Saturday, February 4, 2017

Choosing Sides

This past Friday I was interested to know what my students thoughts were about the outcome of this year's Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons.  Before I reveal their thoughts to you though I must tell you this; after caferful reflection, I blew it. That's right, you heard me.  Full disclosure, me a 22 year veteran teacher, I had a golden opportunity not to just find out what my students thought but why they thought that way, and I "dropped the ball."

While I did find out there is intense dislike for Tom Brady, some due to his success and some due to "deflategate", and I also gleaned that most of my students were tired of seeing the Patriots win. What I didn't find out was why they believed the Falcons would win the game.  Was it better Quarterback play? Did they believe that Atlanta' defense could stop the potent New England offense ? Was it because of an advantage on Special Teams. Why? I will never know because I never asked them to quantify their response. Fifteen yards, personal foul on yours truly and a loss of down.  Lesson learned!

In my 6th grade classroom there is no shortage of opinions on anything and that's a good thing. I want my students to be partners in a community with an ever evolving culture where they can confidently speak their mind on a variety of subjects. More importantly though I want them to know that they are accountable for how they form their thoughts and why they "choose the side " that they do.  I need to ask them questions and they need to question themselves.  When this occurs it allows the opportunity for both the students and their teacher to engage in reflective practices. Ultimately that will lead to individual growth and produce life long learners. 

Oh , before I forget, the results of the poll, Falcons over the Patriots by a three to one margin 58 to 19. Interestingly, 19 students said that they didn't care.  Why were these the results when I polled my 6th graders from Central New Jersey? I can only imagine.  I think I will go back in on Monday and ask them.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Giving Thanks

Thank you Dr. King for having the courage to challenge authority and conformity. For lighting the path to change with civil disobedience , as opposed to violence and venom. For being willing to climb to the mountain top despite being knocked down repeatedly. For seeking the fulfillment of your dream, knowing that it held the promise of a better life for all of the future generations to come.

Thank you to all of those who followed Dr. King, for believing that our best days always lied just ahead. For those that endured the injustices and fought peacefully seeking justice. For those that sang a hymn or lit a candle, or refused to be treated like a second class citizen, thank you.

Thank you to those who serve, in the hospitals, in the schools, on the front lines protecting our freedom, those who patrol the streets or fight the fires. To all that serve in the churches or government offices, thank you for continuing his legacy. When we serve each other we strengthen the ties that bond us as citizens and our nation prospers.

Thank you in the months ahead for being willing to move forward with a clear mind, but being vigilant at the same time.  Thank you for being willing to hold our leaders accountable to the highest social and political standards. Thank you for taking the necessary steps to maintain peace and harmony.  Thank you for carrying the torch to continue Dr. King's legacy. The light will always shine on this great nation as long as we continue to be the guardians of his dream.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Full Circle

"There are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."
    `Edith Wharton~

In 1989, my career in education began when Harry Conover the former Athletic Director at Lawrence High School decided to take a chance on me and hire me as the assistant Winter Track coach. Beyond the opportunity to work with young student athletes every day, the thing that thrilled me the most was the opportunity to coach against the men who had coached me as an athlete, during my years at Steinert High School. My passion for, and knowledge of the sport was a direct result of their influence on me. Over the next six years being able to develop a positive professional relationship with these men who had mentored me as my coaches, is something I will cherish forever. Every chance I was given to spend time with them as a peer and learn from them as a coach, brought me great joy and enriched me professionally. I only hope they realized the gratitude that I felt towards them, as they assisted in my professional and personal growth.  They all have had an immeasurable influence on my life as an athlete, a coach, an educator and a man.

This September I began my 28th year as an educator. Six years were spent coaching High School athletes and the last twenty two teaching Social Studies to middle school students.  The rewards have been plentiful, but the ones that have brought the most joy involve learning about the successes of my former students, as adults. At least twenty former students are educators as I publish this post.  The following are some of the stories of former students and the current stages of their journeys.

Chris Katzman is a fifth grade teacher at the Drew School in East Windsor who teaches with my wife.  He is an outstanding educator and is beloved by his students.I had the opportunity to coach and teach Chris and I knew in middle school that he was a born leader.   Last year I attended his wedding. Watching him write that new chapter in his life was amazingly special.

