About cooking: You can eat your mistakes

@DMGately at Nathan’s Famous 4th of July.

It was the Fourth of July.   I was doing what I love doing in the summertime, using my barbeque smoker to make pulled pork sliders for dinner. I woke up at 4:15am to get it started so that we could have dinner in early afternoon.

You’ve gotta get up early in the morning if you’re going to make great food (I went back to sleep for a couple of hours once I got it going).

At some point in the afternoon, my stepson, who was in the pool with his girlfriend, asked me, “Don, how’d you learn how to cook?” I thought about it and I replied it’s really something I’ve been teaching myself for the past 10 years. I just decided I wanted to learn to cook. My journey as a cook has not been a straight line.  Whenever I have time, I cook.   And it brings me great joy.

“But how’d you do it?” he asked.

[/caption]I’d never really thought to explain it but I guess I read many cookbooks, watch food television, read articles in magazines and newspapers, talk about food with anybody who will discuss it with me, and then I just jump in there and try to cook things. Often I cook by myself but I also love to prepare a meal together with my wife.

The best part of cooking is, when you make mistakes, you get to eat your failures.

When you’re learning to cook, at the end of the process,  no matter what, you are eating.

Eating!  What’s better than that!

That got me thinking about education and school.

Like school, cooking is about something that is elemental to the human condition.  

We cook so we can eat.

We go to school so that we can learn.

That’s it, learning.  School is about learning.  

When I cook…

Nobody gives me a grade

If I make a mistake I can either eat it or throw it away and start over again

When I make a meal, I can always make it again, better than the last time

I’m  never forced to cook in the kitchen with my head down by myself not talking to anyone. Usually when I cook I’m doing it with my wife, we are talking, catching up, listening to music, maybe even enjoying a glass of wine.

I love the feedback I get about my cooking, good or bad,  “Don, I like your coleslaw with vinegar more than mayonnaise. Don, this is too spicy, this needs more salt.  This is so good, where do I get the recipe?”

Learning to cook is all about learning from mistakes but enjoying the process and eating the results. The thing I love most about cooking is the infinite nature of food. I will never stop learning because the universe of food and cooking is seemingly endless. There is so much food to enjoy and

We made this spaghetti with clam sauce.

 so many ways to prepare it. Enjoying food connects you to other people and other cultures in a way that is singularly rewarding.

I do not wish to mislead… I am NOT an awesome cook.  Far from it.  Forced to give myself a percentage grade (emphasis on forced, I am strenuously opposed to grading practices that use “averages”), I would grade myself an 83% (whatever that means).  But I always experience success when I cook, I never give up, I always learn something new, and I always love it!

Somewhere along the way, instead of being about learning, school often becomes a matter of success or failure. Kids are led through a highly prescribed path.  They often engage with content in isolation, not collaborating with others. The system cultivates an avoidance of failure because:  failure equals bad grades  – equals angry parents –  equals negative life prospects; or at least that’s what kids are led to believe.

I don’t have the solution to this dilemma but the similarities and differences between cooking and school has me thinking:

 In schools, how can we create conditions in which kids are NOT afraid to fail.  How can we make everything we do in school as joyful, as exploratory, and as fulfilling as cooking and eating.    It’s our responsibility as educators to make it that way!

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About hope: We can’t give in, can’t give up

When I first became aware of what happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I forced it to the periphery of my attention.   A guidance counselor at my school sent me a text.  She knew that, as a school principal, I should be aware.  I was driving home from school when I got the text.  I’d met my wife near her school with flowers for Valentine’s Day.  At home I didn’t watch the news or follow the events on social media.  

The fact is, since the school shooting in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when a 20-year-old shot and killed 20 children between six and seven years old, as well as six adult staff members with a semi-automatic rifle , I have greeted news of mass shootings with frustration and cynicism.  

When Sandy Hook happened, I was certain that something would change.  Six and seven year olds!  If as a nation we were not willing to do something to address gun violence in our schools following the deaths of six and seven year-olds, I told myself, nothing would ever change.  How could we not act!?

But we didn’t.  

