Monday, April 24, 2017


Dr. Paul Dordal (blog)

Over the last five years I have immersed myself in the "Twitterverse" and slowly built up my Personal/Professional Learning Network (PLN). Twitter quickly became a way for me to connect with other educators, and specifically educational leaders. In fact, Twitter became a way for me to escape the silo and sense of isolation I was experiencing while working as a Lead Learner at Cantiague Elementary. Yes, I was surrounded by a group of incredible kids, passionate educators and amazing families but I was the only "administrator" in the building and I was looking for an opportunity to learn, grow and be inspired by others in my position! 


Well, Twitter quickly became the space where I learned, connected with other likeminded educators and shared my thinking. In fact, I learned more through my connections on Twitter in a matter of months than I had learned in years of attending workshops, conferences and grad courses. The thing about Twitter that really hooked me is its functioning as a Virtual Community of Practice where tens of thousands of educators are openly sharing ideas, problems of practice and resources because most barriers had been removed (the glory of a digital platform). There is a sense of fluidity on Twitter where a person could be a novice at one moment when the topic is unfamiliar to them and then a moment later becomes the expert in "the room" because of their experiences and knowledge with a different topic/subject. 

Rod Sullivan (site)

Twitter has provided me access to so many likeminded educators that I quickly realized that I could learn about almost any topic in a matter of minutes by reaching out to specific members of my PLN. Whether I wanted to learn more about school culture or wanted to better understand how we could implement sustainable PD or figure out how to use the Google Suite to enhance my workflow, I went to the likeminded and experienced people in my PLN and immediately had access to ideas and resources that were actionable and impacted my work as an educational leader.


As the months and years of accessing Twitter quickly flew by, I started to notice something happening with certain members of my PLN. While I respect and value the thousands of likeminded educators who inform my practice on a daily basis, I recently realized that there was a specific group that I kept coming back to; a specific group that informed my practice but also sustained me on an emotional level; a specific group that went from professional colleagues to personal friends. 

I started to become aware of this phenomenon when I noticed that members of my Twitter PLN started showing up in my Facebook feed and were becoming my "friends" on that platform. While I do have hundreds of friends on FB, it is a space that I generally keep for sharing personal posts, thoughts, celebrations and struggles. As some of my new friends began commenting and reacting to my posts, I noticed we were interacting on a different level. I started to get to know more about my new friends and realized that some of the connections we shared went beyond that likeminded level and deepened because we are like-hearted. 

The like-hearted people in my PLN are the people who have gotten to know me as a father, partner, educator and person. They know what makes me laugh, they understand what frustrates me, they recognize what makes me go, "Awe!" and they appreciate what touches my heart. Basically, the like-hearted members of my PLN understand what makes me tick and through their presence in my world, have made it a better place. I can say, with 100% certainty, that my like-hearted friends have shaped who I am as a person today.   

Why Do Like-Hearted People Matter?

As I refined my skill set as a leader during my time at Cantiague, and specifically as I explored Twitter, I started to realize that I relied on my heart as much as I relied on my brain. Yes, being logical, thoughtful and responsive are generally my guiding principles as a leader but I am also passionate, emotionally invested and I pour my heart and soul into my work. While the likeminded members of my PLN have helped inform my practice on that logical/rational level, the like-hearted people have not only done that but through our friendships (some of my best friends on the planet) they have also sustained and inspired me on an emotional level. My like-hearted friends have added more sparkle and positivity to my professional world than I could have ever imagined. My like-hearted friends have reminded me that being an educator and working in schools with kids is a calling. In fact, my like-hearted friends have inspired me to dedicate myself to reframing the narrative in public education by spotlighting all the positive things happening in our schools!

You see, our work as educators impacts our whole being - we need to use everything from our brains to our hearts to our bodies in order to do what is best for our kids. And as I think about it, the same is true of our students and their learning; our kids are using every fiber of their being to successfully navigate the day. So when we are "all in" and we pour a 100% of ourselves into our work and learning, who are the people we (us as educators and our students) turn to when we need support? Who are the people we turn to when we need inspiration? Who are the people who support us when we are struggling? Who are the people who make us laugh when we need it the most? Who are the people that get us? Those people are generally the like-hearted people in our worlds.

So, make sure you pause and reflect on your PLN (make sure your colleagues and students pause and reflect on their people around them too) and recognize those like-hearted people who have made your world a better place and have made you a better version of yourself!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

43 Things We Need To Stop Doing In Schools

This month I turned 43... that's right I have officially moved into my mid-40s and am a prime candidate for a mid-life crisis (does wearing funky socks & drinking Mountain Dew on the regular count?). Although getting older comes with some drawbacks (starting to sound like your parents, lamenting for the days of yore and feeling aches & pains on a daily basis when getting out of bed), the last few years have also been pretty awesome for me on a personal and professional level. Being in my 40s has been quite empowering and has given me the confidence to be true to who I am, be proud of what I believe in and make decisions based on my experiences (not just strong opinions). I have learned a lot about happiness (it comes from within), a lot about priorities (both personal & professional), a lot about balance in life (still not great at it but better than ever before) and a lot about the world of education, especially the current landscape of education, which continues to be an interesting one, especially as it intersects with the political landscape. 

I have been an educator for 20 years and I have learned more in the last few months when I embarked on a new professional journey as an Ass't Sup - the learning literally happens minute by minute - it is pretty awesome! In the past I have written posts to coincide with my birthday milestones (here and here) and I have decided that although I missed last year (not sure why), I felt strongly about sharing 43 things we need to stop doing in schools today. 

