Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Road Less Traveled


Educon was an amazing experience for me both professionally and personally.  It provided me with an opportunity to put a face and voice to so many educators from across that country and Canada that have inspired, motivated, supported, and challenged me ever since I discovered this vibrant, connected community of learners in March of 2009.  As I have written numerous times, I have grown and learned more in this short period of time than from any other professional development opportunity.  I would not be the leader and learner I am today if it weren’t for the passionate educators that unknowingly push me to become better each day.

Being surrounded by a group of innovative educators that have broken down the walls of their institutions, challenged traditional methodologies, taken risks to benefit all learners, and readily share their knowledge and experiences provides the fuel for my intrinsic motivation to make a positive impact at my school.  As I reflect on my weekend here in Philadelphia the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost resonates loudly with me and characterizes the attendees at Educon:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair 

And having perhaps the better claim, 

Because it was grassy and wanted wear; 

Though as for that, the passing there 

Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay 

In leaves no step had trodden black 

Oh, I kept the first for another day! 

Yet knowing how way leads on to way, 

I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh 

Somewhere ages and ages hence: 

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I 

I took the one less traveled by, 

And that has made all the difference. 
To me, Educon is about the educators from all corners of the globe who refuse to abide by the status quo.  These many trailblazers in our prestigious profession decided to take the road less traveled by pushing the boundaries of an educational system that is inadequate for learners today.  To me, educators like this are heroes as they have pursued a path fraught with many obstacles such as lake of support, emphasis on standardized tests, micromanagement, isolation, and lack of resources.  These have been overcome through an unwavering commitment and passion for engaging students no matter what the costs in order to place them on a path to success.  

Frost ends his poem with this line, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I 

I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” I feel extremely fortunate that I decided to take the path less traveled with not only those educators that attended Educon, but the collective group across the world that exhibit an unwavering dedication for making a positive impact on the life of a child.  

In the words of Peter Senge, "You cannot force commitment, what you can do...You nudge a little here, inspire a little there, and provide a role model.  Your primary influence is the environment you create."  To me, this is what Educon is all about.  How would you categorize your experience at Educon and/or your journey down the path less taken?  What can be done to encourage other educators to go down this path with us?

Please feel free to check out and add to the Google Doc: A Collective Roadmap to Change from the Educon session I facilitated.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Pride

The past two weeks at NMHS have been extremely exciting.  Students and staff have engaged in many innovative activities that have showcased what the school has to offer, illustrated the potential of our learners, and made it clear that all voices matter in order to change the educational culture.  Here is a quick snapshot:
  • Elective course in Holocaust/Genocide Studies Skypes with a Holocaust survivor, who's diary is featured in a book, entitled “Savaged Pages”.  Read press coverage on the event HERE.
  • ELL teacher provided a workshop on meeting the needs of ELL learners to our Tomorrow’s Teachers class.  This class is for NMHS students that wish to pursue a career in education.
  • Much anticipated launch of the Holocaust Education website detailing the authentic learning experiences our students are engaged in at NMHS and abroad.
  • Members of student government Skype with their counterparts at a high school in Ohio and engage in a powerful conversation on increasing rigor/accountability in school and improving learning environments.  You can read more about this experience HERE.
  • Members of the Choral Ensemble promote our budding partnership with the Bergen Performing Arts Center by developing an incredible performance in “Glee” fashion.  The students worked tirelessly outside of school and performed on the stage of the Bergen PAC for Good Day NY (see their performance).  Even after their music went off unexpectedly they continued to sing A cappella! Read press coverage HERE.
  • The Student Council created a moving presentation in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King and presented it to the entire school delivering a powerful message of service, leadership, compassion, and tolerance.
I am so proud to be the Principal at New Milford High School.  My students, staff, and colleagues continually inspire and motivate me each day to learn and grow.  Learning opportunities like those mentioned above are becoming more numerous as the year progresses.  The 21st Century vision that I have for education is being embraced more and more each day and beginning to take hold.  Not only is my school on the move, but the New Milford District is as well. I am proud, and extremely fortunate, to work in a District that is supportive of our efforts to be innovative, take risks, and provide learners with authentic experiences that will prepare them for a world that is constantly involving.  On a personal level I can't thank my Superintendent and BOE enough for allowing me the freedom and providing the support to do what I do.  To see first hand the direction that my District is moving in please check out this newsletter from Michael Polizzi, my superintendent (he is even modeling the use of Web 2.0!).  

Does the environment in which you work instill a sense of pride?  If so please consider sharing your thoughts and stories.


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Empowering Students to Be Self-Advocates


Right before the holiday break I was contacted by Dwight Carter, the Principal of Gahanna Lincoln High School in Ohio. He wanted to pick my brain about technology integration strategies that I have used at New Milford High School in New Jersey. Somewhere in our conversation that spanned multiple areas of educational leadership, we talked about how we regularly meet with groups of students in our respective schools. The goals of these meetings are to challenge the students to be catalysts of change and work to make their school the best it can be for them.


