Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Exercises in Gratitude

Throughout the course of the past few days my students and I took advantage of several opportunities to express our "gratitude." With the onset of the Thanksgiving holiday quickly approaching  the timing was particularly appropriate. I expected my students to express gratitude for their family, their friends, their homes and their pets. With each conversation their responses did not fall short of my anticipated expectations. After 20 years of teaching and learning, you develop an understanding of the middle school students mindset. However, what unfolded became an unexpected surprise as the exercise quickly developed into a learning experience. 

For the past couple of weeks we have been investigating the challenges that  the Paleolithic humans had faced in attempting to fullfill their basic needs.  My students are well aware of the struggles that their ancestors faced due to various physiological and environmental factors. I was impressed during the "exercise of gratitude" that my students were grateful for their ability to meet their basic needs and for the efforts of others to provide for them. It was obvious to me that in considering their own gratitude that they were reflecting upon the challenges that were faced by prehistoric cultures. They were expressing gratitude for not having to endure similar circumstances. This was not something that I had expected to learn as the exercise progressed but was thrilled when I realized that this had become one of the outcomes.

The exercise would also teach me a valuable lesson about stretching the thinking of my students. During this exercise my most  "social "group of students revealed themselves as my deepest and reflective thinkers. When asked about what they were grateful for, they provided responses that reflected a great deal of contemplation. Their answers revealed an obvious depth of thinking and the exercise unexpectedly taught me a great deal about their willingness to stretch their thinking. These students were eagerly awaiting the opportunity to stretch their thinking. This question of  "gratitude" had peaked their interest, and their responses  revealed, passionate reflection and genuine enthusiasm. 

However, this exercise did not produce the same result with all of my classes as other groups of students gave one word answers to the question. They seemed reluctant to push the limits of their thinking and their responses seemed to indicate a lack of confidence or a lack of interest. What is clear with the later group is that new strategies need to be implemented in an effort to stretch their thinking, build their confidence and spark their interest.

As I prepare to enjoy Thanksgiving with my family, I am grateful for the love of my family and friends as well as all of the positive influences that have shaped the course of my life within the past eleven months. Additionally I am grateful for the gifts bestowed upon me by my students when they are least expected. It is those gifts that teach me the most valuable lessons and allow for my maximum professional and personal growth.

Friday, November 14, 2014



" And suddenly you know its time to start something new and trust the magic of new beginnings."
    Meister Eckert

The past eleven months since I began blogging have provided numerous opportunities to celebrate and reflect upon my experiences as a middle school educator.  This has been a year full of milestones both professionally and personally, having started my twentieth year as a middle school educator, celebrating my fiftieth birthday and this April, my wife and I will celebrate twenty years of marriage.  Throughout these past twenty years I have benefited greatly from the guiding and supportive hands of many experienced educators who I am fortunate to call friends. The relationships that I have built with peers, students, administrators and parents throughout my career have made a profound impact on my success as an educator. While my career is one which I reflect upon proudly, the early chapters of my professional story go well beyond the walls of Pond Road Middle School.

The journey actually began approximately 10 miles North in Lawrence Township twenty five years ago. I began working as a substitute teacher and was eventually hired as an assistant Winter Track Coach at Lawrence High School. From 1989-1995 I played an active role in helping to build a successful Track and Cross Country program until I eventually resigned in 1995.

Throughout those years I had the privilege of developing relationships and working with hundreds of quality students, athletes and coaches. The positive and consistent support that I received from my Athletic Director helped to shape the early years of my my career in education as well as my young adult life. 
These experiences during the my early years were full of life lessons that would ultimately have a lasting impact on me as an educator.  While observing the maturity of many athletes and students, my experiences with them was also part of my maturation process. Indeed it was a time when we were all coming of age, albeit at different periods of our lives.

The athletes that I was fortunate to coach directly, or watch develop taught me the value of respect, responsibility and trust. These are values that I still have the highest regard for, even today. Although I have lost contact with most of them, every once in awhile I will learn of their successes.  To actually be able to learn of their success in the adult world as a contributing member of society is indeed
quite gratifying. 

In turn, I am full of gratitude and appreciation for the countless number of veteran educators, and administrators from Lawrence Township who recognized the potential that lived inside of me.  Their mentoring allowed me to continue to move forward in this profession, ultimately enabling me to make a positive difference in the lives of thousands of young people, as both a teacher and a coach.

The foundation for my success took root a long time ago in the halls of the Lawrence Township public schools. My experiences there and the relationships that were forged there, still occupy a special place in my heart. I am reminded that every journey must have a starting line and a finish line. While the finish line for this journey looms in the distant future, I will always be grateful to the people of Lawrence Township for providing the starting line.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Living Outside of the Comfort Zone

Teaching children of the 21st century we are consistently encouraging them to live outside of their comfort zones and take risks. We do this for various reasons. One, we want them comfortable with the idea of "taking chances" despite the possibility of failure, two , we believe that the growth potential can be exponential with each risk that is taken and three, it will stretch their capacity to learn over the  course of their lifetimes.

Lifelong learners ourselves we must lead the way and embrace this concept of risk taking as well. If we expect our students to fully buy in to the idea, then we must demonstrate a courageous mindset. One that reflects potential failures and gains. Moreover, we must be willing to openly share these pursuits and their results, if we expect the same of our students. 

Within the past two months I have been
confronted with situations in my personal and professional lives that have required me to make multiple courageous  decisions. Each decision required a departure from my "safe" or comfortable life. They were not easily made and were given careful consideration. However the leap outside of the comfort zone has paid great dividends on all recent occasions.

Had I not decided to fly to New Orleans by myself to attend a National Education conference  (#ecet2Nola) I would have denied myself one of the most enriching experiences of my professional life. I would have missed out on collaborating with amazing educators from my state and throughout the entire nation. I would have missed out on a chance to be part of over 300 teachers parading down Bourbon Street, escorted by a High School Band and local law enforcement. (Talk about elevating and celebrating. Wow!)  I would have missed on a chance to improve my craft in ways that would ultimately benefit my students.

Had I not decided to play on a PGA golf course ( the longest one in Disney World) I would have missed out on an amazing bonding opportunity that my oldest son and I will remember for the rest of our lives. He is still talking about how we played on a course that the great "Tiger" Woods played on.  Furthermore had I not taken advantage of the opportunity to tackle the highest water slide in the world (Summit Plummit) with my youngest son Scott, I would have squandered an authentic opportunity to demonstrate my willingness and the importance of taking risks to my son. We both successfully embraced and completed the challenge and it was awesome to hear him say that this was the highlight of our trip.

As the adults of the 21st century we must continue to cultivate opportunities for our children to push their limits and take risks. We must do so in an environment that presents failure as the "first attempt in learning" and remove inhibitors that may cause them to dwell within their comfort zone. Lastly we must celebrate the risk and the result if our children are expected to achieve their true growth potential as both learners and contributors.