Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: edcampNJ and so much more! A good year for NJeducators!

The first edcampNJ took place on Saturday, December 1, 2012. This event was a labor of love for a number of people (see photo below).  I know at least one person is missing from the photo, but you get the picture.  For me the journey to December 1st started almost a year earlier when I decided to start using Twitter for professional purposes.  My first attempt in 2008 was traditional and did not provided me with much value; however, the second go around gave me a whole new perspective on the world of education and the people who are out there simply working to connect and learn from one another!
edcampNJ team
As I began to connect with some amazing educators, a sort of cadre of New Jersey folks began to form.  It was nothing formal, just a bunch of people from the Garden State who seemed to have similar interests in connected learning and personal/professional improvement.  After some time, the bonds among strangers became stronger and things like #NJED came about.  Wow, New Jersey educators had their own twitter chat (1st and 3rd Tuesdays @8:30pm EST). +Dana Sirotiak and +Bill Krakower took it upon themselves to  get things rolling and start bringing us together.  I had the privilege of co-moderating one of the earlier chats on preparedness for the Common Core.  Honestly, it was exhilarating connecting with all of these other people in my own state who were as jazzed about this stuff as me!

After some time, I connected with +Jeffrey Bradbury who created and runs TeacherCast, an amazing resource site for all educators.  Jeff's vision and tech skills helped to foster even greater connection between New Jersey educators.  He began podcasting about #njed and more people started to become a part of the fold.  Some of the people in this group had been to some wonderful professional development days that took place on Saturdays, didn't cost anything, and were participant driven, called edcamps.  After some back and forth on twitter, it seemed like we needed to meet to discuss the ideas.  A meeting was organized on Big Marker.  After our first meeting we began to meet more frequently on both Big Marker and Google+ Hangout. Between the focused discussion and the laugh-out-loud fun we were having, the group seemed to gel and the decision was made that we needed to have our own edcamp: edcampNJ.

edcampphilly team
edcamp leadership team
This is the point where things truly changed for me.  I met up with Dana and Bill and we drove down to edcampphilly.  This experience changed the way that I look at professional development.  You can see my reaction in this post from June of this year.  After initially hearing about the edcamp movement, I was intrigued and interested in being a part of organizing one; after attending an edcamp, I was hooked.  Soon after, I registered for edcampleadership, which took place in July and thought about attending edcampNY, but it conflicted with Teachers College Readers and Writers Project Saturday Reunion.

In the meantime, some other amazing educators began a venture that was spurred on by their love of twitter and its power to bring people together.  +Scott Rocco and +Brad Currie co-founded #Satchat.  As per its facebook page, "Satchat is a weekly discussion on Twitter that takes place every Saturday morning at 7:30EST.  School leaders from all areas of education are welcomed.  Feel free to sip and chat." +Bill Krakower joined on as a co-moderator and the discussions are phenomenal each week.  I couldn't believe that others would get up at 7:30am on Saturday morning to have educational dialogue, but they did and #Satchat has grown to include a West Coast version that takes place 3 hours later.  Once again, New Jersey educators making a statement in 2012.

These are just some of the things that happened in #njed and led up to the hosting of #edcampnj. at Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick, NJ.  After doing my small part with the crew to organize the event and working that morning to set up, it was heartwarming to see that 200+ participants showed up for a day of professional learning.  A live #satchat was held to kick off the day, Teachercast was creating videos of events and sessions throughout the day, a Guidebook app was created to assist participants, the session board filled and we needed to open additional rooms, and a great time was had by all connecting and learning.  New Jersey educators showed their support for victims of Hurricane Sandy through the purchase of t-shirts and a toy drive for Toys for Tots.  Please visit the #edcampNJ site for more information and pictures! You won't be disappointed. Here are two reactions to the day:  +Damian BariexcaEdcampNJ Two Weeks Later and Kate Baker: My EdcampNJ Highlights.  Please add any others in the comments section below. Now it is only another 11 months or so until edcampNJ 2013!  Check out the great photos by +Kevin Jarrett and other from the 1st edcampNJ!

As if all of that were not enough, +Jeffrey Bradbury also started another NJ virtual gathering place after edcampNJ to help facilitate even greater New Jersey connections.  If you have not checked out, you need to do so.  This is a new landing spot for New Jersey educators to connect and learn.  Jeff has been working tirelessly to make this a functional and valuable tool for New Jersey educators.  It is a community that will grow and looks to provide a one-stop location for all of the needs of the NJ educator!

I must add a little disclaimer to this post.  It has been a crazy year.  I haven't touched on half of the amazing things that have changed my perspective on connected learning and education in general during 2012, so if I got some of the events/facts above out of order, please forgive me.  It is hard to keep all of these great things straight.

I am proud to be a New Jersey Educator and I am looking forward to an even better 2013!
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Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Reflection On The Media Coverage of the Tragedy in Connecticut

First and Foremost, I must express my most heartfelt sorrow and condolences for the senseless act of violence that took place on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut.  I cannot imagine the pain that the community is feeling as they mourn the loss of so many innocent lives.  This was truly a dark day for  humanity and for our collective innocence.  The bravery of teachers and first responders in keeping safe as many of the children and adults as possible is inspirational.

The purpose of my post today is to reflect on my experience watching the 11 o'clock news last night.  When I returned home from school on Friday, I intentionally kept the news off and the conversation on other things because my 6 year old daughter was playing with her 5 and 4 year old cousins.  This was a reaffirming sight that helped all of the adults during this difficult evening.  Once all went home and both of my daughters went to bed (the 13 year old was at a friend's house until 10pm), my wife and I watched the 11 o'clock news.  This probably was not the wisest move before bed as it kept me up until about 2am and caused me to sleep through the 7:30am #Satchat twitter chat in which I intended to participate.

The news of the day was clearly disturbing, as it was for all of the world.  As an elementary school principal it was difficult to process what I was seeing and hearing, but one thing that was clear was that I did not like the way it was being reported.  I switched channels and found that it was no different on any channel.  Here is my problem...