And  more mass shootings occurred… many more school shootings.

Frustration and cynicism.  

Then, as often happens, I was inspired by one of my middle school colleagues, Dennis Schug, who is an amazing middle principal and a good friend.

In a group of middle level principals with whom I am connected via Voxer Dennis related how he responded to the news out of Parkland.   That evening, he reached out to his staff and asked them to be present in the hallways and at the classroom doors and even the doors to the building to greet students as they came to school, to welcome them and make them feel safe and loved.  That’s leadership and that’s caring right there.

I thought to myself, “Shame on me.”  I didn’t do anything like Dennis did.  I let my frustration and cynicism get in the way of my responsibilities as a leader, my responsibilities to my students to help them deal with the harsh realities of our world.

I read this quote  from Dr. Martin Luther King on Twitter:

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

We all make mistakes.  Mine was allowing myself to lose hope.  I’d allowed my frustration with our government, with our nation,  to push hope out of my mind and out of my heart.   We can be frustrated but we cannot  allow ourselves to succumb to despair.  I’m not going to let this happen again.  I’m going to stand for and with my kids against gun violence.

I’m going to always stand with my students.  

I won’t lose hope.  

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About Feedback: Good enough is not good enough

I recently prepared introductory remarks for our winter concert.  I used the same Microsoft Word document named “concert introductions” that I’ve used since I became a principal.  There are elements of these introductions that need to be repeated every year:  turn off your cell phone, don’t yell out your kids name, stay until the end of the concert, thanks to our dignitaries for attending.  So I cut and paste the previous year’s speech and then make revisions.  

Despite the “canned reminders” noted above, I always make different remarks as part of my introductions for a concert.  At this event I referenced a study done by the renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks about the effects on the brain that learning to play a musical instrument has.  Did you know that Duke Ellington’s brain looked completely different than Albert Einstein’s, but that Einstein’s brain probably looked mostly like yours and mine?  People who play a musical instrument have brains that are physically different than those who do not play.   My mentor taught me that any time you address a large gathering of people in your role as principal it is an opportunity to reinforce the vision and mission of the school.  This reference to Sacks’s research allowed me to remind the audience that everything we do at our school is about LEARNING. 

Because there’s no podium in front of the stage, and it’s often dark, I                                         makIMG_2435e sure my remarks do not exceed a single page with large font.   When I pressed the button to print the speech, I made the mistake of not selecting the particular page that had my remarks for “Winter Concert 2017”.   Over 60 pages began streaming out of my printer.  That’s how many concert introductions I’ve done since I became principal.  I am in my 12th year as principal at my present school.  Add to that the five years I was principal at another school, that’s a lot of concerts.  

If you’re going to have a single job for a long time, the two jobs you would do well to consider are classroom teacher and middle school school principal.  Both of these are dynamic roles that are constantly challenging, you can never be bored.  The jobs of the principal or the teacher are wildly unpredictable.  It’s important to have a plan but don’t expect that you’ll be able to follow it. Because of the chaotic dynamism of these roles, there’s a tendency for some people to cling to consistency.   If it went okay last year, let’s just do it the same way again this year,  “Here comes Parent Teacher Conferences, Meet the Teacher Night, Graduation, or a Concert again, let’s trot out the same plan from last year.”   I call this attitude, “Good enough is good enough”.  I wrote about this in a previous post, and it’s not okay.

Good enough is simply not good enough.  Despite how long we may have been doing our jobs, complacency will not help us to improve.   With the new year approaching, like many people, I have sought the one word that will represent my intention to grow.  I am committed to looking at every single thing I do with the purpose of improving and getting better.  To do this, I am going to focus on an important factor.   My one word resolution for the 2018 year is Feedback.  We cannot grow unless we hold up the mirror to our personal and professional practice.  