Brian Williams is the Vocal Musical Director at Robbinsville High School, He develops amazing voices and directs School Musical performances that are first rate. I have seen several  performances over the years from the choir and from the musicals that he has directed and I always walk away impressed and inspired.  He is a gifted educator.

Kyle Gafgen is a Physical Educational teacher in East Windsor and the Head Track coach at Kreps Middle School. When I coached him in middle school he was quite the speedster. The last time I saw him he led his team to victory against our team at Pond Road a few years ago.

Marissa Dilts is an outstanding 4th grade teacher at Sharon Elementary School and is a valued member of my PLN. Recently we engaged in a district hashtag conversation about professional growth and New Year's resolutions on Twitter. She continues to nurture young lives and enriches our district.

Casey Kennette is an elementary school teacher in Edison New Jersey who implements an innovative 4th grade program. A few summers ago she showed campers the "ropes" at the Rambling Pines Day  Camp in Hopewell and I was privileged to serve as her supervisor. I learned first hand of her passion for teaching and her enthusiasm for working with children. I hear great things from administrators in her district about her performance as an educator.

Ben Hutchison continues his academic journey in the fall of 2017.  He begins the pursuit of his "passion", a career in History, on the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg University.  I wish him all the success that this new adventure affords him.  I especially look forward to learning about the experiences that take place when the learning environment takes the form of the most important Civil War battlefield in the northern United States.

These are just some of the success stories that reflect the paths chosen by former students in the field of Education or History. I consider myself fortunate to have had a front row seat for at least part of their journey. I am proud of everything that they continue to achieve and of the productive, contributing adults that they have become.

A few years ago my friend, mentor and former coach Gerry Bleistein after learning that one of my former athletes had coached against me and had coached his team to victory said " see it comes full circle". I always knew it would, I just never thought it would happen so soon.

(This post is dedicated to all of my students past and present who continue to inspire me each and every day.)

Friday, December 9, 2016

Getting A Read on Things

When attempting to learn how my middle school students feel about things relating to their learning, there is something that I learned long ago. Simply ask them and they will be more than happy to tell you. If it is something that they are passionate about the conversations can be riveting.  

Recently our district communicated a need for the Social Studies department to integrate teaching nonfiction into its curriculum. Our PLC has dedicated its energy this year to implementing this and professional development sessions have been provided by our Literary coaches to assist in this process.  Recently, I decided to take the temperature of my students regarding their feelings about reading nonfiction text. I posed two basic questions, first I wanted to know which type of literature they preferred (fiction or nonfiction), second I wanted to know what challenges they faced when reading nonfiction text and how they overcome them. The results revealed during the ensuing conversation told me a great deal about the attitudes of my students toward reading.

The answer to the first question indicated a much stronger preference for fiction. However some students indicated that they enjoyed both types, while a significant minority made a strong defense supporting their preference for nonfiction.   The following are responses that favored fiction:

"Fiction is the best  because it lets you use your imagination and can take you to wonderful places." 

Fiction is better because it is in its own world and that allows you to use your imagination."

"Something new and different happens that can't happen here in the real world." 

"I like fiction because it really draws you in."

 I prefer fiction because realistic fiction could really happen and fiction can be like a mind movie."

 While I was not surprised by their arguments I was thrilled by the passion that they used to defend their preference. There was no doubt based on their responses that fiction was the best choice for them. They clearly communicated that fiction was the better alternative because it offered them things that nonfiction did not, specifically a chance to use their imagination and created an opportunity to escape a harsh world. 

As a reader who prefers nonfiction, I was anxious to learn the attitudes of my students who preferred nonfiction. Many of their responses mirrored the reasons that explain why I reach for the nonfiction before the fiction.  They shared the following:

 "I like learning and consuming different facts."

 " I like learning about things that really happened.

" Nonfiction is interesting because there are amazing stories about amazing people."

 "Its interesting and I like learning new things."

 " I like reading sports books." 

  "Nonfiction tells about the world."  

There was little question here that these students understood the value of reading nonfiction and gravitated to it because they had opportunities to explore things of interest and ultimately stoke their passions towards these specific subjects.  