This event evokes the most visceral emotions imaginable.  While I was at school, I basically read a bulleted list from the Associated Press and every fiber of my being was shaken and I felt sick to my stomach; there was no need for the news to amplify the feelings that I was already feeling.  Now, when I watched these 11 o'clock newscasts, I was disgusted by the need to further scare the public and magnify the already unimaginable feelings that we have been experiencing.

It was like reading essays in a creative writing competition.  If I was judging these newscasts as pieces of fiction, I would have been praising the use of descriptive language and literary conventions in bringing the scene to life.  The use of words such as, slaughtered, madman, evil, lifeless bodies, carnage, diabolical, and so many others would have been perfect for evoking images in my mind as I read a James Patterson novel or a Steven King story; but for this real-life tragedy, it just seemed in bad taste.  I think that sometimes in the name of informing the public our news outlets focus so much on outdoing one another that they forget to be cognizant that there are humans on the other end of their broadcast.

Please don't think that I want to limit news coverage or prevent anyone from learning the facts.  I just think that there needs to be some thought given to when a story needs to be left alone and simply reported.  I assure you that all of the feelings that were intended by the gruesome descriptions on the news were evoked without the use of the most horrible adjectives the writer could find.  I am a true proponent of 24/7 news.  I love my smartphone and having the option to engage with the news when I want to and in a personal and private fashion.

One other pet peeve of mine is the blanketed coverage of the event that is nearly impossible to avoid.  Working with and having young children makes it important for me to be assured that I am in control of what their ears hear.  It is nearly impossible to put on the television at all when they are awake for the coming days because I lose that control as a parent.  I wish that the news would be as sensitive with this devastating information as it is with the results of the Olympics.  During the two weeks of the Olympics the evening news casts read a disclaimer letting the viewing public know that if they do not want to know the results, they should turn down their volume or look away.  With these kinds of warnings parents could have more control.

I realize that the issues that I am having with the news coverage will likely not change and that I just need to deal with it; however, I can always dream.  Of course, things are raw for all of us at this moment and I know that I am over-sensitive to everything, but I think that we need to realize that there is truly only so much our hearts and minds can take.  On Monday when I return to school with the staff, we will be dealing with our own emotions about this tragedy as we address the many needs and emotions of the children.  I know that we, as adults need to take great care in what the children see and hear on the television, but what about the adults.  Do we really need to be treated as though we aren't able to form our own emotions?  Do we really need a news writer to amplify them for us?  I don't think so.
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Thursday, December 6, 2012

edcamp - My post that went awry? - Camping vs. edcamping

Warning: This post was supposed to be my reflection on edcampNJ, but it quickly took a strange turn.  I kind of liked it, so I went with it.  I will reflect upon edcampNJ in my next post. I'll even use the same picture as the one below.  I made some references to our recent edcampNJ in this post, but it is mainly about edcamps, in general.  Enjoy!

I think it is apt that the event is called edcamp because so many parallels can be drawn between childhood camping experiences and those associated with edcamp.  Here are a few of those connections.

  1. Eager Anticipation! - As a child it was so exciting to think about an overnight camping trip with the Scouts or family.  edcampNJ provided me with the same exhilarating feeling of anticipation.  As the date came closer, it was exciting to think about how the day would unfold, what learning would take place, what connections would be made, and  what fun would be had.  Camping always held this kind of magic as a child.
  2. Preparation - Neither camping nor edcamping just happen without planning.  In the case of camping there are the obvious preparations; gear, food, supplies, maps, etc.  edcamp requires similar planning for the attendee; registering, gear, food plans, supplies, maps, apps, etc.
  3. A Desire To Go - It may seem silly, but camping is something that you have to want to do in order to  put forth the effort to plan the trip and take it.  edcamp is similar in that it generally takes place on a Saturday and requires that the educator wants to spend their day off from work learning with colleagues.
  4. Initial Bewilderment - For the first time camper and edcamper it can be a little intimidating to take that first trip.  Campers quickly find out that there are many people to help and/or campgrounds to look to for assistance.  When you walk into your first edcamp there is always that feeling of, "What do I do?"  Fortunately, within moments it is easy to find helpful folks who are eager to assist in making the edcamp experience a positive one.
  5. Camaraderie - Anyone who has camped with others understands the camaraderie of the camping experience.  There is a sense of bonding with each other through spending time within nature.  edcampers quickly learn that those other folks who decide to spend their Saturday at an edcamp are often like minded educators who want to continually improve their practice and learn new things.  This connection creates an instant camaraderie and collegiality.
  6. Freedom - Camping is a very freeing experience in that it allows the camper to leave behind the hustle and bustle of everyday life, slow down, and spend time enjoying one's surroundings.  edcamping provides a similar freedom from the typical professional development experience.  It does not rely on the boundaries of experts and lectures.  It is much more organic and free-flowing.  edcamps are a reflection of the attendees.
  7. Learning - It is difficult to escape a camping trip without learning something.  I find that every time I have been camping I learn something about nature, about myself, or about others.  edcamp provides attendees an opportunity to learn so many new things and just like camping, it is almost impossible to guess what those things might be!
  8. Fire - No one feels that a camping trip is complete unless there is a campfire, campfire songs, and possibly S'mores.  edcamp has its own version of this.  Most attendees of an edcamp get truly fired up and leave with lots of literal and figurative songs and S'mores.  Sometimes it is the fire ignited to learn more about something or the kindling of an idea that may start a fire back in your district.  And of course there is the obvious need to come back for s'more (couldn't resist)
I am sure that I am taking this comparison way to far, but I wanted to help myself understand the name.  I am an edcamp junkie now and look forward to future events.  With three under my belt (few compared to some), I know that this is my favorite form of professional development.  If you haven't tried one, I would register for the next one near you because it really is worth your while.

If you have any other camping comparisons for your edcamp experiences, please comment and share.

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Friday, November 30, 2012

EdcampNJ is Tomorrow!!!