Is this list perfect? No. Will everyone agree with it? Probably not. Do I have research to back everything on the list? No. Am I right? I don't know but it is based on my experiences in the classroom, as a building leader, and now as a district leader so here is my list of 43 that we need to stop doing in education right now...


We need to stop... 

1) Making schools more about adults than kids - we can't primarily make decisions about what is easiest or more comfortable for the adults because we need to make decisions that are best for kids;

2) Giving HW (at least in elementary school and possibly in middle school). There is NO research that I have seen that speaks to a positive correlation between HW and academic achievement;

3) Giving grades... what is the point? Grades seem to bring the learning journey to an end, which goes against what most schools communicate when stating in their vision that they want to nurture life long learners! Life long learners need feedback, direction and space to fail as they evolve. My friend Starr has enlightened me on this one!

4) Blaming teachers for all that is wrong in our schools - the issues are much more systemic and pervasive and are rooted in a history that is plagued by racism, inefficiencies and misguided mandates; 

5) Making classroom management about compliance and obedience. Instead we should make it about engagement and choice;

6) Taking away recess as a punishment when kids do something wrong (unless they do something serious at recess) because our kids (like us) need a break to run around, have fun and socialize!

7) Using public behavior charts (red light, yellow light, green light, etc.) because all they do is humiliate kids and they generally don't change the behaviors of the kids who are struggling. My friend Pernille has really pushed my thinking on this point!

8) Confusing innovative or progressive environments with ones that have a lot of technology!

9) Mistaking technology for innovation; my friend George has taught me that innovation is rooted in strong relationships that allow for creative ways (that may fail) to solve our current problems! 

10) Blaming parents/families for our children who might struggle in school; it is partnership - not a blame game!

11) Keeping all the awesome things happening in our schools to ourselves - the four walls should not be barriers; instead, they should be transformed into glass and we should proudly share all the awesome things happening in our schools! My friend Amy (and her awesome teachers) did an amazing job at telling the school story!

12) Giving tests with fill in the blank or multiple choice answers; these might be easier to grade but they don't build our children's ability to think critically!

13) Killing the love of reading by making it about reading logs, assignments or jotting every 2 seconds;

14) Keeping technology out of the classroom because we, as the adults, are uncomfortable with it... that ship has sailed!

15) Confusing technology with engagement; yes, screens do engage our children immediately but that is "level 1 engagement" - we want to push them to be engaged at a higher level where they are collaborating, communicating, creating and thinking critically. I think engagement is about thinking not just sitting quietly and working!

16) Using mindless worksheets - you know the ones with word banks at the top or dozens of multiple choice questions. We don't want our kids to be masters of worksheets because that is not how they are going to change the world!

17) Confusing PROJECTS with Project Based Learning! Projects are about a product (that often looks the same for every learner) while PBL is about inquiry and process... often driven by the student after being framed by the teacher. My friends Ross and Erin have taught me a lot about this!

18) While we are on the topic of PROJECTS, we must stop sending projects home for families to complete. Our parents don't need to be doing book reports or tri-fold boards that look professionally done! If the project is that important, do it in school to level the playing field and make the learning collaborative.

19) Demanding that our kids work quietly throughout the school day; messy, noisy and collaborative classrooms are often more successful than the quiet ones. 

20) Just involving our families in school during special events (like the bake sale) and instead we should engage them in the learning. 

21) Making professional development for teachers an afterthought - our teachers need to have the opportunity to learn throughout the school year! And the PD does not have to be a workshop or conference; the PD can be led by the principal, by teachers and even by kids! And, our teachers should have the choice to log PD hours by doing things like reading (or writing) blog posts, participating in Twitter chats and watching webinars. 

22) Making professional development for building leaders (this one goes to you superintendents) almost nonexistent because we don't want them leaving the building - that is not ok! We need to support our leaders in their learning - they should be encouraged to go to conferences, EdCamps, take courses, watch webinars, etc. because if they stay current, the chances increase that our schools will continue to iterate and get better!

23) Ignoring the fact that school leaders have the greatest singular influence on the culture of a school. Todd Whitaker taught me that if the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold and after 10 years as a principal, I can wholeheartedly say that is TRUE!

24) Removing "soft data" from our data walls, data meetings or whatever you call them in your school! We cannot just look at test scores as THE data point; instead we should consider observations, conference notes and relationships because they all influence how our kids perform!

25) Hiding our smile from kids till December - that is just silly! We need to smile for kids from DAY ONE! Smiling teachers and kids lead to happy teachers and kids and that leads to positive relationships and those are the key to active learning!

26) Ignoring the fact that relationships influence everything that happens in a school. Our schools need to be built on positive and healthy relationships rooted in trust and respect!

27) Ignoring the reality that culture is about a lot more than spirit days and parties; culture is about trust, respect and a common vision!

28) Forgetting how important our school secretaries are in the sustainability of culture; these people are the faces of our schools so they need to be AWESOME and they should be recognized for their awesomeness!

29) Forgetting how important our school custodians are in the daily running of our buildings; these hard workers make sure our schools are healthy and safe for our kids and teachers!

30) Ignoring the reality that, in general, our schools haven't evolved much since the one room schoolhouse yet we, as humans and thinkers, have evolved tremendously. It is time for our schools to start moving forward!

