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?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

5 Days of Musical Joy

For five days, from August 1st through the 5th, collaboration, passion, connection, energy, enthusiasm and joy permeated our little corner of the Sourland Mountains at Rambling Pines Day Camp.

 Week six of our 41st season commenced with a visit and performance from Bassoonist Michael Martin. Martin is a former camper and counselor, now a junior music major at Rutgers University.  He entertained our young campers with a beautiful piece on the  Bassoon, while accompanied by our talented music teacher Maura Tuffy on the piano.

On Tuesday afternoon youngsters from Miss Tuffy's music classes gathered to listen and learn about the beautiful sounds produced by the Bassoon. Immediately evident was the high interest level of the campers, as they listened attentively and asked intelligent questions, as each opportunity arose. Clearly Tuffy's passion for music has been absorbed by these campers, as a result of her tutlelage thus far this season. 

Martin started by providing a short tutorial on the history of the bassoon and its inner workings for his young audience. Then he and Tuffy performed an eloquent piece of music for the campers. Their synchronization throughout the performance was impressive, as each would wait for the other at various points of the piece, before continuing to play. Both patience and chemistry characterized the performance of these two young artists. Throughout the tutorial and performance Martin's passion for music was obvious, but most impressive was the patient and enthusiastic manner that he displayed while he interacted with the campers. It's not hard to imagine him one day guiding talented youngsters in a music classroom of his own.

On Wednesday we switched gears and it was time for our young vocalists to prepare for center stage. Rehearsals were well underway for the Karaoke performances that awaited us on Thursday and Friday.  Again our music teacher Maura Tuffy was in the center of it all, this time partnering with our inspiring Dance teacher Lindsey Sanford. Both were hard at work choreographing moves and advising the vocalists.  When showtime finally arrived Tuffy served as emcee and Sanford guided each group and their series of moves from the crowd. 

Some of the songs included "Buttercup", "Can't Stop this Feeling", "Here Comes the Sun" and many other choices that excited the performers and the audience. The energy from the performers and the obvious pride displayed by Tuffy and Sanford elevated the joy of the audiences to new heights. Especially thrilling was the rhythmic connections that were present with each group's performance.

As a parent I was overcome with pride as I watched both of my sons take an active role in this year's show. Peter stood proudly on the sidelines directing his group, while Scott performed and helped his group fulfill a unique rendition of the song " Sweatshirt". 

Music was in great supply all week long. Counselors, campers, our music  and dance specialists spent hours of preparation for what they hoped would cap off a special Karaoke program. The result was two days of memorable performances where music lifted the hearts of both the performers and the audience. When all was said and done our camp enjoyed an unprecedented five days of musical joy in August.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Telling It Like It Is!

"This is Howard Cosell telling it like it is" was a statement I heard often in my youth and early adult years. It was the unique manner in which the legendary  Cosell would close a sports broadcast or an interview with a prominent sports celebrity. This was Cosell's method of providing the viewer or listener with perspective or feedback.  As humans we seek feedback for multiple reasons, including guidance, support, growth, and positive reinforcement. We also are empowered with the opportunities to provide it. 

Our physical and social emotional development from a very early age hinges on the feedback that we receive from others. Ultimately it shapes both our personality and behavior. We must consider this when we deliver it orally or in writing. Before delivering feedback it is essential that we build relationships first, in order to establish trust and respect with those who will eventually receive it. 

As an educator one of the most important parts of my job is to deliver feedback to my students and colleagues.  Experience has taught me that positive comments need to precede constructive criticism. Moreover it is most effective when it is immediate and specific. My students traditionally appreciate a narrative that accompanies the grade for their assignments as it allows them to implement suggestions and build on their performance.  They also appreciate positive affirmations that follow their oral presentations, as they usually light up after receiving them.

My students are also given a voice and provide oral and written feedback often on the structuring and implementation of assignments. Teaching them the appropriate manner to deliver feedback is a vital part of their growth as well. They learn the appropriate manner in which to deliver constructive criticism and feel validated as a result. This reflexive practice continues to be a vital resource for my own professional growth and strengthens my pedagogy.  The feedback that I receive from them, helps to shape the way I design future assignments.