EdcampNJ takes place tomorrow at Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick.  I am extremely excited about this event.  I have been to several Edcamps over the past year and it is amazing for the one with which I am involved to be only hours away.

If you don't know what an Edcamp is, check out the post that I wrote after attending Edcampphilly this past spring (I've Been Edcamped!).  In short, it is a conference where the participants are the presenters and learning occurs on your own terms.  You are not at the mercy of the conference, it is yours to craft!  If this is intriguing to you, I encourage you to register tonight and go tomorrow on a whim or just show up, you won't be turned away.  You have nothing to lose and I assure you a great deal to gain.

The morning will start off with a live #satchat.  Scott Rocco and Brad Currie will be moderating and there will be participants from all over the country and all over the world.  Having taken part in a live #satchat before, I can say it is both exciting and informative.

I have had the honor of working with some amazing New Jersey educators as this unconference has come into being.  I marvel at the passion with which these folks do everything from EdcampNJ planning to teaching in and running their schools and districts.

I hope to see you tomorrow.

#EdCampNJ | Dec 1 2012 | Linwood Middle School | North Brunswick NJ

Linwood Middle School

25 Linwood Pl, North Brunswick Township,NJ 08902

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Daily 5 - Faculty Book Study

This month we kicked off a book study of The Daily 5 by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser (the 2sisters) at our faculty meeting.  I am devoting 25-30 minutes of each faculty meeting to discussion of short sections of this book to allow for some in-depth discussion of the structure.  I have to say that the 30 minutes we spent this past Monday were fantastic.  It was wonderful to be a part of such rich discussions around a topic that is so vital to what we do in the elementary school.

I have found over the years that moderating a book study can be stifling.  It puts a great deal of onus on the moderator and it can limit the direction of the discussion.  So we are using a method that has been successful for us in the past.  I asked the staff to read the first two chapters before the faculty meeting and put three sticky notes in the book with questions or comments that they would like to answer and/or discuss.  Once at the meeting the staff breaks up into groups of 5-8 teachers and all members of the group are equal contributors to the discussion.  After the first 2 minutes of the first meeting it always seems to flow nicely.

I chose to move to each of the groups and take part in all of the discussions.  I must say that it was amazing to see that the teachers were discussing so many of the same things in different groups.  One of the major topics of discussion revolved around how to fit all of the pieces of The Daily 5 into our two hour language arts block.  The great thing about these book discussions is that the answers are generally all right there in the collective experiences of the groups.  I listened to teachers who have been working with this structure explain some of the techniques that they have used to accomplish their goals in that time frame.  Additionally, members of all of the groups were spit-balling different methods for doing the same.

Another big discussion topic was assessment of skills.  In the book the sisters talk about how they moved from worksheet driven "busy work" to skill driven practice when the teacher is working with a group.  It is difficult sometimes to see that there are a variety of methods for assessing students' mastery of skills and concepts that do not involve making them fill out a worksheet that we need to later grade.  The prevailing idea that came from some groups involved keeping a skills chart for each child and assessing their mastery during small group reading instruction.  This would be a much more authentic assessment than a contrived worksheet that is completed partially to practice skills and partially to ensure that students are accountable.

The other major discussion topic was the idea of trusting the students.  We work very hard to create community in our school and classrooms and our children are given many opportunities to demonstrate that they can be trusted to make appropriate choices; however, during our reading block we still have some difficulty letting them have control of their learning and trusting that within the framework and parameters set, they will make the right choices.  I have seen it firsthand in classrooms that are structured around The Daily 5.  Students are engaged and making good choices.  The key is teaching the choices, setting the expectations, and then scaffolding the students to the point where they can stand on their own and the teacher can focus complete attention on the small group or individual instruction/conferencing.

Is all of this easy? No.  But, I think that the work that is done in the first weeks and months of school to set up the routines can lead to a great deal more valuable instructional time as the year progresses.

Needless to say, I felt that the first installment of our book study portion of the faculty meeting was a success.  It was heartening to hear dedicated teachers truly sharing their ideas and providing one another with support and ideas for moving forward.  There was so much more discussed than I can write here. I can't wait until next month's meeting to be a part of these discussions of chapters 3 and 4!

If your school is using The Daily 5, please comment and let me know any important successes, struggles, ideas, or caveats that you think I could share with the staff.  I always enjoy learning from the experience of others.  I have gained a great deal from reading some of The Daily 5 posts from Jessica Johnson's (@principalJ) blog "Reflections from an Elementary School Principal."

Other great resources include:

The Daily Cafe
The Daily 5 - Pinterest Board
MNWelementary-daily5andcafe wikispaces
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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Yes, Another "I Love Evernote" Post

I know, it's nothing new, but I have really started to hit my stride in using it and wanted to share. I know that I don't even use half of the features that Evernote includes yet I am still blown away by this phenomenal principals' companion.  Let me start by saying that I have tried many note-taking apps and programs in search of the one with which I could finally settle down and have a long and happy life.  I may be overstating this a bit; however, among tools for doing my job more efficiently, Evernote is one of the best that I have found.

photo.JPG There are many reasons that I have gravitated toward this tool as a staple in my electronic toolbox.  As a principal I work with immense amounts of text, media, and information.  Having a place to organize this is essential.  I am working to transition from the lovely piles on my desk to a virtual set of piles, files, and baskets.  Evernote gives me a place to store everything.  At this point, I actually get a little annoyed when I am handed paper.  Eventually, I will pull everyone else along.