Next I wanted to reinforce with them two very important points.

 One, reading is a life skill and regardless of what you prefer, the important thing is that you read.

Two, nonfiction reading is going to be a necessary part of their academic life moving forward and it is important to develop strategies that increased their confidence when pursuing nonfiction text.

The next step was to sift through the challenges related to nonfiction reading and to develop solutions  that would help them successfully navigate non fiction text. My students indicated that technical vocabulary, text organization, blandness of content, length of text, handling raw emotional real content and having to read text being written at reading level above their current level all presented challenges for them.

Some of the strategies that were suggested to overcome these challenges were generated by both the teachers in the room and the students. They included pre-reading passages and highlighting unfamiliar vocabulary, looking for topics within selected text that sparked interest and do research that goes beyond the text, rewriting summary passages in their own words to help improve comprehension, taking breaks that allows you to walk away from the text, using text features provided, write questions that you have prior to reading and then look for the answers, and finally make connections with the text and reread material that was particularly challenging.

After sharing and discussing these strategies the apprehension of my students toward nonfiction text appeared to ebb. They appeared ready to implement these strategies and I was excited to see how they would tackle the nonfiction text that we had prepared for them on the "early human ancestors" and their achievements." They listened intently during the introduction of a "text markup strategy" and upon conclusion attacked the text with both readiness and enthusiasm.

In an effort to motivate my students to move their reading beyond their comfort zones, I vowed to read a book that would move me out of mine.  I revealed to them that I had never read a "fantasy" novel or any of the Harry Potter Series. I pledged to read my first Harry Potter novel and challenged my students to read a type of literature either fiction or nonfiction that would take them out of their comfort zone. Currently I have completed about a third of the novel and communicated this to my students. They reacted enthusiastically eagerly wanting to know how I enjoyed it so far.  I look forward to future conversations that allows for a deeper level of interaction regarding the book.  On their end some of the students have made great strides already. Some have chosen their novels and some have even finished them. This has definitely created a new and noticeable level of excitement within our classroom community.  

When we take the time to "get a read" on our students interests, the potential exists for significant learning for both the teacher and the student.  If we are to facilitate a love of life long learning, taking their temperature regarding various approaches to learning is an absolute must.

(This post is dedicated to my longtime friend and teammate Kathy St.John. Her contributions throughout these discussions provided valuable insights, strategies and feedback. She continues to push student thinking and causes me too reflect and grow on a consistent basis.)

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Bond Shared by Fans

How does one explain this unmistakeable bond that occurs when humans share loyalty and a rooting interest for the same professional sports team? It is one of the few examples in life where difference in gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or political party becomes irrelevant. If we share a passion for the same team, we are family.  When the team that we root for wins a championship, the shared euphoria that strengthens our bond, becomes incomprehensible.

As a longtime Philadelphia sports fan I have experienced this on a few occasions; twice with the Flyers and Phillies and once with the 76ers. When these teams won their championships, the exhiliration felt in the Delaware Valley reached unprecedented levels. Millions of fans turned out for celebratory parades. They embraced the success that they truly believed they had an impact on, and they put aside all that might otherwise divide them. Strangers celebrated as family, these moments temporarily frozen in time and reveled in the recent success that the championship had brought to their city.

This past Thursday one of the most loyal fan bases in the nation finally experienced a unique feeling of jubilation that only a championship can bring. Within the past 108 years there had been many failures and bizarre near misses that prevented championship success. (See Steve Bartman). However, the futility experienced by the Chicago Cubs did not sever the ties that bonded their fans, quite the opposite is true.  As the years passed, new generations were added to this suffering yet resilient fan base and their resolve to root for a World Series Champion never wavered.  Game after game they filled the seats at Wrigley Field, (put a visit on your bucket list) they faithfully patronized their favorite watering holes and they wore the phrase, "wait until next year" as a badge of honor.

