Sunday, October 19, 2014

Donkey Kong

Video games… they were my life growing up and I was hooked from a young age. I remember the first summer my father took me to Greece to visit my family. They lived in a tiny village on a mountain top in Northern Greece - there was no hot water and indoor plumbing was a relatively new thing. Most of the men in my family are lumberjacks and the women tend to the farm animals, children and home. I was an 8 year old boy living in New York City who suffered from ADD so you can imagine how traumatic the summer setting was for someone who was used to having access to anything and everything. 

In preparation for the trip, my dad took me to an electronics store to get a little something. Well, that was the first time I ever held a video game in my hands… it was the flip version of Donkey Kong and after playing for about 3 minutes I was HOOKED! I played that video game for hours every single day that summer (my father had enough forethought to buy extra batteries because it had special batteries) and was really good at the game - the challenge, experience and fast pace spoke to the way I was wired.

Upon returning from my trip, I dove head on into the world of video games. I eventually had various game systems and dozens of games that I spent hours playing and trying to master and win. I was definitely engaged and my focus was hyperfocused on this world of video games. Unfortunately, there was no place for that outside of my home and definitely not at school. School was for sitting in rows, reading from a basal, sitting quietly for hours and only speaking when spoken to by an adult. Needless to say, my attentional issues made success in this context extremely difficult. My parents were contacted consistently and my report card reflected someone who was a failure - both in the academic sections and in the personal growth sections. But I knew I wasn’t a failure - it was just that no one took the time to find out what I was interested in; what I was excited about; and what I was passionate about in "real life."

As you can imagine, these experience as a child definitely shaped my philosophy of education. The role my family played in my life. The fact that my family allowed me to immerse myself in my passions and interests (I think it was more about keeping me quiet than fueling my passions but it’s all good). The fact that my schooling experiences, especially at the elementary level, were extremely frustrating, unsuccessful and challenging for me. All this, and a lot more, is at the core of my philosophy about education and specifically about being an educational leader.

These experiences are what motivate me each and every day. I want our children and staff at #Cantiague to have the opposite type of experiences as I had in my formative years. I want to know about the whole child and adult - what do the lives of our children and staff members look like outside of school and how does it shape the experiences in the classrooms. 

This year, building on what we have done in the past, we have embedded many opportunities to get to know our kids and their passions and interests outside of school. We have experimented with #GeniusHour where children have done everything from creating with play-dough to planning for a passion based research project/experience. Many of the children have also had the opportunity to share their passions, interests and loves through the writing workshop experience where they generate heart maps to help spark ideas for personal writing pieces. We have also tried more Bring Your Own Device Days, which the children get really excited about and cannot wait to collaborate and create. Whatever the case, we have tapped into our children’s passions and interests because we want to support the development of the whole child - we refuse to just focus on test scores and the traditional academic areas!  

I don’t have any hard data to show that this shift in instructional focus at #Cantiague has had any sustainable impact on our kids’ learning but what I do know is that many of our kids are happy, excited and invested in coming to school each day. I am stopped on a daily basis by kids who share how excited they are to experience things like #GeniusHour, experimenting with the flipped classroom (watching videos at home) and sharing their voices through the video updates or classroom blogs. Many of our kids love coming to school because they feel like their voice matters and they know we value their perspectives.

Why do I share this piece? Because I think as educators (especially those of us in leadership positions) we need to think about our children - the whole child - not just the one sitting in our classrooms. Not just the academic learner. Not just the test score. We need to know what sparks the interest of each child and we need to tap into those passions and loves to help shape the academic experience. We need to stop doing things because they have always been done that way. We need to stop focusing on teaching and shift the focus to learning. We need to stop focusing on covering the curriculum and getting through the textbook. We need shift the focus to the children, their voices and learning in general.

Let’s find the Donkey Kong video game loving kid in every child and tap into that love and harness it and unleash it in our schools!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Empathy & Trust

The need for trust and empathy is something I understand on a very personal level. Last year, my whole world shifted after I came to terms with my sexuality - realizing that I am gay and saying the words aloud was quite a journey (a challenging one at times). My entire life changed (as did the lives of those most important people in my world) and I didn't want anyone at school to know because I didn't want them to think I was different or that my work would suffer. Of course, everyone around me knew something was going and without me even asking for it, they all showed me a tremendous amount of empathy and they offered me all the trust I needed to eventually share my journey with them. In the end, my ability to successfully navigate the year was built on the trust and empathy that permeated our community. 