Suddenly the light bulb went off in my head and I asked Dwight if he would consider holding a joint meeting between our student groups using Skype. Even though he had never used Skype before, the idea was immediately enthusiastically embraced. Upon our return to school in January, Dwight and I set up a few Skype test calls to get him acclimated to the tool, set an agenda, and prepare our students for the meeting on Friday January 11, 2011. We originally had the meeting set for Wednesday, but my school was closed due to heavy snow. After all of the preparation and excitement there was no way we were going to let Mother Nature ruin this genuine learning experience that we had been working on for weeks.


Our meeting was held yesterday and the dialogue between the students of our two schools exceeded our expectations. As facilitators, we challenged the students to openly discuss and develop strategies that addressed increasing academic rigor/accountability and improving learning environments. The student voice is crucial in school improvement efforts and most often this group is excluded entirely. One of the overriding theses that both Dwight and I stressed to our students is that they must not be afraid to advocate for themselves if they feel that they are not being challenged or learning is not taking place.


It was difficult to listen and take notes at the same time as I was thoroughly engrossed in the student discussion, but I did mange to jot a few main points down in Evernote. In terms of rigor and accountability our student groups had this to say:

  • Having a passionate teacher who makes the course challenging from beginning to end is essential. We want higher expectations set.
  • Relationships between teacher and student are key.
  • Instruction caters to all types of learners.
  • Homework needs to be meaningful, regularly assessed, and directly linked to class content. Too many teachers give homework that is not relevant to the lesson and does not tie in at all.
  • We learn more through interactive projects and our own successes/failures than through traditional means of assessment (i.e. note-taking, quizzes, tests, etc.).
  • The learning process is a partnership between teacher and student. The students want and need a voice in how they learn and how they demonstrate their learning. 
  • An interesting sidebar that came out of this was how the teachers dress impacts how seriously students take them.
  • Students have to see a purpose to using technology tools in the classroom. They want to create content using technology.
For the last 20 minutes of the hour long meeting, the students from Ohio and NJ discussed learning environments. One thing they all agreed on was that classrooms need to move away from desks to more open, collaborative spaces. I actually threw in that if I could have my way all of the classrooms in NMHS would look like a Starbucks lounge (they really liked this idea). One issue they were split on was technology. As the conversation began, there were those students that stated they didn't want technology to be integrated into instruction because of their immersion in it outside of school. Then there were others who felt exactly the opposite, that technology plays such a huge part in their outside lives that in order to motivate them it should be widely integrated. Well students never let us down! By the end of the conversation they came to the same consensus that all of us in education have and that is that there needs to be a balance between research-based instructional techniques and technology.




GLHS is in the process of building a state of the art, three story learning environment that will blend traditional and contemporary (Starbucks) learning spaces, high powered wireless connectivity, project-based learning, and student voice/choice.  The facility will house up to 350 juniors and seniors who choose to select classes that offer creativity and project-based learning opportunities.  The conversation that took place between the New Milford and Gahanna Lincoln students describes perfectly what Dwight expects to see in the new building.  


The student-driven conversation left Dwight and I inspired to continually seek out the student voice in an effort to transform the teaching and learning cultures of our schools. As we learned, students want to be challenged, have high expectations set, and be provided with meaningful learning opportunities. These are challenges that both Dwight and I are ready to address head on. Once our time came to an end, we in turn challenged all of the students that their role is vital in this process and that they must become self-advocates to assist us in school improvement efforts. Based on the overwhelming positive feedback both Dwight and I received, we plan to continue facilitating conversations between our students while looking to expand the dialogue to other students in schools across the country and world.


Do the students in your school have a voice? Are their ideas respected and acted upon?



Friday, January 14, 2011

Seriously…Revising Huckleberry Finn?


The following is a guest post by Linda Keesing, the Media Specialist at New Milford High School.  Below are her thoughts on the recent revisions to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Feel free to comment below and she will respond.  Linda can be contacted directly at lkeesing@newmilfordschools.org

In February, there will be a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, minus any appearance of the "N" word.  Note that the new book is called a new edition, not a revision.  This news has caught the attention of people all over the world.

On January, 6, 2011, New York Times book reviewer, Michiko Kakutani wrote:  "Authors’ original texts should be sacrosanct intellectual property, whether a book is a classic or not...Efforts to sanitize classic literature have a long, undistinguished history...Whether it comes from conservatives or liberals, there is a patronizing Big Brother aspect to these literary fumigations. We, the censors, need to protect you, the na├»ve, delicate reader. We, the editors, need to police writers (even those from other eras), who might have penned something that might be offensive to someone sometime." 

Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a treasured classic that many students read in high school, as they have for generations.  It is also one of the most frequently banned books in the United States.  Many people object to its dealing with racism and the use of the "N" word.