31) Focusing, solely, on "forward thinking" or "progressive methods" because then we are working towards something that doesn't exist - something abstract. Instead, let's focus on building the capacity of our educators so that the current instructional methods being used are sound, robust and best for kids!

32) Putting pressure on kids to perform on high stakes testing (or any testing for that matter). If we support our kids and differentiate instruction (and assessment) to meet their needs, they will perform and show us what they know!

33) Focusing on the "cool" or "trendy" stuff (iPads, Chromebooks, etc.) in isolation; instead we must focus on the people... the stuff is only as good as the people using it!

34) Going towards a total self-directed PD model for teachers. While I do believe choice for teachers in what they learn about and how (passion projects, PLCs, etc.) is incredibly important, there also need to be some district-wide goals and focal points that we are all working on. That is how we move an entire community forward as opposed to just perpetuating pockets of awesome within our schools. 

35) Trying to force educators to get on Twitter (or some other SM platform) because the truth is, it does not work for everyone. That being said, we do need to expose people to the power of collaboration (possibly through communities of practice or PLCs) so educators can break out of their silos! 

36) Making school more about teaching - school should be about learning first! Learning for kids, families and educators should always be at the core of our work!

37) Punishing educators through ridiculous federal or state mandates that have nothing to do with kids; instead, these mandates reduce educators to a number and that is not what will improve education in this country!

38) While I love trends like Genius Hour, Makerspaces and PBL (we did a lot of this awesome learning at Cantiague) those go much deeper than just blocking out time in a schedule to make them happen. If we want things like Genius Hour or PBL to be sustainable, we must change the way we teach - these can't just be special events that happen once a week (that is a fine starting point though); instead, they should help us change our daily approaches so learning is filled with more student centered and student driven inquiry opportunities!

39) Using sarcasm in the classroom - especially with our elementary and middle school kids; even if it is funny most of the times, the one time it is embarrassing to a child is enough of a reason to stop!

40) Making all teachers write in plan books (you know, the ones with all those little boxes). We need to let our teachers plan however it makes sense for them and their kids!

41) Ignoring the reality that common planning time is critical to the success and sustainability of a school community - our teachers and leaders need time together to share ideas, resources and materials!

42) Having meetings just for the sake of having meetings! Come on people... if it can be put in an email or newsletter, then put it there and use the meeting for some professional or personal development! My friends Jennifer, Peter and Mark taught about re-imagining meetings. 

43) Finally, we need to stop making decisions that feel good or are easier for the adults within the learning community and instead make all decisions in the best interest of children. While this approach may not always be easy, it will always be right.

Clearly the list could go on and on but in the end, I think these 43 points are critical to the success of any learning organization and are in the best interest of children. Do you agree? Which one stands out most? Why? What do you think should be the next thing on this list? 

Please leave a comment below!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Turn Key Thursday: A HW Alternative

While recently visiting a #WeArePlainedge Grade 4 classroom, the teacher, Cara Newman, and her students excitedly started telling me about all the exciting things happening in their classroom. They told me about the book talks they were having, the literary essays they were about to begin writing, the independent reading books they were immersed in, the Genius Hour projects they were just starting and how excited they were to share their HW. 

Excited about HW? Excited to show off HW? Hmmmm.... Needless to say, I didn't want to squash their enthusiasm with my own personal feelings about HW so I just smiled. If anyone has read my blog posts (here and here), seen my social media posts or just spoken to me in person, you know my position on HW... I'm not necessarily the biggest fan. That being said, I wanted to hear more from these kids - I needed to know why they were so excited about doing their HW. That is when they told me all about Turnkey Thursday!

What is Turnkey Thursday you ask? Well, I could never do it justice so I asked the kids to write a guest post for me where they explained it and here is what they generated... their first ever blog post...

What is TurnKey Thursday? How does it work? Why do you do it? Can students really teach others? Have you ever wanted homework that was fun? Or to be able to create a keynote, song, scratch game, or maybe even a dance about the material you learned in class? All of this is possible with TurnKey Thursday. All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday because kids can teach their family members, it is fun, and most of all it helps students to become better learners.

All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday. All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday because kids can teach their parents so they stop saying, “I don’t know what that is!” Mrs. Stella is a parent who said, “As a parent it is very hard for us to help our children because they are learning so differently than we did. We stayed in box, kids today learn outside the box.” This shows it is very hard for parents to help their children with homework. Instead kids can help their parents! Alec says, “You could teach your parents the way your teachers teach you. Also, you could make a test or quiz for them at the beginning or end of every new chapter.” If you teach your parents, they will understand the concept that you are learning so in the future your parents will be able to help you. It would be great to teach your parents so they don’t say, “I didn’t learn this way when I was younger.” As kids it is hard to learn differently that our parents did. When we ask for help they can’t help us and get frustrated. Having Turn Key Thursday takes this frustration away!

All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday because it is fun! TurnKey Thursday is fun because you can use your imagination and creativity. For example, when learning about Prime and Composite numbers students made a song about it. The two students changed the “Cup” song into a prime and composite song. They used their imagination and even gave the lyrics to the class! Now the class is having fun as well. This shows that Turn Key Thursday is fun!

Ryan said, “It is fun because you get to be a teacher just like Mrs. Newman and Dr. Sinanis. You also have to remember what you learned that week. It is pretty much fun homework even though you have to remember the work learned. You don’t realize it but you are really learning.”