Throughout our lives we will provide and receive feedback for many different reasons and in many different forms. We truly are better as global citizens, when we seek help from each other and in turn when we reach out to help others. This is true at any age. While it is important to "tell it like it is", we are always best served when delivering feedback to do so in a positive manner and then keep an open mind when we are on the receiving end. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Change is not Always Wise!

My son was recently watching the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary entitled Doc and Darryl which focused on the at times brilliant often times tumultuous careers of Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry.  During the film they must have mentioned  the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League Eastern Division which prompted his question. "Dad did the Cardinals once play in the same division as our Phillies?"

You see, Peter was born in 1998 after the divisions had been realigned and the two central divisions were created. This occurring as a result of the addition of the expansion franchises in Florida and Colorado. He and the fans of his generation missed an era of great divisional rivalries which have since been altered by the advent of interleague play.

My childhood years featured classic battles with the Mets, Cardinals, Cubs, and cross state rival Pirates, at least 18 times during the year.  This weekend as the Phillies and Pirates squared off for three of their seven games of the season I couldn't help but recall the epic battles of yesteryear with Schmidt, Carlton, Stargell and Parker. It brought to mind the question; What have we have we really gained by historic schedule changes since the incorporation of " Interleague Play"?

 These two Pennsylvania rivals will only play each other seven times this season while the Phils and the American League's Chicago White Sox will play a four game home and home series later this season.  How does the fan benefit from this peculiar brand of scheduling? One must ask the question, are these changes actually better for the game and it's fans? Interleague play makes some sense if the geography links the combatants (ie. Phillies vs Yankees) but does anyone really want to see the Philadelphia Phillies play the Seattle Mariners or the Oakland Athletics? This particular fan can provide a resounding "No" as a response. I would much rather see more relevant games with National League rivals as the opposition than suffer through basically irrelevant games with American League teams such as the Detroit Tigers.  I can't imagine that passionate fans of the game feel much differently. 

Recently on the Mike and Mike, morning drive time radio show on ESPN they invited baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to appear as a guest. One must ask, what in the name of Mariano Rivera was he thinking, when he discussed the effects that relief pitching has on the game and some potential changes.  Manfred indicated that they (relief pitchers) are so good that their effectiveness is actually robbing the game of late inning action. ("Ugh") Moreover, he goes on to say that discussions are underway to limit the amount of relief pitchers that a team can use per game.

  Again one must question the benefit of this change for the passionate baseball fan that may be forced to endure more unecessary alterations to the game. Ultimately you penalize the team that has bolstered its bullpen through farm system development and the calculated free agent addition. Shortening the game with stellar bullpen pitching has become a vital part of the formula for championship success of late.

The game of baseball is unique and continues to flourish even though football has replaced it as our national sport.  Baseball's leadership hierarchy neerds to stop tinkering with it in an effort to attract more fans in order to increase already substantial revenues. The game is fine, leave it alone. Please! The pace is slow because there is no clock and strategy is such a huge part of the games culture. The beauty of baseball is that all associated with the game benefit from its cerebral nature.

Change is good when it effects the safety of the players and rules are implemented that ensure longer careers for the players. However, ownership needs to pause and pump the breaks, when frivolous rule or scheduling changes don't have the best interests of the fan at heart and are only motivated by increasing the revenue within an already billion dollar industry.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Voice ( A Tribute to Vin Scully)

For the passionate baseball fan there are many ways to enjoy the baseball experience. You can attend the game live, listen to it on the radio, watch it on television or stream it to your favorite electronic device. More often than not though we cannot attend the games and must rely on one of these electronic mediums to watch or listen to the game unfold. We then place our needs as fans to be entertained and informed in the hands of a third party. The third party of course being those men and women who are broadcasting the game live on television or radio.

These broadcasters essentially become our entrusted storytellers night after night over the course of the 162 game season. We look forward to their perspective of the action as it unfolds, and there are times that we hang on their every word.

Historically there have been many men and recently women who enrich the baseball experience for the listener and viewer by spinning their nightly yarn in their own unique manner. 

One man however stands alone in terms of service, longevity, knowledge and devotion to our national sport and its fans.  In this his 67th and final season as the voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Vin Scully continues to entertain and inform his audiences about the on field action and the nuances of the game.