Ways to do this:

Crucial conversations

It’s easy for people to tell you when you’ve done a good job; I love giving people good news, being a ‘bucket filler”.  To have a growth mindset is to invite constructive feedback that will help us improve.  I’m going to push those conversations to make sure that I invite the kind of advice that will help make me better and make the school better

#ObserveMe Flyer


screenshot-docs.google.com-2017-12-21-06-35-05-070I have a flyer on my door inspired by the #ObserveMe movement.  There is a QR code that you can scan that will bring you to a Google form to give me feedback.  Many of the teachers have their own versions of this flyer on their classroom doors.    Here’s the
link.  Through the use of this instrument, I invite everyone with whom I interact to give me feedback. 

Surveys

BTSN survey QRStudent, staff, and parents should have opportunities to offer feedback after essential meetings, workshops, and school events.  Google forms make this easier than ever.  Survey hack:  Place flyers with a QR code link to the survey on the exit doors of the school, if it’s a workshop in the auditorium place the flyers on the doors in the back.  Participants will scan the QR code with their phones and complete the survey on their way to their cars.  

I hope you’ll give me feedback, on this and on everything else I do or that goes on at my school.  I really want you to help me get better!

What’s your one word for 2018?  How are you trying to get BETTER?

 

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About school climate: You might control the weather

Here’s a recent conversation between my wife and me:

Danielle: “Don, it’s freezing outside, wear a coat.’

Me: It’s not that cold.images

Danielle: It’s windy? Do you know how strong the wind is? Don, the wind is blowing 50 miles an hour.

Me: Is that a lot?

Danielle: Don, think about driving a car, 50 miles an hour, that’s a lot.  

Me: Oh.

I am agnostic when it comes to weather.  I acknowledge that it exists. But I don’t subscribe to any one season. Some people like winter, some like summer.  I’m not sure.  Each season offers unique rewards.  I know weather happens, it happens whether I like it or not.  I experience weather but I have no great affinity for one weather over another.  

Recently we had that first day of really chilly weather of the year… that day when summer turns to fall.  My mother always loved this day.  She would hug me and tell me how excited she was that it wasn’t warm anymore, it wasn’t summer. She disliked summer,  because it’s hot. Perhaps because she grew up without air conditioning.  My mother didn’t like to sweat.   Me, I barely notice the weather. I enjoyed the fact that my mom bundled me up in a cozy sweatshirt to go out and play, but if she hadn’t done so,  I probably would’ve gone outside in shorts and a tee shirt and played with my friends until it got dark.

 

Thing is, if my mother didn’t tell me, I would’ve never known she preferred fall to summer.   Because my mother never complained about anything.  I guess, like most little kids, I actually thought my mother made the weather. If she dressed me in shorts, then it’d be warm.  If she made me wear a coat, then she must’ve decided it’ll be cold outside.  Of course, this wasn’t true.  We cannot control the weather, we can only control how we respond to it.  

 

What’s the point? Two things:

  1. We must teach our kids to approach life the way my mom did.  We cannot determine what will happen to us in life, but we get to decide how we will respond. It can be sunny, it can be rainy, it can be snowy, but we decide how we will respond. Are you going to complain, or are you going to put on your coat and get out there and play? 

2. I was wrong about my mom, she did not actually cause the weather.  But do you know when adults DO create the weather…when they are teachers, in a classroom.   As educators we make the weather in our schools and IMG_4396our classrooms. We need to build resilient kids who are strong enough to handle adversity and success in equal measure.   But we also need to realize that we create conditions in which the kids in our school live every day.  If we’re sarcastic, cold  or grumpy, then our classroom climate will be threatening.  If we’re inviting, warm, and smiley, then kids will know our classrooms are safe places to try new things and fail.

We cannot control the weather, but there are so many things that educators do control.  It’s about intentionality.   Everything we do as educators should be done with intention, not because that’s the way we were were taught, not because it’s what “feels” right, or what’s easy for us;  we must always act in ways that create safe conditions for learning to take place and to build the resilience of our kids.

How do you do this in your classroom or school? How are you intentional?