All classrooms should have TurnKey Thursday because it helps students to become better learners. It helps students to become better learners because they have to know the material, to teach the material. It helps students to become better learners because they want to pay attention so they can be a good teacher themselves. It helps students to become better learners because they need to practice what they are going to teach. While they are practicing, they are learning. Gino feels its makes him a better student because it makes him study harder, so he can teach someone else.

In conclusion, children should have Turn Key Thursday because family members can learn from them, it is fun, and most of all children become better learners. We hope you try Turn Key Thursday and explore all its possibilities!

So, what do you think about Turnkey Thursday? Are you convinced that it is worth a try? Leave a comment below and let us know! 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Yes, I Love To Read

The last blog post I published, Let's Not Kill The Love Of Reading, seemed to really resonate with other parents and educators based on the responses and comments that were shared. While the post was inspired by my son Paul, he didn't actually read the post until the other day. After reading it, he thanked me writing it and then asked if he could write a guest post for me so he could share things from his perspective. Needless to say, I loved the idea and am honored to feature my awesome son as a guest writer on my blog. After much discussion, a drafting of some notes and a shared Google Doc to review ideas, here is Paul's take on reading and his plea to allow him to keep his love of reading... 

My Reading Journey
As a seventh grader in middle school, I spend a lot of time reading. I read in all my classes - from math class to newspaper club, I am always reading something. Fortunately for me, I am a good reader and have always loved to read. From what my parents tell me, I was reading before I was even 2 years old and although I may not remember those first reading experiences, I do know that I have always loved to read. Whether it was the hysterical My Weird School books by Dan Gutman that spoke to my sense of humor or the powerful All American Boys, which helped me develop a better understanding of race and social justice in our country, I have always loved sitting on the couch and getting lost in a great book. Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was going to our local Barnes & Noble because I knew I'd get to go home with a few new books and experiences. I could literally spend hours in the store checking out books, reading some books and making piles of the books I wanted to take home. Yes, I also loved going to places like Toys R Us but Barnes & Noble was my go-to because no matter what I was into (Star Wars, superheroes, video games, etc.) there was always a book I could find that I could learn more about the topic. 

Of course, as my dad mentioned in his post, when I started school and had to read for my teachers, my love of reading started to change. I felt like every single time we read something in school, there had to be some sort of writing assignment or activity connected to the reading so we could prove to our teachers that we actually read. Now don't get me wrong, I have had some amazing teachers over the years but as I got older, reading in school became more about the teachers and less about the students. Yes, there are many things I like about reading but there are some things I wish could change about reading in school. 

Things I Like About Reading

Reading has been one of my favorite things to do for many years. There are many positive attributes to reading that I really appreciate, especially as I get older. For example... 

1) As a reader, I can get so captured inside of a book, that I would literally end up finishing it in one sitting. That is the sign of a great book - I literally could not put it down!

2) I love reading because I can choose any book that fits my style of reading and my interests. Whether it is nonfiction interests or realistic fiction that connects to my life, I can always find a great book.

3) I have learned lots of great life lessons from books. One of my favorite books of all time is Wonder and there are so many life lessons in that book but the one that still sticks with me is the importance of being kinder than necessary. 

Things My Teachers Do/Did That I Like

Even though sometimes it feels like a specific class (or maybe just school in general) has been slowly destroying my love of reading, there are some great things my teachers still do, or used to do, that I really enjoy as a reader and learner. For example...

1) Some of our teachers let us choose our own book to read on the side in addition the book we are reading in class. I like this because I get to choose what I want to read and what fits my interests at the time!

2) I used to love when my teachers would confer with individual children and talk to us about what we were reading. I loved this because I got to share with my teacher what I had been reading at the time and why I was enjoying my book. Truth is, one of my favorite things about reading conferences is that I had I a chance to talk with my teacher - 1:1 time with my teachers was always a good thing. 

3) I like the opportunity to showcase the books that I have read with my classmates. Sometimes I have read a really awesome book and I want to share that book love with someone else. I like to do this because it lets me feature what I read or am currently reading with my friends and classmates and book talks are a great way to do this in school!

Things My Teachers Do/Did That I Don't Really Like

The truth is that even though I love to read in my free time, and always have, there are also many so called “activities” that I do in school (or have done in the past) that have been crushing my love of reading since elementary school. I don't blame my teachers because I have had many amazing teachers - I think they either doing what the principal is telling them to do or what they think is best (that's what my dad says). Unfortunately, some of the reading activities we do in school are not awesome. Now, you might notice that there are many things I have written about that my dad also wrote about in his blog post but I am writing about them from my perspective as a student. For example... 

1) Summaries/Written Responses. I don’t feel the need to write down what I have read throughout the book, I'd rather just explain it verbally to someone in class the next day. Sometimes, I know I have to write a summary because my teacher needs to understand what I am thinking but the truth is, I just want to share with my classmates to make the experience more interactive.

2) Book Reports/Five Paragraph Essays. I really don’t enjoy writing these because they are a long and exhausting process and there are usually so many boundaries that I can’t write what I want to write. If I have to write about a book, at least let me share the things that I think are most important without so many boundaries.

3) Gist Taking. For those of you who don’t know, gist taking is when you constantly have to stop in the middle of reading and jot down the main idea of the last couple of pages. I feel that this is unnecessary and excessive because it disrupts my reading and thinking. I just want to read my book without disruptions from other people. 