When Scully retires at the end of this season it will conclude a very long chapter in Dodger and baseball history. As a Dodger broadcaster he has been there for every World Championship, Pennant and Division Title. He was there in Brooklyn in 1955 when they beat the Yanks in seven games. He was there for Koufax's perfect game. He was there for Fernando Valenzuela and the mania that followed. He was there for Gibson's miracle blast against the A's in the World Series. He could easily write a history of the Los Angeles Dodgers because he has been there for it all. 

As for baseball, when he started there were only 16 teams. Today there are 30. There was a National League and an American League without divisions and the World Series began shortly after the regular season ended. Today there are six divisions and the post season lasts almost a month, sometimes finishing in November. There were no teams west of St. Louis. Today there are five teams in California and one in the state of Washington.  A great deal has changed structurally and organizationally throughout Scully's broadcasting tenure.

While the game has undergone transformative change for almost three quarters of a century, Scully's presence continues to bring needed consistency and stability for the avid fan. As a young fan I fondly recall his melodious voice calling the action as I watched National Game of the Week telecasts. His sunny disposition and knowedge always made the games more enjoyable.  I recall several friends commenting that it was as if he was singing the game as he was calling it. The more I listen today the more I realize that is true.

Recently thanks to the Extra Innings Baseball package I have had the opportunity to reconnect with the melodic sounds of a Vin Scully telecast. More importantly I have had the chance to share the experience with my son Peter who shares my passion for baseball. Along with the rich voice quality the thing that separates Scully from his peers today is that he provides both the play by play and the color commentary. 

Throughout the telecast he sprinkles in anecdotes relevant to both the Dodges and their opponents that day. At 88 this man still does his homework and is still at the top of his game. As a New Jersey native, I remember one late evening last season watching the Dodgers play the Reds. Todd Frazier was batting and Scully starts talking about Frazier's heroic performance as a pitcher helping Tom's River Little League win the Little League World Series in 1998. This further solidified for me the great respect and admiration that I have for the manner in which Scully approaches his craft each and every game. Clearly he continues to go to great lengths, conducting pregame research on player profiles, in order to establish a connection with his audience.

Three short months from now the sun will set on yet another baseball season and with it the end of Vin Sully's stellar broadcasting career. For the past 67 years Scully has steadfastly remained committed to his passion for both baseball and his craft. When the lights go out on the 2016 season, take a moment to tip your hat or raise your glass but be sure to pay tribute to this American treasure. This gem of a man who for the past 67 years has worked selflessly to bring joy to our hearts, by enhancing for us the thrill that only sport can bring.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Why I Write

Recently I read a post authored by my friend and colleague Blake Kilgore. This post was featured as part of colleague Jason Armstrong's "Write on Fight On" website.  In this post Blake details the reasons as to why he feels compelled to write. He is a man who I deeply respect. His writing is rich in substance and reflects strong faith and passion. His depth is what I admire most about him as a person and a writer.  

After reading his post I began to consider the same question Why do I write?. The following post is my comprehensive attempt to provide an answer.

Authenticity- I want my students to develop a life long love of learning. When I write and share my product with my students, I am modeling my life long love of learning and allowing them a glimpse at the benefits.

Passion- Writing gives me an opportunity to share ideas with an audience about topics that excite me and are extremely important to me. These include my family, my students, my craft and other interests. Furthermore my blog has given me a platform in which to reignite my passion for writing.

Inspiration- Since becoming a connected educator I have read hundreds of blog posts, many have left me feeling inspired upon completion. When I write about  topics that I am passionate about, it creates the opportunity for me to return the favor and inspire my audience. Each time that I craft a new post it is my sincere hope that I can elevate the spirit of my readers.

Tribute- My blog " The Power of Inspiration" along with other writing platforms allows me to pay tribute to people who have inspired me or positively influenced my life in some manner.

Reflection- My goal is to consistently improve in the various roles that I fulfill in my life. When I write,  it allows me the time for deep contemplation of the way things are currently, or how they can improve in the future. Ultimately my personal and professional growth occurs as a result of the time that I invest in reflective practices. My writing contributes tremendously to the growth  that I continue to strive for and hopefully attain.

Why do I write? There is no easy answer. 

 I write to elevate a love of life life long learning. 

I write to celebrate others and their achievements.

 I write to inspire. 