 

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About middle level teaching: Nobody wants to be the Junior Varsity*

If you ever want to upset middle school principals,  call their schools “Junior Highs ”.  No self respecting middle school educator wants to think they are cultivating “junior high” conditions.  It’s like being the Junior Varsity *…. we don’t want to think we’re  just a way-station between elementary school and high school.classroom-510228_960_720

The New York State  Education Department has adopted a set of core principles called The Essential Elements of Middle Level Education.  The first of these states that effective middle schools embrace a “philosophy and mission that reflect the intellectual and developmental needs and characteristics of young adolescents.”  I’ve always seen this as the most important variable in a successful middle school.  Actions follow our beliefs.  If there is one piece of advice that all middle school teachers must follow it is this,  “Middle school kids are different,  don’t expect to succeed with the same strategies that might work with elementary or high school kids.”  Middle level students present unique challenges due the  intrinsic nature of adolescence.  But excellent middle school teachers have found ways to turn these challenges into opportunities.   

I am proud that I work at a school that embraces this challenge and employs research based middle level best practice to help adolescent learners learn and grow.  

I’ve thought about some classroom approaches that are decidedly NOT best practice for middle level learners **… if you’re still relying on these,  you might be a “junior high school” teacher” … 

If your kids are sitting in rows, facing the front of the classroom (most of the time), you might be a junior high school teacher…

Excellent middle level teachers realize that adolescent learners need to move around.  They need frequent transitions during a typical lesson.  They rely heavily on social constructs to learn.

The great educational theorist, Lev S. Vygotsky, stated, “What children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone.”  Adolescents  are social learners,  we all are. If your students are sitting in rows facing the front of the room, how will they talk to each other?  How will they have an opportunity to express their views, explain how they came to an answer or opinion, how will they learn to listen to somebody who’s not a teacher at the front of the room? 

I’ve heard this argument: “What about Ted Talks, aren’t those lectures?”  My  response: You know who gives Ted Talks… people like Malcolm Gladwell, Steve Jobs, Daniel Pink, and Rita Pierson.  Are you as good as those guys?  And their talks are generally about 20 minutes in length, 20 minute talks which they likely prepared months to deliver.  If you can be that riveting for kids, 5 periods a day,  every day,  for 40 weeks, then, okay, maybe your kids should sit in rows to listen to you.  But I know I can’t  pull that off and I have yet to see the teacher who can do it either.

There’s a formula for the human attention span.  Take a child’s age and add 3 minutes, that is their average attention span.  Hence, a typical 12-year-old can pay attention to one thing for about 15 minutes.  To expect students to sit still in a chair for a 40 minute class period is simply not going to work.  Excellent middle school teachers design lessons that have at least two transitions during the lesson.  Kids have an opportunity to get up and move around or at least to do this, then to do that, then to do this other thing.  Ideally, one of the things involves them interacting with each other.  

When students are arranged in rows before us, we are communicating to them that we have all the information that is important, that we have all the answers.  If all we do is stand in front of the classroom and lecture, even if we ask students the occasional question, then we can be replaced by YouTube videos.

We need to adapt our teaching to the unique needs of our students, at every level, not just middle school.  High school and college teachers – listen up!  If your students are sitting before you in rows most of the time, you are probably not getting it done as a teacher!

Notes:

  • * Apologies in advance to actual Junior Varsity  players and coaches for the metaphor, no slight intended.
  • **This is the first in a series of posts on this topic.
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About assumptions: Being Wrong Isn’t Always Bad

There is an event that every principal anticipates with varying degrees of trepidation. It is something students are excited and nervous about as well: the year-opening school letter telling kids who their teachers are going to be.

IMG_2636

Students are eager to know who their new teachers are and which friends will be in their classes. Principals are nervous because students and parents sometimes complain about the teachers they are assigned or not having certain friends in their classes.

For the past 15 years as the middle school principal, I have employed an interesting approach to this dilemma. Much of students’ unease about their teachers is based on information they’d get from other kids and 99.9% of it wasn’t true: This teacher gives too much homework. That teacher gives detention. The other teacher is mean. So instead of sending students their entire schedule prior to the first day of classes and create this apprehension, we would send home letters—now emails—just three or four days before school commenced, telling them to which room they should report on the first day of school. I knew that when students had a great experience on the first day of school, and they realized how nice everybody is, it would mitigate any anxiety they may have before opening day.