If you are interested in how another principal has encouraged teachers to use Evernote as a tool in the Balanced Literacy program, check out this post by Tony Sinanis (@Cantiague_Lead).   I am focusing solely on administrative uses.  Hopefully you will find one that makes sense to you.
  1.  Principal's Log -  I have always had trouble keeping track of my office notes.  These include my call log/notes, investigation notes, and general notes on daily events.  One of the difficulties that I always found with the old paper notebook method of keeping a call log was that I needed to remember the date or sift through pages of notes to find the notes for which I was looking.  With Evernote I keep my notes in folders by year and each note is named using the same convention "PL-Month-Day-Year."  So if I know the date, it is easy to find.  However, when I don't know the date, I can simply type the name of the student in the search box in Evernote and it will bring up all notes with that name in it.  This function is priceless.  Additionally, the notes that I keep for disciplinary investigations are easier to search and store.
  2. Meeting Notes - When I go to administrative meetings I use Evernote to take and store all of my important notes.  I can tag them so that they are easier to search later.  If I don't get an electronic agenda and I don't want to add the paper one to my pile, I take a picture of the agenda and put it right in the note.  I always leave meetings with action items, so making bulleted lists in Evernote is a lifesaver.
  3. PD Notes - Evernote has changed the way that I take notes at workshops and PD sessions. With my iPad, I have a true multi-media note-taking system.  I add photos from presentations in real-time.  If the presenter is moving through slides too quickly this can be a great help.  I can also use the voice recorder if it is late in the day and typing is not high on my list.
  4. Idea Bank -  I use Evernote as a bank of ideas for all aspects of my professional life.  I have numerous folders as you can see in the screen shot to the right.  When I have time I go through the folders and sift through the ideas for use at a later date.  The most valuable feature in making this happen is the Web Clipper.  When ever I am online on my computer, iPad, or iPhone, I can "clip" an article, a webpage, or a link and put it in an Evernote folder.  This makes it easy to keep all notes on a particular topic, like "faculty meeting ideas," in one place.
  5. Always With Me Notebook - I think one of the best features is that it syncs across all of my devices.  I have Dropbox, which does the same thing, but in Evernote, I can take the notes, whereas in Dropbox I can only store files.
I have not found a need for the paid version.  I didn't think that 60megs of uploading per month was very much; however, I haven't even come close to using it.  I am sure that would not be the case for many people.

As I said in the beginning, Evernote is nothing new and there are plenty of posts out there about how great it is, but this is mine and I hope that just as I stumbled across someone's post and found Evernote could work for me, you may find some uses that you did not see before.

I would love to hear some of your uses for Evernote.  If you have any to share, please post in the comments.


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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Depths of Knowldege (DOK) is More Than an Acronym!

It has been several weeks since I spent a wonderful Saturday in New York City learning with my colleagues at the  Teachers College Readers and Writers Project 83rd Saturday Reunion.  I attended several energetic and informative sessions that day with colleagues from my school district who decided it was a great idea to spend a Saturday sitting in workshops learning how to enhance and improve their craft.  I just love that!!

One of the best workshops that I had the pleasure of attending was Chris Lehman's session entitled: Depths of Knowledge (DOK) is More than an Acronym: Use this New Lens to Revise Our Teaching so That Students Are Working at the Top of Their Game.  I must say that this was the first time that I had the pleasure of attending one of his workshops and I look forward to attending future sessions.  One thing that I have learned after many years of attending PD sessions is that the presenter is as important as the subject matter and in this case both were exceptional.

Webb's Depths of Knowledge Wheel is familiar to many of us as a way to look at student understanding that is a bit different than Bloom's Taxonomy; however, it basically still amounts to a list of verbs. Not so! While the session focused on Webb, Lehman spent some time explaining the connection between the two, including Webb's work with Bloom on the taxonomy.  But, most of the session focused on how educators could use Depths of Knowledge to reflect upon their students and themselves.

Here are some of my takeaways from the workshop.  I was typing furiously, so I hope I caught everything.

1. Most assessments do not necessarily assess what we think they do.  The majority of assessments are at lower levels (levels 1 and 2).

2. Chris Lehman used a wood shop analogy that helped me to understand the levels of DOK more clearly.

  • Level 1 - Recall is largely teacher dependent. 
    • "This is a hammer.  This is a saw.  Now go back to your stations and name your tools."
    • Here we have very basic factual retrieval
  • Level 2 - Skill/Concept is also largely teacher dependent 
    • "I am going to show you how to hammer two pieces of wood together." I show you and explain steps and repeat.  I send you back to your table and ask you to hammer two pieces of wood together.
    • This level assumes a basic knowledge of vocabulary and concepts.
In levels 1 and 2 students do things whether they are right are wrong.  They essentially don't necessarily know why they are doing the task just what it is and how to do it.

  • Level 3 - Strategic Thinking is highly learner dependent.
    • "I am going to show you how to make a bird house.  You are going to make any kind of birdhouse you want based upon my instruction."
    • In this level students must put together concepts they already know and steps they already know, but they must also make choices with that information.
  • Level 4 - Extended Thinking is also highly learner dependent.
    • "There is a flood coming and we need to close the workshop and build a dam for the town."
    • In this level the teacher is expecting the students to make their own plans, think strategically, and create something.
    • This level essentially asks students to "problematize things."  This is a skill that we need to teach children.  It causes questions along the way and then students must come up with the solution(s).  (The dam could leak, what do we do?)
3. DOK allows us to see our students more clearly.  Looking at their thought processes by questioning them about it gives us a glimpse into their thinking.  We should be teaching children to think meta-cognitively.   We need to know what they are thinking, even from the start in September.  "We have to think of September as not the first month of school but the 11th.  It is the 11th month of everything else they have ever learned before."  We need to see what kids are drawing on to do today's work. We do this through questions:
  • Can you teach me how to...?  Show me an example of what you were just talking about.
  • Have you done this before?
  • What have you learned that can help you complete this learning task?
4. If students cannot talk meta-cognitively about what they are doing, are they learning?  This concept is key in the classroom.  We don't want students who can simply mimic what they have seen demonstrated or heard in a rote fashion; we want students who understand what they are learning, how they are learning, and how they can build upon previous learning skills to learn new and different things.  With this understanding of their own learning process, they have the capability of tackling the level 3 and 4 tasks because they have more than facts and concepts, they have deeper thinking skills.

5.  DOK allows us to reflect upon our students and in turn upon ourselves.  This involves building a reflective cycle.  The teacher teaches something and then looks to the students' DOK levels as an assessment of how they taught it.  This leads the teacher to ask the questions, "what did I do? what can I do to move you forward from your current level?"

