and education – Cantiague Elementary would not be the best school on the planet if it weren’t for our amazing families and unending support. 

It is an honor to be the Lead Learner of this amazing community."

I share this email because I think it is important that we celebrate the successes within our community and that we thank our families for all they do each and every day. Without them we would not be in the business of education. 

So, the next time I am ready to blame a family for something a student has done wrong, I am going to pause, flip it and try giving them the benefit of the doubt. I am going to look at things as Paul's dad - not just as the Lead Learner of our school. I am going to remind myself that our families are dedicated to their children. As Matt suggested, I am going to believe in the parents like I do in the children because our children deserve to be educated by a village working together!