 Eleven wins during October and November of 2016 changed the fortunes of the Chicago Cubs and their fan base forever.  When Wednesday gave way to Thursday this past week, with the championship secured, tremors were felt that would rock the foundation of this fan base from Cleveland to Chicago. No longer were they united by misery that came from years of futility. On this historic evening, misery would be replaced by an ecstasy that only winning World Series titles can bring.  Once bonded by misery they were now bonded forever by championship glory. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Lunch Bunch

Last year our middle school made some revisions to our schedule across all grade levels that would present new challenges for our students. We added time to our instructional periods, added Spanish as part of the core content team, and went from a 9 period day to one with only 8 periods. Lost as a result of these changes was our Flex period which empowered our students to complete homework, makeup tests and seek extra help from their teachers. Having this period included in their day traditionally eased the transition for our students from fifth to sixth grade.

The challenge that faced our team was providing time in our instructional day to meet the needs of our students that went beyond the instructional class period. The solution evolved organically as dedicated teachers began inviting students to join them for lunch.  An opportunity to build relationships with our students while providing individualized instruction began taking shape. Initially a few students took advantage of the opportunity and then they began inviting their peers. In the meantime a relaxed environment was created where students took advantage of the chance to connect with their peers and their teachers.  Thus the "Lunch Bunch" was born.

Our students demonstrated improvement and were experiencing academic growth because they were willing to buy into this lunch time enrichment opportunity. Their commitment to their learning definitely was paying huge dividends. 

The success of the first year led to a willingness to continue the initiative this year.  Earlier this week I experienced a session with our "Lunch Bunch" in Mr. Hughes's classroom. Students were eating lunch, interacting with peers, working on Math assignments and soliciting the guidance of Mr. Hughes.  I was impressed by the relaxed yet structured environment that Mr. Hughes had voluntarily created. Students were taking advantage of the chance to improve in Math and build relationships with their peers and teachers.  Joyful learning was evident throughout the classroom.

The responsibility of educating today's youth presents monumental challenges in the 21st century. As a sixth grade team leader I am proud of the innovative initiatives implemented by our team to meet these challenges and help our students. The creation of the "Lunch Bunch" is yet another exemplary method, designed to do just that. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Year of Wonder

Sitting here on the eve of the 2016/17 school year I excitedly begin to wonder what the next ten months will yield for my immediate and extended family.

 My oldest son Peter, a senior, will begin his final year of his public school education. I wonder what thrilling, nostalgic and anxious moments await as he looks to put himself in a position to continue his education at the collegiate level?  Where will he apply? Who will accept his application? Who will he choose? Am I ready for him to leave and carve his own independent path? All of these questions will be answered in time but for now they are unsettling to say the least.

My youngest son Scott will enter his sophomore year of high school. Learning how to drive is sure to be high on his list of priorities. I wonder about the challenges that lie ahead as we all take an active role in this teenage rite of passage. I also wonder about his pursuit of academic success and his joy for learning. Will his relationships with his teachers this year start to positively influence his future path towards success? More importantly will he experience growth this year that builds confidence and causes him to seek more opportunities for success?

My niece Molly will start kindergarten and with it begin her public education journey. I wonder: Will she be a leader? Will technology influence her learning? Will her teacher be student centered? How will she relate and interact with her peers? I look forward to our Friday dinner  conversations as these mysteries begin to be clarified. One thing is for sure; it will be difficult to surpass the state of wonder  that surrounds those first 180 days.

My wife Jennifer begins her 28th year as a public school educator. In her current role as School Counselor she is responsible for the social and emotional well being of 700 students. I wonder how being taken out of the speciality rotation will positively impact her ability to meet the social/emotional needs of her students? I wonder if the students, staff and families truly understand how genuinely compassionate and caring she is about her school family? I wonder what new challenges she will be faced with as she continues to lead them with passion and purpose?

As I begin my 22nd year as a middle school educator there are plenty of things fueling my curiousity. I wonder what the gifts of this year's students will be? I wonder what their passions are?  I wonder how they will demonstrate how much they care for each other? I wonder how they will share their voice and what their choices will be? I wonder how successful we all will be in building a positive classroom culture and community? 

I look forward to the next ten months as we as a family prepare to confront new academic, social and emotional challenges. I wonder where the paths will lead us but, when all is said and done, and the last bell has rung, I wonder what I will be left to wonder about next?