I write  to show gratitude. 

 Hopefully my writing will continue to have a positive influence on my life and with a little luck the lives of my readers.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

What's Next?

The last school bus has pulled out of the driveway for the last time. The routines that featured early rising, meeting friends at their locker to catch up on the latest gossip, participating in engaging activities and completing homework has quickly been replaced by summer vacation.  

Educators and students have once again been liberated from their daily responsibilities that binds them together for ten months.  Each now faced with that daunting question that only accompanies that last bell each June. What's next?

For the educator; some will press on, first tying up loose ends and then steadfastly preparing for the reopening of school in September. Some will head off into retirement and begin to transition into a life that is more tranquil and slow paced. Some will travel about the globe, absorbing the earth's majestic beauty. Some will "sharpen their saw"reflecting on the experiences of the past school year, attend conferences or pursue the written word  in order to fine tune their craft. Some will change hats and head off  to their summer employment. What's next? always leads to the writing of new and exciting chapters in our lives.
For our students,the fast paced, five day a week rigorous schedule has been replaced by a more leisurely life offered with the arrival of an eleven week summer vacation. For them it's time to reflect upon their recent social and academic growth. It's time to enjoy their recent success, consider failures and begin to set goals for the near future. 

Some will spend the upcoming days, sleeping in, earning money at summer jobs, spending time with friends and even looking to enrich their academic skill set. One thing is for certain. There will be plenty of time for joy and amusement as the summer of 2016 evolves.

The most promising element of life's journey is that while continuous, there are always beginnings and endings intertwined along the way. For students and teachers alike summer vacation offers us once again the opportunity not only to ponder but more importantly to explore , What's next? 

Exploring what comes next allows us to exit our comfort zone and invite adventure. We can approach the crossroads with apprehension or we can embrace the unknown with passionate enthusiasm. The decision will ultimately bring change and the need for adaptation. However, growth is only possible when we are willing to courageously pursue new opportunities, regardless of understanding the outcomes in advance.  

What' next is the  question, are you ready to search for the answer?


Thursday, May 26, 2016


Two years ago my neice Molly courageously left the comfort of her mother's care and headed off to preschool. Certainly there was trepidation as she headed into an unfamiliar environment, but her mother carefully prepared her for the challenges that awaited and she was willing to take the risk.

Yesterday on a sunny May morning I attended her preschool graduation and witnessed her finding courage once again, this time as she was preparing to leave the comfort of her preschool home and head off to Kindergarten. 

As the ceremony evolved I was immediately impressed by the strong relationships that had been fostered by the teachers with their young students.  This was never more evident as the students concluded thier singing performance and the program moved on to the distribution of awards.

Each graduate received an award and a comment about their future aspirations. Some were "most kind", while others were, "most funny"or "most dramatic." We learned that some of the children wanted to be firemen or policeman or teachers, and we were told of the inspiration behind each one.  Clearly these teachers had invested time and energy in building relationships with each one of their students over the course of the past two years.

As the ceremony neared conclusion it was time for one final song. This  was perhaps my favorite moment. I watched and listened to the graduates proudly and confidently sing " I don't know but I've been told that Kindergartens the place to be." 

While I am quite sure that my niece has mastered all of the necessary skills to be  "Kindergarten Ready", listening to the confident rendition of this song signaled to me that she also posesses the necessary social/emotional skills to take the next step on her educational journey.

Taking these steps into her kindergarten classroom will again force my neice to face new risks, but I am reminded of a Henry David Thoreau quote that calls for us to "go confidently in the direction of our dreams." Due to the guidance, support and nurturing of her preschool teachers, she is ready to do just that.

Friday, May 13, 2016

H is for Honor

For the past few months I have struggled with how to best craft this post. My greatest challenge has been to share the news of this wonderful honor with others and still come across as humble. What you are about to read is a reflection of my gratitude for the honors bestowed upon me, since being named the 2016 Teacher of the Year at Pond Road Middle School.

The past several months have featured administrators, colleagues, students and parents going to great lengths to honor my professional commitment to the community of Robbinsville. 