4) Extended Readings. I really do not like these because it takes a book that can be done in a few days or a week, and stretches it out over 3 to 4 months of reading and all we seem to do is answer text based questions. What reader does that? Readers want to read and think and maybe talk about a book and then move on - not read the same book for months and write about it a thousand times. 

5) Reading Logs. Yes, I know how my dad feels about reading logs but the truth is, I don't love them either. The thing I don't like about these charts is that I feel like my teachers do not trust me enough to read without logging it. I do also recognize that reading logs do need to be used with some kids, but other kids (including me, an avid reader) do not need to use them because I generally read on a daily basis because I love to read!

Yes, I Love To Read

Reading has been one of my favorite things to do for my entire life. I am sure I am not the only kid who loves to read - I am guessing there are a lot of us out there. So, to all the educators out there who are reading this, please try one of my recommendations because I think your students will enjoy the reading experience more. Remember, readers should want to read for themselves, not for someone else!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Let's Not Kill The Love Of Reading

Kelly Gallagher via Pinterest

To all my fellow educators, especially those who are in leadership positions and/or the teachers of reading, literacy, ELA (or whatever it's called today), please take note that some of the practices we are employing in our schools, specifically as they relate to student reading, are actually killing the love of reading in our kids. It's true - in our effort to "educate" kids and to make sure they are "college and career ready," we may be indirectly killing the love of reading that many of our children come to school having nurtured (with the help of family members, other readers, etc.) through their own book readings and explorations. 

This post is not directed at any specific teacher, school or leader because I know everyone is working hard and that most are doing what they think is best for kids. This post is not an attack on ELA or reading teachers because I know they are trying to help kids grow as readers. Instead, this post is a plea from me, Tony the dad, who has watched his son's love of reading be pushed to the brink of extinction. I am not blaming any specific teacher or practice I am just pleading my son's case. You see, Paul has always loved reading - from the time he was 18 months old - and he could literally get lost in a book for hours at a time. He would sit, curled up on the couch, and get so immersed in book that all we would hear is laughter, oooohhhs or aaaaahhhs based on what he was reading. He would zip through entire series in a matter of days and would beg for trips to Barnes and Noble or the library. He would tell us all about the characters and their adventures. But as he progressed in school, that love for reading started to change. Yes, at some point he did receive his first iPad and iPhone and those screens pulled him away from his books but the battle to read started when reading was associated with an activity/assignment/expectation that was being done to meet someone else's reading expectations - not his own. Some of those activities included...

1. Reading logs... ugh... the dreadful reading logs that we would eventually just signed off on even if Paul hadn't read because they become more of a chore than anything else;

2. Written responses... that were never checked or responded to. Yes, I do recognize that children should write about their reading but that writing should be used to give us insight into their thinking as readers so we can help them grow.

3. Summaries... ugh... 5-8 sentences where Paul summarized a book he had read just so a teacher could hold him accountable. It became such a chore that Paul always wrote the minimum and sometimes found a summary using Google that he could paraphrase because it didn't matter to him. 

4. Book reports... the dreaded book reports that really became more about drawing some amazing picture to go on the cover of the report than anything else. They were also so formulaic that little thought went into completing them - it was like mindlessly following a recipe.

5. Reading passages just to answer multiple choice questions... why are we doing this to our kids? Paul got to the point where he would just read the questions and the multiple choice answers and then scan the passage for the correct answer - no reading really involved there.

6. Close readings have turned into reading the same book for months and doing endless assignments around that one book... that doesn't work for every kid.

The list could go on and on but the point is that somewhere along the line the reading Paul was doing became more about meeting someone else's expectations than they were about nurturing and growing his love for reading. I saw it last night when doing a homework assignment related to reading became a challenge that he just wanted to finish and move on. Yet, when the time came for him to read before bed (we agreed to 15 minutes) he literally begged me to stay up to read because he wanted to see what happened at the end of the book. 15 minutes quickly turned into 45 minutes and in the end I had to wrestle the book out of his hands because he needed to sleep.

Why do I share this? Not to shame any educators or schools (Paul has had some of the most amazing and talented teachers I have ever seen) but to just point out that we must rethink our practices as they relate to reading because they might be having the opposite impact - not creating better readers but instead creating resentful readers.

Yes, I recognize that some of our students don't love to read like Paul loves to read; and yes, a handful of those children may have not loved reading before they even walked into a school building, but I do believe that some of our instructional practices (many of which I was guilty of using as a teacher myself) are actually killing the love of reading instead of nurturing it. When did we stop reading for the joy of reading? Although I am not a literacy expert or reading specialist myself I do think there are some things we could do to help grow a love of reading...

1) Let kids just read what they want to read; choice is a powerful incentive.

2) Let kids talk about what they are reading... book talks are awesome ways to hook other readers and spread book love.

3) Don't attach an assignment to every reading activity.

4) Books don't have to be the only thing kids read.

5) If an assignment has to be attached to a reading activity (for accountability purposes), give the kids choices about what they might do.

6) Confer with kids - talk to them about what they are reading and use that data to help our kids set their own reading goals so they get better.

7) Don't make kids read one novel for months at a time and if you must do this, make it engaging!