Why do I share this very personal experience with the world? Well, after almost 20 years in the world of public education it took a personal journey to understand that we don't need much to create positive learning environments for children; we don't need much to enact sustainable educational reform; and we don't need much to create an educational community where all members feel valued and important. After 20 years of working with children, educators and families, coupled with my own coming out experience, I have come to believe that if we take a little empathy and sprinkle it upon some trust, chances are we are well on our way to success. Success in life; success in work; but most importantly, success within any educational community. This is what we need most in our schools today... empathy and trust. I used to think that my kids needed my sympathy because they led lives that were much more difficult than my own; I also used to think that the only way we would have a productive year in our classroom is if my students respected me. Yes, sympathy can be useful at times and yes, respect goes a long way, but, without empathy and trust, there will be no success. 

There needs to be trust between educators and families; there needs to be trust between students and teachers; there needs to be trust between administration and staff; there needs to be trust between the community and the faculty; there needs to be trust between the principal and the children; there needs to be trust everywhere within an educational community if we are to meet with any success, implement any innovative changes and create contexts where taking a risk with one's learning (adult or child) is the norm and not the exception. We need to trust that everyone within the organization is dedicated to doing what is in the best interest of children and that we will each carry our "load" towards that goal. We need to trust that when we make decisions that are in the best interest of children, even when they are not easy decisions, we are doing what is right. We need trust in our schools if we are to be successful in a sustainable and meaningful way. It doesn't matter how many test prep workbooks we buy or how many devices we get into the hands of our students or how affluent our community is because without trust, there will be limited success, growth and evolution. It is becoming clearer to me each day that many of the efforts in the world of education reform fail because of the lack of trust. We need trust in our schools!

Of course, trust doesn't come with the clap of your hands or the mere wanting of it. Building trust takes a lot of work. Trust comes from being transparent; trust comes from being collaborative; trust comes from communicating expectations, hopes and vision; trust comes from seeing feedback as an opportunity to enhance your craft (not get defensive); trust comes from conversations about our practice; trust comes from working together to do what is in the best interest of a child; trust comes from the relationships that we foster and nurture in our schools. Trust takes time and effort!  

Trust is just half of the equation though... because without empathy, trust alone will not lead to as much success. We need to show everyone in our schools and communities empathy, even when we think they don't deserve it or when it is incredibly difficult to find the empathy within ourselves. I am not talking about sympathy here - people don't generally benefit from pity but they can benefit from the empathy we exhibit when we try and walk in their shoes. 

The tough thing about empathy is that we don't often know when those around us actually need it most because they are hesitant to share. Sometimes they are embarrassed for others to know they are going through something; sometimes they are unable to verbalize it; sometimes they don't want people to view them as weak or different; and other times they just don't want to talk about it. 

The emotionally disturbed child who tells you she hates you and throws a book across the classroom needs empathy; the little homeless boy who who cries all day and is living in a single room at the local motel with his two siblings and parent needs empathy; the second grader who lost her parent to a terrible illness needs empathy; the new student who just came to the country and doesn't speak a word of English needs empathy; the socially impaired child who is going home to a parent who can't understand him needs empathy; the staff member who is going through a divorce and struggles to figure out child care each day needs empathy; and the list goes on and on for those who need empathy from someone they can trust. 

Whatever the situation or variables, figuring out when someone needs empathy or a trust-worthy supporter can be tough so let's play it safe in our schools and show everyone a little empathy and work diligently to create an environment where trust is part of the foundation. A few months ago I was struggling with coming to terms with my sexuality and successfully navigating an unfamiliar landscape. In the end, if it wasn't for the empathy and trustworthiness of those around me, I may not have been as comfortable as I was in saying, "My name is Tony and I am gay." 

From my perspective, if we take a little empathy and sprinkle it upon some trust, chances are we are well on our way to success within our schools.