 It all began on a mild Friday afternoon in early January, when a celebratory party  including my Asisstant Superintendent, my Superintendent, my Principal, my Assistant Principal and my teammates arrived on my classroom doorstep and then proceeded to make their way inside.  My long time friend and our Assistant Superintendent then announced with great enthusiasm that I had been selected as our school's honoree for the 2016 Teacher of the Year.  A bouquet of flowers, hugs and congratulatory wishes followed from everyone present.I was overwhelmed with joy and overcome by emotion.

Later that afternoon came an announcement over the school intercom that I was the Pond Road Middle School Teacher of the Year. My 8th period class was estatic and voiced just how thrilled they were, raising the decibel level exponentially in the room. Outside in the hall students began to excitedly chant my last name and again I became emotional.  As the day came to a close many colleagues and former students stopped by with congratulatory wishes and hugs. This would become a day etched in my memory not to ever be forgotten. Telling my family that evening of the honor bestowed upon me was one of the proudest moments of my 21 year career.

A few months later, the sign in front of our school posted the news that I was being honored as the 2016 Teacher of the Year . In the days that followed, many people throughout the community have extended congratulatory wishes via cards, emails or in person. I've been touched by their gestures. I must admit to feeling a great deal of pride upon arrival and departure from school each day, as I take a passing glance at that sign.

Today I had the special privilege of attending two celebrations with the two other outstanding educators being honored by my district. Both Amanda Matticks and Jason Armstrong are exceptional educators and amazing people.

Jason is a reflective high School educator who understands the value of the written word. He uses writing to inspire and empower his students. Moreover, he continues to use writing as a transformative tool to assist with his own professional and personal growth.

Amanda is a primary school educator who gives tirelessly of herself to engage her students and empower them to adopt a lifelong love of learning. As a technology coach she also goes to great lengths to help her colleagues grow professionally, as 21st century educators.

The morning celebration started witha breakfast reception at our district offices. All of our district administrators rolled out the red carpet for us and treated us like royalty. They went to great lengths to make sure that our day was off to a great start. Mission Accomplished! I am grateful for all that they did to make this experience a special one I and will never forget their kind words and generous contributions in making this day memorable.

A short ride into Princeton and a luncheon honoring the Teachers of the Year recipients from throughout Mercer County at ETS followed our breakfast reception.  Brief welcome remarks and a moving speech from the 2016 New Jersey Teacher of the Year, started off our afternoon. Being in a room of passionate innovative educators who shared this award on this day was an honor in itself.

 A special bonus during the program was the inspiring speech by the 2015 Mercer County Teacher of the Year, our own Ed Holub. Ed's reflections included his own professional transformation toward becoming a student centered educator along with thoughts on the many daunting challenges that face our students today.

When the time came to recognize Robbinsville's recipients, again we were honored by the eloquent and heartfelt comments delivered by our acting Superintendent Kathie Foster who was accompanied by board member Tom Halm. The afternoon came to an end following the closing remarks.  We headed out into a steady rain but our hearts were full of sunshine as we made the trek home.

I am grateful for the measures that have been taken over the past several months by the various stakeholders within our school community, honoring my service and professionalism to our community.

I am especially honored by the steps taken by two cherished collegues and friends that believed me worthy of this award, early on in the nominating process.

While I am honored to represent the Robbinsviile School District as one of their three Teachers of the Year for 2016,  my greatest honor continues to be inspiring, educating and motivating  today's learners, as they prepare to make an impact on the world tomorrow.

( This post is dedicated in honor and memory of the late Dr. Steven Mayer who championed both kids and teachers and inspired me to inspire others.)

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Circle of Life

One life ends,another begins anew. This was the unusual juxtaposition of my thoughts on a recent Saturday morning in March.  I was in the midst of checking in on my friend and colleague via a direct message on the status of his unborn daughter, when I received a text from my brother that a life long family friend had passed. Immediately upon finishing the text I received a photo reply from my friend announcing the birth of his daughter.  The irony did not escape me as I began to reflect on the passing of my life long family friend.

Ginny Moyer (Miss Ginny as I referred to her in my youth)was the closest thing I ever had to a guardian angel. From the early days of my youth she gave me that extra attention that would make a huge difference in my life. Perhaps it was the knitting of a sweater, or an invitation to swim in her family pool with my siblings, or just a check in to see how things were going. Their were even times that called for a crack on the back side as a reminder that I needed to fly straight. 