6.  Before having students start independent work, get them in the habit of writing two things that they already know that could help them do this work.  This is a kick start to thinking about thinking.

7. Apply Webb's Depths of Knowledge to the questioning used during Writers Workshop conferencing to determine the students' level and then base each conference on the appropriate level.  This method allows for differentiated conferencing.  The example used involved conferencing about character development.
  • Start at level 4 - "What are you thinking about as you revise today?"  If the student takes off into a well thought out explanation of their process and how they intend to move forward in revision, continue the questioning at this level and extend.  If not, move down to the next level.
  • Level 3 - "One thing I think about is, 'do my characters seem like real people?'  There are many ways to do that.  What are things that you already know how to do to make your characters seem real?"  With this question, the conference is at the strategic thinking level and if the student can respond to this prompt the conversation can remain at this level.  If not....
  • Level 2 - "One way to make your characters seem more real is to describe micro-actions, you first picture the scene, then...."  This is much more skill based and it does not ask for as much thought process.  The teacher takes the child through the process of visualizing and then the student can work through the character development.  If the student can do this, then the conference stays at level two, if not...
  • Level 1 - "Let's talk through doing this for your character.  First, what was the scene? Tell me what you see.  Okay, write that."  At this level of conferencing the teacher is holding the hand of the student and helping them work through the character development.

In this 50 minute workshop Chris Lehman moved quickly though Webb's Depths of Knowledge, provided real examples of how DOK is a useful tool for reflection, and culminated with an application in Writers Workshop conferences.  It is important for teachers to understand the level of their students and help them along the continuum as they grow in their writing and in their thinking.  I am looking forward to learning more from Chris Lehman through twitter (@ichrislehman), his blog,  and future workshops!

(Everything in this post is based upon my notes from Chris Lehman's presentation at 2:00pm on October 27, 2012 at Teachers College in New York City)

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Let's Support our #NJED

Be sure to click on the medallion above to see how you can help New Jersey schools in need after Hurricane Sandy.  It is important that we ensure that the students of New Jersey have everything that they need to succeed in these difficult weeks ahead.

Whether you are a school/teacher in need or someone who wishes to help, please check out the link.  If you have trouble with connecting, please paste the URL below into your browser.

Many people in our fine state are suffering the after-effects of this devastating storm.  There are schools and homes without power (with estimates of 5-10 days and more for relief).  The photos and video of our shore towns that have come across the news and all social media are simply heartbreaking.  As we move through the next weeks and months we will need your thoughts, prayers, and support.  Thank you for taking a moment to view my blog and even greater thanks for clicking on the link to see how you can help.

Be well and be safe.

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

It's The Artist That Matters 2.0!

I watched the video below by John Spencer after it was posted on a favorite blog that I read called, "Dangerously Irrelevant!"  Please take a moment and watch...

  As a self proclaimed technology enthusiast and an educator devoted to infusing technology into the classroom, I love the tools that are highlighted in the above video.  However, I think that the message is very important.  There is no tool that is going to "fix" education (I prefer improve rather than fix); however, in order to continually improve education those who educate must use the most powerful tools at their disposal.

There was a time when the pencil would have been considered the most powerful educational tool in the classroom; but, pencils used by students in a class with an exemplary teacher of writing have always been far more successful than pencils used in the classroom of a mediocre teacher of writing.  The same holds true for 21st century technology tools.  None of them will transform the learning.  If the teacher is inclined to learn the tools, work to master their effective use, and work to improve their teaching through these tools, the teacher and the tools will become exponentially more powerful. With a growth mindset, it stands to reason that appropriately implemented tools (even the pencil) can help the teacher become a more skilled educator.

We have all heard the cliche statement, "Technology is the means, not the end."  I would submit that this has become a cliche based upon that fact that it is 100% true.  I will always advocate for teachers having the most up-to-date, modern technologies at their disposal; however, those tools are simply window dressing if the teacher does not use them for the benefit of student learning.

So, the video points out that none of the modern technologies have or will "fix" education, which is a great deal to ask of any tool!  The only place where one hammer can build a house would be on Handy Manny.  In the real world it takes many tools wielded by skilled craftsman to erect that house.  We need to have faith in skilled teachers (artists) and provide them the tools (technology) to practice their craft (teaching and learning.)  This will transform education!
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Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Power of Crisis

Warning: In order to truly get the full story in this post, you need to click on the links.  I have been disconnected for the past several weeks.  I have not written a blog post and I have only checked my Twitter account sparingly.  This has not been an effort to relax and disconnect as I mention in one of my posts from July.  It has been a break that was dictated by some circumstances outside my control.  As a principal, I always work on what is called the "interrupt schedule;" which basically means that while I have plans for my week, my day, my hour, the universe has different designs and interrupts those plans for more pressing things.  This summer Bear Tavern Elementary School was presented with quite an interruption.  Unfortunately, on Sunday July 29th we sustained some fairly extensive vandalism.  You can learn more about it from CBS NewsABC News, and The Hopewell Sun.

 As principal of this school for 10 years, it was shocking and saddening to walk through the building on the evening that it happened.  I truly realized how much this school has become my home.  It was like getting punched in the gut.  To see our beautiful school in such a state was painful.  Needless to say, the aforementioned interrupt schedule clearly kicked in.  Everything stopped to address the more immediate needs of the building and the community.  Hence, my absence from this blog.

Fortunately, we found out that our insurance company would cover everything, which helped me to focus on the community.  One thing that I have learned about our wonderful community is that when there is a crisis, we pull together and we emerge successful and better than before.  This is the case in this situation.  After several email communications with the community, I scheduled a community update meeting on August 6th.  This meeting was attended by over 150 staff members and community members.  Here is the presentation that I gave and subsequently posted to our district website: We are Bear Tavern: Better Together! Better Than Ever!