Please know that I am appalled by the use of the derogatory "N" word by anyone alive today (or at all during my lifetime)!  However, we are talking about a classic work of literature that was published in 1885 in the United States, a very different time in history.  During the time that Huck and Jim rafted on the Mississippi, use of the "N" word was common and accepted.

First of all, reading literature provides readers a chance to think about, discuss, and even challenge ideas presented in the text.  Literature is often provocative, and I believe it is a positive event when readers are engaged in the art and struggle of finding meaning in it.  For our 21st century students to appreciate with sensitivity how times have changed, and how the connotation of the "N" word has changed through the reading of this classic book, means that they have engaged in a teachable moment.  With insight, they can realize the context of the times - both then and now.  

As our world gets smaller, and people of different cultures need to work and live together, don't we need to examine the very perceptions and misperceptions that we have about each other that may interfere with the reality of needing to get along?  Certainly the "N" word is offensive in today's world.  Can we parlay a discussion about the outrage that use of that word sparks into a broader discussion about other words and images that are used today that are hurtful and offensive?  Can we learn something that will inform our interactions and behavior for the better?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wait Until I Tell My Mom What I Did in School Today

Hopefully the title of this post grabbed your attention.  As I was walking out of an eighth period class on Monday that is what I heard one student tell her friend.  As a Principal it was an amazing way to end the day.  I too sat in the same class as those students engaging in that conversation and am still in awe of how a little bit of technology could dramatically transform the learning experiences for our students. 


The state of NJ mandates that the Holocaust be covered at some point in the history curriculum.  In addition to this content being assimilated into various history courses, NMHS also offers an elective course on the topic.  On Monday January 10, 2011 our Holocaust and Genocide class Skyped with Peter Feigl, who currently resides in FL.  Mr. Fiegl's diary is found in chapter 3 of the book Salvaged Pages: Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust by Alexander Zapruder. The book contains a collection of diaries written by Holocaust survivors in which they reflect on their experiences and provide a glimpse into this dark period in history.  For the entire period students had the opportunity to ask questions they had prepared.  Here are some examples followed by some of his summarized responses:

  • Of all the experiences, which had the most impact on you? Crossing the border into Switzerland in 1944.
  • How long did it take for you to think about other things than the Holocaust after it was over? I have the ability to push unpleasant things in the back of my mind, didn't confront until we were in our 60's.
  • Do you consider yourself Jewish or catholic?  This was a tricky question.  Here is a little history.  Father had him baptized Catholic in Vienna during 1937 to protect him from the Nazis anti-jewish policies.  The family then fled to France in 1940.  After his parents were arrested in 1942 he began to write a diary for them.
  • When did your children find out about your diary? Diary was originally confiscated in 1945. Shared amazing story of how he eventually got it back in 1982 from a collector of WWII items who purchased it at a flea Paris flea market in 1947.
  • Do you think that after everything you have been through, has it made you a better person and how? All I can say about this is that his response was very compelling and emotional.
  • Did you ever meet any of the other children you hid with or those that hid you after the war? The answer was yes and to the surprise of the teacher and class the survivor resided in NJ (Colleen Tambuscio, the teacher of the course, is now on a mission to find that survivor and connect him with the class).
  • How did you feel about the Neo-Nazi that killed the black security guard at the U.S. Holocaust Museum last year? Discussed the root of hate in certain people.
  • Where are the original diaries today? Donated to U.S. holocaust Museum

I found Mr. Feigl to be extremely articulate and he was able to recall events with clarity and detail.  It is one thing to read about historical facts and discuss them in class, but why be satisfied with just that?  With the integration of technology and a passionate educator, an authentic element can be constructed in a way that engages learners like never before.   Don't we wish for all of our students to go home excited to tell their parents what they learned in school each day?



For media coverage on the event click HERE.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

What is the Most Effective Classroom Technology?

This is the million dollar question!  Like most educators in the blogging world I see the inherit value in educational technology.  Combined with sound pedagogical practices, the effective integration of technology has the ability to engage learners in a variety of ways.

The other day I came across this article where interactive whiteboards (IWB's) were touted as the most effective piece of classroom technology followed by individual netbooks for each student (these were being used predominately as e-readers).  The rationale for placing IWB's at the top of the list included the ability to manipulate virtual objects/data and cater to multiple learning styles (tactile, visual).
So what is the most effective classroom technology? Opinions will vary, but here is mine.  I believe for a specific type of technology to be successful in a classroom it must be multidimensional, cost-effective, easy to use, readily accessible by all, and most importantly engages students.  My choice is mobile learning devices, otherwise known as cell phones.  Let's face it, virtually every child possesses one of these powerful devices making it a cost effective option.  Many can be used as a research tool similar to a computer or as a student-response system when combined with a free Web 2.0 application like Poll Everywhere.  Like IWB's, they cater to both tactile and visual learners.  Add in the fact that kids love using them in school for learning makes this a compelling choice in my eyes.

So I would love to hear your opinion on this!  What do you think is the most effective classroom technology and why?