 

This year my superintendent made the decision that we would send students their entire schedules prior to the opening of scIMG_2639hool. I tried to make the case to stick with the prior system but it was no use. I will admit; I thought this plan was going to be a disaster. If I received fifteen complaints before school began in previous years, I was convinced that this year I would receive hundreds!

 

But the opposite happened.

 

This was the smoothest school opening we have ever had. I handled only one or two concerns from parents, and kids arrived on day one happy and excited for a new year. A system that I had expressed considerable allegiance to was simply wrong. To paraphrase Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”  It turns out that the drama surrounding students and their schedules was created by me! Not knowing who their teachers were or if they had classes with any of their friends, students and parents writhed in uncerIMG_2652tainty and anxiety in the days prior to school. We are weeks into the new school year, and I continue to ponder the fact that I could hold such a deeply rooted idea of the “best way” to do something and been so utterly wrong.

 

Some reflections:

  • Transparency is always better. The more you know, the more honest you are with your families and students, the better.

 

  • Examine everything you do to see if there is a better way to do it. Just because we had been doing it this way for the past 16 years doesn’t mean there’s not a better way.

 

  • Take a risk eveIMG_2654n when it goes against your instinct. I hate to admit this, but I didn’t want to send the entire schedules; the superintendent made me do it. Sometimes you can trust others to have better instincts than you do.

 

  • Just because something seems to work doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. There are ways of doing things that seem fine but can be improved anyway. “Good enough” is not good enough.

 

  • One of the reasons we made this change was because of input from parents. Listen to the ideas and concerns of your stakeholders. I have amazing PTA leaders who help me to understand the school experience from the eyes of kids and parents.

 

Call to action:

This experience illuminates the dynamic and exciting nature of school leadership. It has me wondering what other assumptions need to be challenged about the way things are done. How about you? Are you subjecting all of your school’s practices to the highest level of scrutiny?

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About an ordinary life: Encyclopedia Part II

Remembering Dates

I share a birthday with Ludwig van Beethoven, December 16. That’s probably why, when I want to play classical music on my Amazon Echo I normally ask,  “Alexa,  play my Pandora Beethoven station.”   downloadOf course Beethoven is awesome, but I lean towards the German master composer largely because we share a birthday.  I guess if you need a reason for doing something that is as good a reason as any.

I don’t forget my wedding anniversary because it’s Louis Armstrong’s birthday, August 4. Some people think his birthday was July 4 because that’s what Louis told people. During his lifetime Louis actually thought his birthday was July 4 because that’s what it said on his baptismal certificate. Louis_Armstrong_1947Years after he died, they found his birth certificate which indicated his actual birthday as August 4.  If my anniversary was July 4, I would probably have no problem remembering that.  So that’s a good way to remember things. Unless you’re Beethoven or Louis Armstrong, you won’t likely be able to ask Google when your wedding anniversary is.  But for most of us, we can find somebody famous who was born on the date of the momentous occasions in our lives. Google that!

Rate my teacher

366958167_939986949cIf you’re a middle school principal, don’t ever read your reviews on Rate My Teacher, ever.  Ok, can you do me that favor, don’t ever read them? Promise me you won’t!? You’ll thank me for this.

 

 

Real people


Angelina_Jolie_Brad_Pitt_CannesWhenever we watch a commercial on television and the caption states, “Real people, not actors”, my son remarks, “Why? Aren’t actors real people?”

Security Questions

On secure websites, when you’re asked to provide some security questions they often ask, “Who was your best friend in high school?”   keyboard-2113702_960_720Notice, they never ask you who your best friend in middle school was. That’s because most middle school kids have a new best friend every three weeks. I know this because in June of every school year, parents will beg me to place their child’s best friend in their sixth grade class, so that they’ll feel more comfortable in the new school year.  I won’t do it.   The one time I relented when I was a new principal and placed the child with a friend, I got a call from the same parent the first day day of school begging me to change their child’s class because the two kids had a huge fight over the summer and couldn’t stand looking at each other.That’s how adolescence works. Kids try on new clothes, new music, and new friends every week.  