It was truly heartwarming to see the show of support for the school. I received numerous messages that demonstrated the character and strength of our community. Here is just a small sampling of those messages that I posted in our virtual backpack: BT Better Together: The Support of an Amazing Community. 

As mentioned in the presentation above, we were not allowed in the building until August 20th due to the toxicity of the chemicals in the fire extinguishers that were discharged.  The reopening/Community Day that was scheduled was a wonderful success and our students, staff members, families, and community members came together to ready the school for our September opening.  Here are some photos of that day.

As we are now about a week away from the start of school, we are continuing to ready the school for the arrival of the children and there is a heightened sense of community among staff members and the community.  We have worked together to navigate a difficult summer and will move into the 2012-2013 school year with a renewed focus on our community through our simple (but powerful) theme of "Better Together!"

I can only hope that every principal has the privilege of leading and participating in a community like the one at Bear Tavern Elementary School!

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

More Fun Than a Barrel of (Shifting) Monkeys!

As I looked through my list of blog post ideas, I came to a book that I read a couple of months ago that has great relevance to the daily practice of school-level leadership.  The book to which I am referring is Shifting the Monkey by Todd Whitaker.  I know that Peter Gabriel said that I need to "Shock the Monkey."  As a child I used to play with a Barrel of Monkeys.  My mother used to tell me to quit all the Monkey Business.  And, apparently monkeys are adept at mimicry in that they often see and then do.  However, I have never been told that I need to shift monkeys, so the title of the book was immediately intriguing.  Additionally, various members of my PLN recommended it, which is good enough for me.

As I began reading the book, I quickly understood that we were going more down a "monkey on your back" kind of road and really started to understand why these monkeys would need shifting.  I have read several of Todd Whitaker's books in the past and I enjoy his straightforward, common-sense, accessible style of writing.  The book is not long, but it has a focused message that quickly resonated with me.  The subtitle of the book is, "The art of protecting GOOD PEOPLE from LIARS, CRIERS and other SLACKERS."  We all know these types of people and as leaders we could all use some advice on helping the former while addressing the latter.

@ToddWhitaker defines monkeys as "responsibilities, obligations, and problems everyone deals with every day."  Unfortunately, there are people in every organization who are masters at moving their monkeys onto the backs of others, whether it is through their own doing or through their leader's desire to avoid headaches by simply not assigning monkeys to these draining people.  He does an excellent job of explaining many different types of monkeys and exactly how they get placed where they do.  Ultimately, the question that the book seeks to answer is, "How do I protect my good people?"  These folks are vital to the success of the organization; however, it is not realistic to move all monkeys to their backs simply because it is a certainty that they will handle things appropriately.  Not only is it unrealistic, but it is completely unfair.

As the book progresses, the focus shifts from recognizing monkeys to shifting them where they belong.  The leader's role in this is key.  With the power to direct the location of monkeys in an organization the leader must ensure that they are distributed to the correct people and not just the good people.  Whitaker spends the latter part of the book discussing types of monkeys and how to effectively shift them to their rightful owners.  He also explains how leaders can contribute to the problem by creating monkeys that are not necessary.  One common example of this is creating a rule for everyone to correct the behavior of a few.  This places a new monkey on the backs of all employees instead of just the ones to whom the rule is directed.

I think that the book is an important read and can help any leader develop a positive environment.  It has given me a great deal to think about in my own organization.  The question to answer for any workplace is: Are the monkeys appropriately placed?  If not, that might throw a Monkey Wrench into the works!

Feel free to comment if you are so inclined.

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Disconnecting to Recharge?

Traditionally in order to recharge a device one must connect it to power.  I find that I am obsessed with recharging now.  My iPhone is always above 40%, my iPad is constantly charged; any device that I have is charged and ready for any important 21st century emergency.  While I realize it may sound a bit excessive, I am fine with it because I find it vital to my professional life that I remain connected.  Additionally, the benefits of being connected for personal reasons are numerous.  But, my question is this:

How does one who is reliant upon recharging using a power cord recharge the professional battery?

The Answer: Disconnect.

I have to say that when I left for Canada this past Friday evening, I was still in full-charge mode.  I had my devices with me and charged for every occasion.  As we neared the campsite, I made peace with the fact that there was no WiFi and that I did not have an international data plan.  Basically, all I was getting was the occasional expensive call or text over the next week unless I headed into town (30 min. drive) to access WiFi at McDonalds.  Honestly, this was rather unsettling to start the trip, but I knew it would become a welcome respite by about day 2.

Sure enough, I was actually enjoying my time away from the connection.  I wasn't constantly checking email, Twitter, blogs, etc, etc. etc....  I was just enjoying being out by the lake, playing board and card games with my family, reading for pleasure, and just generally relaxing.  Now I can't lie to you, during our trip into town, I did stop by Micky D's and check a couple things, but not for long and I didn't make a special trip to do it.  But, I was confronted with a problem.  On about the 5th day of our trip we found out that one of the folks in the campground with whom we are friends had WiFi!!!  I quickly got the password and started to check things, but then I remembered the whole point of the trip: Relax, Recharge, Refresh!

So, I honestly did very little with the WiFi for the last couple days of the trip.

I remembered that this trip was about catching turtles and letting them go.

I remembered that this trip was about snapping a picture of a luna moth at night.

I remembered that this trip was about sleeping in a tent with the family.

I remembered that the best way to recharge is to unplug.  Now that I am back and will be going in to my office tomorrow, I am ready to think about the future and ready the school for the new year.  I look forward to all of the challenges that the months ahead will present!  Oh, by the way, all of the devices are charged again, too.

Feel free to comment if you are so inclined. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I've Been Edcamped!

It has been a while since my last post as things have gotten a bit crazy at school lately with state testing, end of year events, and general mania, among other things; however, I took some time to feed my professional soul by attending Edcamp Philly a while back and I am hooked!  I have researched Edcamps, I have seen pictures of Edcamps, I have watched video from Edcamps, I have even been working with a group of educators to plan an Edcamp; but now that I have gone to my first one, I know that it is one of the most worthwhile and relevant forms of professional development currently available.