Again, the list can go on and on and there are educators who are much more skilled than I am who could offer much better insight but this is just a plea from a dad who wants his son to continue to love to read. No, this is not a new plea as it has been written about here in the Washington Post, and here by Pernille Ripp, and here by Mark Barnes, and even here (there are dozens of pieces actually - just visit the Google). Educators have been talking about killing the love of reading for years yet we are still employing many of the questionable practices and I think we are doing it all in the name of accountability, test preparation and standards. While I recognize that those are our realities, and we must work within them, I hope we (all educators) can pause and reflect on the practices we are employing to ensure we are not indirectly killing the love of reading in our kids and instead we are helping grow that love of books and reading!

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

12 Leadership Lessons From Paul

Paul, my awesome son, recently turned 12 years old! That's right... it has been exactly 12 years since that first time I held him in my arms and now less than one year until he is officially a teenager... UGH! While the attitude and sassiness associated with these teen years is consistently rearing its ugly head, he is still a source of inspiration, joy and fulfillment for me. Paul changed my world in an instant - he defined unconditional love for me and taught me what it feels like to be willing to give your life for someone else. It is hard to believe that this hysterical, strong minded and courageous young man weighed less than 7 lbs at birth. But, here he is, in the middle of seventh grade and not a day goes by when I am not in awe of him. Paul was born with some significant medical issues (wrote about them here) yet he has persevered and stayed positive no matter what was going on around him. He has his own passions and interests, his own circle of friends and his own strong set of beliefs... he thinks memes are the be all and end all, he thinks Snapchat is the best social media platform and he would prefer if school were 3 days a week while the weekend ended up being 5 days long... yes, he is a typical adolescent in so many ways. He is also my mini-me and partner in crime - there is nothing I enjoy more than spending time with Paul!

What Paul Has Taught Me

Aside from the obvious life lessons Paul has taught me, he has also taught me a lot about learning, teaching, the world of education and leadership. While last year I wrote about the 11 things Paul taught me about school, this year I have been thinking about the leadership lessons I have learned from Paul. Even though there are many  lessons - literally dozens - that I have learned from Paul, in honor of his recent birthday, I wanted to share 12 of the leadership lessons that have really resonated with me. You see, in many ways, parenting and leadership are incredibly similar because ultimately our words, actions and decisions (as parents and leaders) will have a direct impact on those around us and that is an awesome responsibility. 

12 Leadership Lessons

1) My students deserve to be treated like my own kids. Since Paul was born, my ultimate goal was to create the school/classroom/district that I would want for Paul; a place that I would be proud to send Paul. It is really simple but so important - if I see my students through the same lens I see my own child, my goals become clear and I am no longer seeing my students as "their" children or "those" children but instead as MY/OUR children.

2) We must be mindful of every word, action and decision because it will impact those around us. What I have come to understand in my current position as an Assistant Superintendent, where I am still new and building trust and relationships, is that intent doesn't always match impact. So, while my intentions may be completely positive, the impact on those around me may actually not be so positive and that could be problematic. Thus before taking any action, making any decisions or saying anything that could impact many, I must consider the outcomes. This is true of every interaction I have with Paul and trust me, I have learned from my many mistakes!

3) Leaders must make time for some fun too! While I want our students to read, write and be informed problem solvers (much like I want Paul to study hard and eat his veggies), there must also be time for movement, fun and socialization. As a leader, I will make sure that activities such as physical education and recess are sacred because our students need those times to move and have some fun. To that end, I have also made sure to carve out some fun time for myself so I could re-energize and while that might involve a good book, some reality TV or joining kids at recess, the end result is clear - leaders need to have some fun too.

4) As a leader, I have to share responsibility as a way to empower those around me. As Paul has gotten older he has pushed (more like pulled away) for more independence and the opportunity to make his own decisions. While his choices aren't always the ones I would have chosen, I recognize that I must give him the space to learn from his mistakes. As an educational leader, I must do the same and consider ways to share responsibility with the other educators in our district, our students and our families. I cannot make decisions in a silo; instead, distributive and collaborative leadership allow me to deliberate ideas, broaden my point of view and make more informed decisions... and hopefully better decisions.

5) In the end, there are times when a decision has to be made by the leader! Even though Paul generally hates being told what to do and when, there are times that his vantage point is limited and thus he relies on his parents to make a more informed decision for him (for example, even though he didn't want to be moved to the honors class a month into the school year, we knew it was best for him and guided him in that direction). This is true for me as an educational leader too because I have a broader and more global perspective and thus decisions often require my vantage point. Although multiple perspectives may be considered, the responsibility of the final decision lies with me and sometimes that is totally fine.

6) As a leader I have to be better at listening than speaking. Yes, strong public speaking (at a faculty meeting, a PD session, at a Board Meeting, etc.) is important, but in the end people need to be heard. Yes, Paul does need my advice and guidance at times but there are other times that my ability to just sit back and listen is more valuable to him than anything I could say. By listening to Paul, I am allowing him the opportunity to process his thoughts aloud and I am learning so much about where he is and what he is feeling. The ability to listen - really hear what others are saying - is crucial in my role as educational leader too because not only do I help others understand that their opinions/perspectives are valuable but I am learning a lot and informing my own perspective. The ability to listen is also the key to building sustainable relationships.

7) Leaders must be responsive, not reactive. There are times when I am stressed or frustrated (or just tired) and Paul says or does something that sets me off and I totally react... in fact, I likely overreact. In  the end though, Paul would benefit a lot more from my responsiveness than my reactiveness. The same is true for my work as an educational leader - our community needs me to be responsive but not reactive. As a responsive leader I respond to the needs of those around me by gathering as much information as possible, by considering all the consequences of my actions and by best meeting the needs of our community - especially our students. 