Nobody can remember who their best friend from middle school was, because they had a new one every few weeks.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Learning: On a snow day

Last year a student approached me and said that he had a concern. His concern was that none of his classmates seem to know about what is happening in the world, no one followed current events. He asked if we could start a club to talk about current events.images-5newsjpg

His request intersected with a misgiving I’d been having about the frequency with which I had direct contact with my students in a teaching and learning context.  I spend a good deal of time with our kids in the hallways and in the cafeterias but I do not often enough engage with them as a teacher.  As a principal, it’s important to me that kids see me as a learner and as a teacher.  With this in mind,  along with the district curriculum associate for social studies,  we started a student-led current events forum at our school.  

The forum meets once a month and a dedicated group of kids faithfully attend to talk about topics in the news that grab their attention.  A core group of passionate and socially active students plan the meetings, publicize them, creates fliers, and identify articles and videos for the group to examine.  It is a terrific example of student voice in action.  

Recently Long Island experienced a heavy, snowy blizzard so we had a snow day. Everybody loves snow days!  After a huge breakfast of pancakes and bacon (a snow day tradition at our house) I decided we would have a digital version of the current events forum.images-4

At 11am I e-mailed parents and posted the forum on our learning management system.  The forum was scheduled for 1pm.  We are a Google Apps for Education (GAFE) school so I set up a Google Classroom for the discussion to take place.  My original intention was to host the entire session on Google Classroom but I thought it would be more engaging if there was a video component.  Formerly, I would have employed Google On Air (GOA) for this purpose, but I’m finding the new iteration of it, YouTube Live, confusing.  You have to download an encoder, and, did I mention there was a blizzard outside and I was getting anxious already with all the shovelling ahead of me later that day.  So for the video component, we used Appear.in which is super-easy, allows screen sharing,  and requires NO downloading if you’re on a laptop or Chromebook.  

At 1pm when the conversation was scheduled to begin, over 70 students had joined the Google Classroom!

Here’s how it worked:

We began by examining a recent article about president Trump’s son, “Barron Trump, and how being a White House kid comes with pluses and minuses.”  The article explored the ups and downs of being the child of the president of the United States.  Kids read the article, it was short, and then weighed in on it.  I posed some questions and the kids responded and responded to each other.  

The conversation was guided by the following questions:

  • Would you want to be the son or daughter of the president of the United States?
  • Should the media be allowed to cover the president’s young children? Write about and photograph them?

A student posted a link to an article about the journalist, Katie Rich, who was dismissed from her job as a writer on Saturday Night Live because of a joke she posted on Twitter about Barron Trump.

  • Do you think that people should be allowed to make jokes about the president’s children?
  • Do you think that the journalist should have been dismissed?
  • How important is it that bullies are punished? Do you think it changes their behavior?
  • If a bully get suspended, does that make the victim of the bullying feel better?
  • What do you think about suspension? Are there are better ways to change behaviors?

I dropped in a link to an article about restorative practices and we had a conversation about that also.

An hour went by so fast that it when it was over, it seemed like we just started. When I signed off, the kids stayed on the page and continued the chat for another ½ hour.  

One student commented: “It was like school, only it’s fun.”

Here are some of my takeaways from this awesome event:

  • The conversation had a fantastic flow that I’m not sure would have been possible in a classroom setting. Nobody had to wait to raise their hand and be recognized by a teacher before responding.  
  • The students who participated were earnest and open to the opinions of their peers.  There was no inappropriateness, rudeness or cynicism. This contradicts the widespread belief that kids use digital media for snark and putdowns.
  • The problem with Appear.in is that only eight people can be on-screen at any one time. Eight students joined the video and stayed on the entire time.  There’s no way to moderate like there was with GOA.  Kids commented they were frustrated that they couldn’t get on the video.  It’s not nice to feel blocked out the way kids did,  I’m not sure how I will do it next time.  Perhaps I could just ask kids to drop off the video after a certain amount of time, give other kids a chance.  
  • Interestingly when I asked the students whether we should include parents next time they said yes, this would add more perspectives in the conversation.  I agree.  Next time I’ll use Edmodo or TodaysMeet so anybody with the link can join the conversation.  I’d use Twitter but most of my middle school kids do not have a Twitter account.  If we use an open source like Edmodo, then we could invite other schools to participate also.  download-9
  • It was important to me to use a source for the news article that was not obviously Republican or Democrat. In our face-to-face forums, in school, I don’t particularly worry about the bias of a particular source because we are all there together to talk about it and challenge each other’s views in a polite and appropriate way.  So what do you use, CNN? FOXNews? I settled upon an article from Newsday – I figured we couldn’t go wrong with Long Island’s local paper.
  • As it turned out, because of icy conditions on the roadways throughout Long Island,  the following day was also a snow day.  I thought about doing another forum and a few kids reached out to me to do so, but I decided that I wouldn’t. Let the kids get out in the snow and play. The next time there’s a blizzard and we’re all stuck in the house,  I’ll host another snow day forum.  
  • Kids have different modes of learning –  inputs and outputs.  One of the most articulate and insightful participants in the forum was a sixth grade young lady who, in the school building, is diffident and quiet.  In the digital forum she was outspoken and assertive, taking a leadership role in the chat. We must offer a variety of learning modes for kids and ways for them to express themselves.  

Schools exist for learning. The forum reinforced the powerful idea that learning is not something that takes place only in school, in 40 minute blocks. Learning is collaborative, dynamic, engaging and can happen anywhere,  anytime.  Anything we can do to reinforce with kids the primacy of learning is important work.  The current events snow day forum was a unique opportunity for students to collaborate and weigh in on issues that concern them in their lives. This was a highly successful first endeavor for this kind of activity. I look forward to another blizzard so that we can do it again!

 

How are you using 21st Century tools to ignite passion and engage students in learning 24/7?  

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About a hero: Detective Steven McDonald

The world lost a true hero recently, Detective Steven McDonald of the New York City Police Department.  Detective McDonald  was an amazing man who, in his words and in his life, embodied character and a belief in the inherent goodness of people.  In my career as an educator,  I was privileged to have had a small association with this paragon of faith and perseverance.

 

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Detective Steven McDonald with his wife Patricia and son Conor

In addition to our academic disciplines, as teachers we are continuously challenged to teach students life skills, social emotional literacies and good character.   We do this through direct instruction and in the ways in which we conduct ourselves in front of kids.  I have met scores of educators who embodied these qualities but few of us have endured the circumstances that Detective McDonald experienced in his life.  He was on patrol on July 12, 1986, when he spotted a teenage bicycle thief and two others in Central Park. When he moved to frisk one of them, one of the other youths shot McDonald three times, with one bullet piercing the officer’s spinal column, paralyzing him for life.  His wife was three months pregnant at the time of the shooting.

 

About six months later, McDonald made a statement that defined the rest of his life: “I forgive him and hope he can find peace and purpose in his life.”  His generosity and spirit inspired people across New York and around the world.  He devoted the next 30 years of his life to helping others.  “I’ve learned there’s more stories of love and forgiveness than there are street corners in our city. There are many stories,” McDonald said in an interview in Dec. 2016.

I first met Steven when I was a teacher in Queens, New York.  I aspired to be a “teacher leader” and was developing the skills and the temperament to assume a formal role in school administration.   I implemented at my school a parent volunteer program.  Parents came to school and tutored kids in need of support.  Through an organization that trained my volunteers, I developed a contact with Detective McDonald, who came to my school and spoke to kids in an assembly.

Steven’s mission was to leave my kids with two powerful messages:

  • The most powerful and liberating thing you can do is forgive others. When you harbor anger towards another person this diminishes you. To forgive others liberates us and makes us stronger, greater, and more righteous.
  • Every one of us is different in our own way and every one of us is special.

You could’ve heard a pin drop when Steven read to our kids a poem which began:

In all the world there is nobody like you.