If you are not familiar, let me take you through the day.  First, I met up with some of my friends from the Twitterverse to drive to Philly.  It was nice meeting folks with whom I've interacted online.  Of course, that was only the beginning of the meetings.  After arriving at the University of Pennsylvania, we registered, got our wi-fi codes and some swag and then we were off to the session board to see what was offered for the day.  The board filled up fairly quickly.  Different participants came up and posted sessions that they were volunteering to present.  Could it be? A professional development day that does not have an expert?  Ah, there's the rub, the participants ARE the experts!  As the sessions got posted, they were quickly uploaded to a Google Doc so that we didn't have to stand in front of the board to see them.  They were accessible electronically all day.

After some very brief opening remarks welcoming everyone, thanking sponsors and organizers, and explaining the rules of edcamp, we were off to our first chosen sessions.  I decided to go to a session on using Edmodo in the classroom.  It was conducted by a third grade teacher from Virginia and was very interactive.  While most moderators would be thrown by audience members interjecting, questioning, and adding, at an Edcamp, it is expected.  The leader keeps the conversation going and provides a framework within which the group can learn.  I learned a great deal from the presenter as well as from the knowledge base that sat in the room.

My subsequent sessions were similar.  One was on Skype in the classroom.  Another was about the flipped classroom.  It was a day that I felt mattered and I truly enjoyed.  Why?  Because I felt like a true participant rather than a passive consumer of information and concepts being dispensed by a guru (that does have it's place, but not here.)  Another fantastic part of the day was lunch.  A group of NJ educators who are connected on Twitter all got together for lunch at a local restaurant.  This involved more professional conversation, as well as a great deal of fun!  An added bonus was a visit from @Joe_Mazza of eFACE fame.

The day ended with a Smackdown.  As we sat in the room awaiting this Edcamp tradition, I asked my friends if this was going to hurt.  They just laughed and said, "wait and see."  It turns out a Smackdown is an opportunity for anyone who wishes to get up and go to the computer up front and demonstrate a useful technology tool, app, game, etc.  The catch is that you only have one minute.  This was a great way to leave with many new resources to investigate.  It is amazing what people are using out there!

Another great aspect of an Edcamp is that participants and presenters post notes and resources on a wiki afterwards so that everyone can benefit from each other's experiences during the day.  This blog post does not do justice to the Edcamp experience, so I suggest that you find an Edcamp near you and attend.  You can do so by checking out the Edcamp Wiki. If you live in the NJ area or want to travel here in December (?), check out EdcampNJ.  It is taking place at Linwood Middle School in North Brunswick, NJ on December 1, 2012.  I hope to see you there!
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Thursday, April 19, 2012

It's Not a Competition, It's a Reading Challenge!

As I look around at the world all I see is competition and competition is a wonderful thing!  However, everything does not need to be a competition.  I think that sometimes in elementary schools we forget that a part of what we do is teach children how to compete.  How to win, how to lose, and how to deal with all that goes with both.  This is best done on a small scale in classrooms or the gym.  It is generally not an easy lesson to teach to a whole school at once.

At our school we have a reading challenge called, "The March Reading Madness Challenge." It's a wonderful event and I look forward to it each year.  The basic premise is that the children need to read 40 pages or 40 minutes per night for one month depending upon grade level.  At the end of the month, the principal does a wacky stunt if the school meets its goal.  Nine years ago when I began doing the challenges, we used to announce the classes and students that read the most at our culminating assembly and those classes would get an ice cream party (pre-nutritional guidelines) or a pizza party.

Over the years,

  • I've been duct taped to a wall three feet off the ground
  • I've been pulled to the ceiling of the gym with rock climbing equipment and read to the school
  • I've dyed my hair blonde and shaved my beard
  • I've been dunked in a dunk tank (cold day!)
  • I've been raised to the roof of the school in the fire truck bucket and spent 24 hours on the roof (29 degrees that night).
  • I've kissed a pig
  • I've been wrapped in a boa constrictor
  • I've demonstrated a big rolling tube that would be added to our field day (hard to describe, but the children loved it). 

Then, of course, there is this year.  Well just look below to see what I did this year.
If you prefer video, you can watch it here.

This is a wonderful time of year at the school.  The children always come up to me and tell me how much they have read and that they are going to meet their goal so that I will do the stunt.  Of course, the purpose of the event is to get children to read more.  Hopefully, after the month is over a few more children catch the reading bug and keep on reading.

Over the years, we have eliminated the individual and class rewards.  This was not met with support from all.  The reasoning was because the main goal of the reading challenge was for the school to work together as one community of readers to reach a goal and cause me to keep my promise to them.  However, at our assemblies early on it was clear that the triumph of the larger challenge was lessened because the majority of the school did not get the party.  We sat down and had a great deal of conversation about the goals of the challenge and among those goals was not competition.  I think that it is important to keep the goals in mind when deciding whether competition should be an ingredient in a lesson or challenge.

That was about five years ago and our students continue to read just as much as they ever did.  Competition does have its place; however, when working with young children it is wise to decide where and when.  This may be a somewhat Pollyanna viewpoint, but as I said in the beginning, competition is everywhere and they will get a chance to compete probably more often than they want.  What are your thoughts on competition?  If you are so moved, please comment below.
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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lessons Learned From a Refrigerator!

So, what can a refrigerator teach us about change in school?

New Fridge -Smudges and all
Our refrigerator died on us a couple weeks ago.  We bought a new one and had it delivered only to realize that we did not measure the height.  The width and depth, yes, but not the height!  So the delivery men took it back and told us we needed to pick out another one.  We didn't like the other ones so... we decided to remove those two useless cabinets above the fridge that store things that we don't need.  We called the delivery company and had them deliver the new refrigerator the next day.  In the meantime, I removed the cabinets... Well, I tried to remove the cabinets.  Unfortunately, they were not stand alone.  They were connected to the two adjacent cabinets.  So, I took apart the cabinets, had the refrigerator installed and then I went about building a faux cabinet looking enclosure by cutting down the original cabinet.  Once again, unfortunately, when I was screwing in a piece of wood (in the same screw hole as before, I might add) the power to the refrigerator went out.  Well, two new electrical outlets, a re-run wire, a hole in my living room wall, and two days of work later, I have electricity to my fridge again. By the way, we love it and we are glad we got it.