Later as an adult with children of my own we spent many Christmas Eve's together
at my Mom's. Ginny and her husband Ralph, still all of these years later always took an enthusiastic interest in our lives.

Now they were watching the evolution of the next generation, and the same warmth that I felt as a child they extended to my children. Over the years Ginny continued to find ways to extend her love to our family. The knitting continued for the children but most importantly her prescence in our lives remained constant.  We were fortunate to share decades of memories and benefitted a great deal from her influence.

Ginny was a kind, selfless individual. She was a person of service who loved her family, her friends, her church and especially children. She was devoted to making life better for others and often went to great lengths to accomplish this.
Over the years when my life became tumultuous, it was her compassion and calming influence that helped to restore order in my life.  I will be forever grateful for her commitment to me and my family.

I don't know what the world has in store for Aubrey Passafero or the impact that she will make upon this world but I have observed first hand the impact that her
parents continue to make.  They are kind, genuine people with strong family values and high standards.  They have made it their lives vocation to serve others as educators of the highest  quality.  With their influence and guidance, their daughter no doubt will eventually put a positive footprint on the world that embodies all of their qualities.

As I look back on that March morning, I reflect with meloncholy upon the passing of my good friend Ginny Moyer. I also look ahead at the promising future of  Aubry Pasafero, the lives she will touch  and the hearts she will warm as well.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016


Our free speech rights are of the most precious afforded to us by the Constitution of this great nation. However we must recognize that while it creates an informed society it can also cause social discord leading to the polarization of our citizens. While "free speech" is not absolute and certainly carries specific constraints it is the restraint associated with this freedom that we should be more cognizant of.

Currently a movement has been set in motion that is fueling the Republican nomination bid of Donald Trump. This movement seeks to obliterate a "politically correct " mindset and is gaining traction throughout the land. This is both tragic and dangerous. Potentially we risk reversing decades of social progress. We face an almost certain return to a time of social unrest and violence if we permit the cultivation of a mindset that legitimizes the intolerance of cultural diversity.

Our classrooms and our homes are environments where children are educated about the importance of acceptance, respect, tolerance and even the celebration of our diversity.  Yet the rhetoric and ideology of Trump and his supporters consistently disavow the need for these values. 

If we have learned from the grevious mistakes of our past, then we must do everything to prevent the future generations from inheriting an environment in vast need of social and cultural repair.  We must be careful with who we empower to serve as our voice on near and distant shores. The leadership choices that we make currently and in the near future 
could bring catostrophic consequences if we fail to learn from the social and political failures which stunted the growth of previous generations.

 Electing leaders that abandon "political correctness" puts our national and personal security in immediate jeopardy.  Even worse it puts our children in a position where they will ultimately invest a large percentage of their adult life paying down a cultural debt fueled by social injustice and intolerance.

 The voice that speaks for the collective good needs to reign. This is the voice that calls for harmony over discord. This is the voice that embraces instead of shuns. This is the voice of compassion instead of insensitivity. When these are the voices that resonate from sea to shining sea then we will know the American Dream has moved closer to fullfillment. Then we can confidently pass the baton to the next generation and empower them to control their own destinies.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Always Make Time For Fun

"Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous"

Recently on Inspiration Monday, our 6th grade students were given the opportunity to reflect on the importance of having fun while learning. They expressed unanimously that when learning was fun they were more engaged and thus performed better academically.  Honestly, I was not surprised with their responses but I was thrilled that they were strongly voicing their learning preferences.

They were emphatic in all of my classes that hands on activities brought their learning experiences to life. Lab experiments were especially favored because they enabled direct involvement in the lessons.  They went on to discuss the joy that game playing brought to the learning experience, citing the fun of competing when using Kahoot or Quizlet.
Some even shared the fun they experienced, moving a beach ball throughout the room, during a Q & A review.

Of the five groups that I teach every day, a couple are particularly social. They often challenge each other's ideas and 
felt that creating a structured debate would be a more productive way to learn. 
Admittedly,  I have some early reservations about giving these groups the opportunity to engage in structured debate. However, if the proper scaffolds are put into place and we establish some group norms, I am confident that a memorable and meaningful learning experience will take place.