8) We must value the process more than the product. This is something I have to constantly remind myself of when I am watching Paul do his HW. There are so many times I want to swoop in and make a correction or suggest a different word or strategy but in the end, I know I have to let him go through the learning process because that would be more meaningful than me "fixing" something for him. The same is true for me as an educational leader. I don't look for perfection when I am in schools or classrooms - learning and teaching should be messy, engaging and failure should be an acceptable norm within the process. Learning and teaching is always about the process - not the product because I generally care more about the journey than the destination. 

9) Be transparent because honesty allows everyone around me to understand the "whys" and "hows" of my decisions, actions and words. The most difficult time in my life was coming to terms with my sexuality and although most people discouraged me from sharing my reality with Paul, I knew I had to because I needed to be honest with him. What happened when I told him? He hugged me, told me he loved me and said he understood that I would love a man. Done. No drama, no story to spin and no lie to remember - being transparent with my son was the best decision I ever made. The same is true in my work as an educational leader where being transparent with kids, staff and families has helped me earn trust and build social capital and those can be game changers in leadership. 

10) Lead with heart - it is a simple rule but probably the most important one for me. As a dad Paul knows that no matter what conversation we are having or situation we are dealing with, my love for him is at the core and because of that love, in the end, we will figure it all out. The same is true in my work as a leader - my heart guides many of my decisions because I am driven to do what is in the best interest of our students, teachers and our entire community. Yes, I have to be rationale and logical as a leader but in the end, it is my ability to lead from my heart (with passion and pride) that has helped me be successful in various leadership positions.   

11) Leaders don't let the title or role define them; instead they define it! I knew what people expected of me as a dad because of the way I was raised but in the end, my parenting style was just that - mine. Yes, I relied on the amazing example of my own parents but Paul's needs and personality really dictated my own patterns as a dad. My parenting is forever evolving because some days my son needs a mentor, other days he needs a friend and sometimes he needs direction. During my journey as an educational leader, I knew what people expected from the principal or the assistant superintendent (simply because of the titles) but letting the role define me didn't come naturally; instead, redefining the roles and expectations came easier so that's what happened. Whether I embraced the concept of being a lead learner during my time as a principal or spent more time in classrooms/schools during my short time as a central office administrator, the fact remained that I was redefining the role and making it my own because my professional work had to resonate on a personal level. 

12) I am a dad first and foremost and every decision I make as an educational leader is influenced by my "dad lens." This reality is a simple one but one that took me a while to recognize. You see, I never understood how much my work was influenced by my life until I became a building principal about 11 years ago. Whether I was doing the master schedule during my time as a principal or meeting with a group principals during my time as a assistant superintendent, the decisions I made and words I spoke were shaped by my personal experiences as a father... and so far, that has worked for me.

Yes, Paul has taught me dozens of lessons and although the list could go on, these are the Top 12 leadership lessons I have learned from my most amazing son. Thank you Paul - you inspire me, teach me and make me a better person and educator!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Looking Back And Moving Forward

A collaborative post by Tony Sinanis & Lisa Meade

Looking Back & Moving Forward

When you look back on the order of events, it may not make much sense to those in our worlds. We were both successful principals leading amazing teams in our incredible schools. We worked with kids who were excited to come to school, with families who were proud  to share their children with us and educators who put kids at the center of every decision. We felt highly capable in our positions. The principalship allowed us to impact a myriad of decisions, shape the trajectory of a community and nurture a culture of learning for adults and students. We were inspired by the work of other principals in our PLN and kept raising the bar with new ideas and approaches in our buildings because we knew we had to model what we hoped for our in our communities… being learners first and teachers second!

As we begin thinking about what 2017 has in store for us, we paused to think about where we both were a year ago when we were thinking about 2016. Ironically enough, neither of us were even considering a move - we loved being building principals and were already starting to plan for the next year. Yet, 2016 unfolded quickly and before we knew it, we were both embarking on new journeys that involved district level leadership positions. Needless to say, we had some questions but none more pressing than one that we had always considered from a distance… if entering the principalship was considered “going over to the dark side” then what side would we be on when we moved from the building level to district level leadership roles of Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction (Tony) and Director of Pupil Personnel Services (Lisa)? What is darker than dark side?

Transitioning to a new role

Through a different series of events for both of us, opportunities to stretch, reflect, learn and grow were presented. Yet, in that opportunity, we likely didn’t realize the struggle that would exist in saying goodbye to the communities that had become extensions of our families, and even ourselves. When you believe in a building (a team, the students and their families) as much as both of us did, you don’t just walk away without pain, sadness and even some uncertainty. We’d be lying to say otherwise because change is hard; change is uncomfortable; and change is unfamiliar. We left so much in our former districts and made the leap to new positions in new districts and we know we were able to make those leaps because of our previous experiences!

In spite of hurdles we faced when moving on, the challenge of making an even bigger impact in a new space was an exciting opportunity for us. Where we once had a fraction of teachers to support, now we are looking at hundreds of staff members, thousands of kids and a sea of families. The decisions we help to make, or sometimes are making ourselves, are enormous because the accountability is at a whole other level since the impact is so far reaching. We can’t lie - the work can be overwhelming at times because we want everything to be perfect for our new communities, including the new district level teams we are a part of,  but the chance to be part of systemic and organizational work helps us pause and recognize how fortunate we are to have such incredible opportunities in our new roles. Now that we are both in district level positions, we see some things differently and with a greater sense of urgency, at times, than we may have in the past because now the impact is on an entire district - not just one space within a district. Oh boy… how times have changed!  