The faux cabinet enclosure (not finished)
Why do I tell this story?  Mainly, because I needed to vent.  However, as I was thinking about it, I realized that this story is like so many situations that we encounter when we need to change things in our school.  We have good intentions of improving something only to find that we have gotten in much deeper than we expected. Here is my take on the different ways my fridge experience correlates with my work experience.
  1. While change is inevitable, sometimes it is hard to plan - We had no idea that our refrigerator was going to die on us.  We came home from work one day to a bunch of warm food!  Sometimes in our schools things happen that cause us to make changes.  It could be enrollment shifts, budgetary decisions, unfunded mandates, etc.  The point is while carefully planned change is always best, sometimes we have to change to adapt to the situation with which we are presented.
  2. Mistakes are part of the process, learn from them and move on - Yes, I admit it, I forgot to measure the height, but sometimes when we are working to change something (especially with a deadline) we can miss things.  One missed measurement can scuttle the whole plan.  When we change in our schools we have so many factors to consider that it is nearly impossible to do it alone.  If I had done the measuring of the refrigerator with someone else or several someone elses, we might have caught the missed measurement.  When making change in school we need to involve all of the stakeholders in the planning process; not only so that they can have ownership of the change, but so that the project can be seen from many perspectives and the pitfalls can be avoided.
  3. Sometimes our plans don't fit our situation and we have to make choices - We thought we were going to need to scrap our plans for the refrigerator that we wanted and go with something else; something less desirable to us.  However, we opted to remove the cabinets and change our situation.  When we encounter roadblocks, we have to make decisions. In schools, change is almost always met with roadblocks like resistance from various stakeholders, initial results that are not favorable, or lack of capacity to enact the change.  We can scrap the change or change the situation.  Sometimes the roadblocks are telling us that we made the wrong choice in our change; however, more often we need to reorient our organization to fit the new direction.  If stakeholders are resistant, is it because we haven't done the proper preparation? If our results are initially weak, is it because that is a natural part of the change or because we need to tweak things?  If we lack the capacity to make the change, do we need to provide professional development to be ready?
  4. Change is not easy, sometimes it will cause us to doubt the new direction - The removal of our useless cabinets proved to be much more difficult than initially expected.  As I tried to remove them and realized that their removal would cause a larger reaction with the adjoining cabinets, I had to reevaluate the change.  I almost called the delivery company and told them to hold on the delivery again.  How often has a new program or initiative been introduced into our district and because it became very difficult to actualize it simply faded away?  Usually this pattern leads to the mindset, "If I wait long enough this too shall pass!"  But, with dedication, creativity, and hard work we can persevere and foster the change successfully.
  5. Get others involved in the implementation. Don't try to do it all yourself - In the initial paragraph of this post, it seems as though I have done all of this alone; however, at the point where the cabinets did not come out so easily, I involved my father-in-law.  He is a bit more experienced in this type of job.  We made the decision to take the cabinets apart and then cut them down to create an enclosure.  One of the curses of being an administrator is that we often have a vision of how we want something to happen and have difficulty letting that go to others to be molded and changed.  The problem is that the ideas of others usually enhance and make our ideas better.  They are different than our original idea; however, the value of collaboration is immeasurable.  There is usually someone with more experience or a different point of view to stretch the original plan into something amazing.
  6. It is likely that change will cause some major issues that require a great deal of work. - Seriously, this rebuilding of the cabinet took a total of 45 minutes.  We were very happy with ourselves!  Unfortunately, the last screw (literally, the last one) apparently pierced a wire in the wall (where there should not have ever been a wire) and cut the power to the fridge...and the microwave...and several other outlets.  Ahhhhh!!!. We spent two days mapping the circuit, isolating where the damaged wire fed, and cutting off the dead wire.  We replaced it with a new wire between two new electrical outlets to complete the connection. By the way the outlets on this circuit were crazy.  They spanned two rooms and outlets on opposite sides of the rooms.  In our schools we often have unanticipated problems.  These are different than the roadblocks because these are the "normal" problems that will occur with any change.  For instance, sometimes it is difficult to anticipate that developing and implementing a new program may disenfranchise a group of teachers.  A good example of this would be switching from a basal reading approach to a balanced literacy approach.  Teachers who have been teaching with basal readers for decades may feel that their efforts were good for years, but now switching to a new approach indicates that they have been doing it wrong.  These types of issues are real and need to be addressed. 
  7. Change for the better is worth it! -  At the end of the refrigerator story, I mentioned that we are happy with the new fridge.  This is indicative of coming through any change process.  Once your initial vision has been reworked and your reality has been remodeled, it is usually very satisfying to see the fruits of the change!
  8. A final note on change. - As you can see from the picture below, the wall in my living room took a beating to make this project work.  Change is messy.  No matter how well planned, there will be some things that do not go smoothly; however, just as Spackle can be a homeowner's best friend, organizational skills, interpersonal skills, and leadership skills are the change agent's best friends.

Living room wall - The fridge is on the other side of this wall
This may have been a stretch and it is by no means scientific; however, I believe that we can find lessons in everything that we do.  I hope that my refrigerator can provide some insight into school change.  I know that there are many books out there on change and much research on the subject, but I also know that I have a new fridge and it came with a story that I could share. While I know this is not a comprehensive treatment of change in schools, it's a start.

By the way, stainless steel is a nice idea, but I kind of like my children's fingerprints on fridge.  It lets me know that we live in our home.  Don't be afraid of the "mess" in your school.  It is the evidence that your students, staff, and community are living with those changes.  You can tidy up the mess and know that tomorrow it will be back, just like the fingerprints.  I think that is good.

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