Since the beginning of time, there has never been another person like you,

Nobody has your smile, your eyes, your hands, your hair.

Nobody owns your handwriting, your voice.

You’re special.

(I was moved when I read in one of his obituaries that he read this same poem at a precinct in Washington Heights, just a month before he passed away.)

Fast-forward about five years.  I was the assistant principal in a nearby school district on Long Island.  Knowing how powerful Detective McDonald’s message was for my kids in Queens, I reached out to him to come speak at my new school.  Again, Steven’s message of forgiveness and love was poignant, righteous and irreducible.  Members of our staff were moved to tears; students and adults thanked me for arranging for Steven to come to our school.  It was deeply humbling to me when, following the assembly program, many kids told me how lucky I was that Steven was my friend, simply because I’d arranged for him to speak at the school.   This is how middle school kids see the world, “You introduced Detective McDonald at the assembly, so he must be your friend.”   

john_l-_sullivan_champion_pugilist_of_the_worldThere was an expression in late 19th century America that referred to the great heavyweight boxing champion of the age, “Let me shake the hand that shook the hand of John L. Sullivan”.  This saying became a cultural catchphrase in the late 1800s. You can look up its origin but this axiom, despite it’s whimsical connotation, was meant to describe the intense experience of simply shaking the hand of a person who had once shook the hand of a great man like Sullivan.

This is exactly how I feel about my association with Detective Steven McDonald.  He was one of the greatest individuals I have ever had the opportunity to meet in person. He had a significant influence on my life and, through his visits to schools throughout the metropolitan region, he profoundly impacted the lives of countless children.  I was privileged to have met him only a handful of times but I am so proud of my connection with him and sad at the news of his passing.  In my own life I will honor him by focusing on the ideals upon which he lived his life: forgiveness and the inherent goodness of all people.

 

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About energy: Loving the mannequin challenge

I am loving the mannequin challenge.   

For those of you who havimg_7301en’t seen it, the mannequin challenge involves a group of people freezing in place in the midst of a typical human activity. Somebody generally videotapes it.

Seeing people frozen-still like this is surreal.  It reminds me of an episode of the Twilight Zone.

Here’s a few examples from the staff and kids at my school: this, and this, and this one too.

What appeals to me is the fact that teachers could get middle school kids to stand still for the time it takes to shoot the video. Adolescents typically cannot sit still for 30 seconds, let alone 5 minutes.

It takes special people to match the energy of middle school kids. img_7254

I have this experience with some frequency in my role as a middle school principal:

Parents or some other civilians are upstairs by the security desk and I’m asked to come up and escort them downstairs to the guidance office or a classroom they’ve come to visit.  I meet them and ask them to follow me through the hallways when the bell rings to signal the change of classes.


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I walk ahead as kids spill out into the hallway.  

The next thing I know, I’ve lost my visitors!  I turn around and they’re nowhere to be found, lost in a sea of 12 and 13-year-olds.*

They couldn’t keep up because most people aren’t used to the rhythms and the tempo of typical adolescents.

Any middle school teacher knows that one of the most exciting but challenging aspects of the job is the frenetic pace of life with the kids here. The executive function portion of the adolescent brain, the part that slows things down so we don’t make poor decisions, hasn’t fully developed.  As a consequence, middle school kids seem to be operating at  78 rpm while the rest of us are at 45rpm.  The engines in their brains have more acceleration than brake.

img_7252Great middle school teachers understand this phenomenon and capitalize on it in classroom instruction by including frequent transitions and movement in their lessons. They don’t just do one thing in a lesson (like lecture); they do at least three different activities because they know the limits of an adolescent’s attention span. They add interesting twists to lessons because middle school kids thrive on novelty.   And yes, they do the manquin challenge because, well, it’s just so cool!

I’m pretty sure the mannequin challenge is going to get old soon… but I’m loving it while it lasts!
* There’s a trick.  Use the biggest kid you can find, usually an 8th grader on a high protein diet, as a lead blocker.  I’ve been following the same kid since February of last year. Kid’s huge! I’m gonna miss him when he goes to the high school.

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