Appreciating the past

Yet, who taught us the most about what was right for schools? Our building teams where we had the opportunity to lead, learn and inform our practice. Each and every time we meet a new administrator or have the opportunity to talk to someone in an administrative internship, we tell them that being a principal is, by far, one of the best jobs on the planet for so many reasons.

At Cantiague Elementary in Jericho, NY, Tony learned how to work with an entire community to create a student-centered learning environment that functions as a safe haven for children. When children feel safe, they feel confident; when children feel confident, they feel happy; when children feel happy, their brains release endorphins; when the brains release endorphins children are primed for learning. A student-centered school pivots around the core philosophy that schools foster happy, engaged children who have voice in their learning and choice in how to communicate their knowledge. Tony quickly realized, through conversations with staff and families, that students needed to be active members of the school community where learning was at the center.

When the focus at Cantiague shifted from the teaching to the learning, the daily work and conversations changed. Tony, as a building lead learner, tried to model that notion of learning every single day whether through activities within the PLN, or through the reading of blogs or by trying new things in his practice, he was focused on learning and growing. The educators at Cantiague embraced this opportunity to learn too and new ideas and practices sprang up throughout the building. Slowly, the children at Cantiague began to develop a different appreciation for their learning because they understood the work and saw it as valuable and personal. With that slight shift in focus from teaching to learning, Cantiague became much more student-centered and the tone of discourse about learning changed so opportunities to innovate, create, and pursue passions became the norm rather than the exception. The children at Cantiague began participating in school-wide decisions, from planning special events to helping reimagine the school vision statement. We quickly saw that when the students exercised their voices, on some level they positioned themselves as partners in the school experience. We were able to harness the excitement and enthusiasm our children brought to school each day, by amplifying their voices, and letting their positivity permeate the entire community.

At Corinth Middle School in Corinth, NY, Lisa learned the power of culture on a building. Lisa explains, “We each bought into a shared vision for what our school should feel, sound, and look like. Through PBIS and effective use of a building leadership team, we drastically reduced discipline in our building. We took risks (like flipped learning, creating a makerspace and examining our homework policies) step by step. We remembered that at the center of each instructional or behavioral decision we needed to make, there stood a student. Sometimes the students would allow us to help and sometimes they wouldn’t. We tried to not let it matter either way. Faculty meetings became incredibly collaborative through faculty meeting smackdowns and we learned to appreciate the enormous talent pool we had within. Over time, most became comfortable with being honest about decisions they may not have agreed with but still tried to respect as they were rolled out. Earlier this summer, when I made the decision to leave Corinth, I wrote about this departure in the post, For Good.  What I tried to say in that post was how incredibly thankful I will always be to that team for teaching me all about leadership. One of the main ideas I gained was that real leadership can’t be delegated or ignored. Teachers (and support staff) want to be part of a program that puts kids first and is clearly articulated and then adjusted when need be.”

Redefining the role

In each of our new districts, we have been given an incredible opportunity to work with and for superintendents that have found places for a new voice among their team. Leading at the district level and trying to find your voice among an established team (on building, department, and even teacher levels) can be tricky. We often touch base, as friends, about how we are balancing that and how we can refine and improve our practice to increase the potential of having a positive impact. As you might expect, we are better at it some days more than others. What we have come to realize is that even though our new titles come with certain preconceived notions (based on the title itself or our predecessors), we are making the “job” our own and in essence redefining the role. How are we redefining the role? Here are some of the examples…

  1. We remind ourselves that the most important work is done one relationship at a time because over the years we have come to understand that education is about people, not just data, not just test scores or not just meetings;

  1. We have come to understand that important decisions, with far reaching ramifications, have to be made by putting students at the center. In the end, we recognize that some of those the decisions may not be popular but if we are doing what is best for our kids and teachers then we can stand behind those decisions.

  1. We have come out from behind our desks! We are spending as much time as possible visiting schools and engaging with teachers and students within the classrooms so we can build relationships, develop trust with the community and better understand what teaching and learning looks like in our new districts.(Lisa admits that Tony is much more skilled at this than she is -- at this moment!) We are fortunate to be working with educators in our new districts that have been welcoming and supportive during our transitions and have allowed us the opportunity to get to know the kids, who are simply awesome!

  1. We are broadcasting the awesomeness happening in our new districts! From helping to support a district hashtag (#WeArePlainedge & #HFTigerPride) to accessing various social media platforms (everything from Twitter to Instagram to Facebook), we are excited to spotlight all the amazing things happening in our schools and classrooms. From the teaching to the learning, we are proud to engage our families in a different way by giving them a glimpse into the day to day experiences of their children. This work is important because not only does it help contribute to the building of a positive narrative in education across the country, it also helps build trust between the schools and our amazing communities because of high levels of transparency and constant communication.

Finally, we are learning… a LOT! We are learning from our new colleagues including our incredible Superintendents whom are so generous in their leadership. We are also learning from our teachers, our support staff, the building leaders, our new kids, and their families.  While the journey has been humbling because we have stumbled many times over the last several months, it is well worth it because we continue to learn something new and hopefully become better for our new districts! With each and every stumble or success, we move in the same direction --- forward.

“You can't connect the dots looking forward.  You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.”  - Steve Jobs