As the conversation continued the students really settled in. They felt more empowered to discuss their genuine concerns that were relevant to the learning proces.  One student candidly shared that they needed to move while learning because he had trouble attending for long stretches of time otherwise. This authentic nugget of information strengthened what I already knew about the importance of movement and engagement but I was thrilled that this particular student had the courage to share it.

My co-teacher Kathy St. John  continues to demonstrate a keen understanding for the value of movement. On several occasions this year, we have partnered to create station activities that focus on the various learning intelligences of our students. On all occasions our students have been highly motivated and engaged. Her leadership in the planning and the execution of these activities has been vital to the success of our classroom culture this year.

Another interesting revelation took place when our students were asked about having fun when learning independently.
Some students indicated that they take notes using different bright colors of ink, while others cited using food incentives as  they navigated through their study materials.  One student told us that they put  "gummy bears" on the printed page and when they finished reading several paragraphs, they would indulge. Another student told me how their Dad would provide them with a "sweet treat" based on their success during a study session.  Whatever steps were taken to make studying fun, all of my students indicated that they studied better when those steps were taken.

Educators including Dave Burgess and Julie Adams in their books "Teach Like a Pirate"and "Game Changers" respectively, emphasize the positive impact of engagement on student learning. Both publications share proven engagement best practices and are valuleable pedagogical resources. Their research verifies that students learn better when they are engaged and educators are embracing their philosophies around the globe.  

On a cold February day recently, my students reinforced at least three very important lessons for me that were pertinent to their learning.

1. They will provide honest and meaningful feedback about matters that impact their learning.

2. They are especially passionate about their learning when their learning is engaging and fun. (Using familer technology makes a definite difference.)

3. They will not hesitate to make suggestions on how to create a more fun and engaging learning culture.

Usually my intention is to bring inspiration to my students in various ways,especially on Monday. However on this particular Monday, my students inspired me. They inspired me with their commitment to our classroom community and culture. Through a series of honest and reflective answers, they reinforced the value of engagement and fun in learning. Moreover, they unwittingly challenged me to renew my commitment to providing both of these on a more consistent basis.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Broken Promise

Janet sat at her kitchen table drinking her evening cup of coffee as tears steamed down her face. The open windows allowed her to hear the waves crashing in the distance. The sound usually brought great comfort to her but tonight they did nothing but leave her unsettled.

Born and raised in Cape Cod, there was not much in life that brought her more joy than all that her beach community had to offer. She had built many strong relationships here as a young girl. Her ancestors were among the town founders and Janet's immediate family were active members of the community. Her father had recently retired after 50 years of service as mayor and her mother was on the executive board at Dawson Memorial Hospital. 

Janet had returned to the Cape fifteen years ago after a failed marriage that resulted in the ultimate departure of her husband without so much as a note. The pull of the shore, her family and a position teaching 2nd grade at the local grammar school made the decision to return home an easy one. With each passing day it was obvious that coming home was the right decision.  Old friendships were renewed and the charm of this wonderful place made her wonder why she had ever left in the first place. There was nothing in life that she was more passionate about, than her hometown. Except for him, he was the love of her life.

Kevin Hope had recently celebrated his 15th birthday on Labor Day weekend at a clambake for the ages. The party was attended by his mother Janet, his grandparents, and a large assortment of family and friends. High School had followed shortly thereafter and Kevin was adjusting nicely. He and his friends were keeping busy with their studies, playing football and still finding time to fish on the beach.

Kevin's dad had left when he was just six  months old and made a decision not to be an active part of his life. He didn't know much about him other than what his Mom referred to him as - the man who she loved once but misjudged. He was not ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood and left one day never to be heard from again. For 15 years Kevin had grown up in a loving home raised by his devoted mother and strongly supported by his extended family.

His grandfather and he had an especially strong bond. He taught him how to swim, how to catch a baseball and most importantly how to catch Stripers. Over the years Kevin's passion for the Cape would match his mothers and he couldn't imagine a better place to grow up.  Year after year he and his grandfather would enter the annual Striper fishing competition and every year they would emerge with the largest Striper.

Fishing was one of Kevin's greatest passions in life and he always looked for opportunities to get to the beach and fish.  The running joke with all that knew him was that, " if you couldn't find Kevin, head to the beach on 51st Street and look for the kid with the fishing pole in front of him.  

Unfortunately Kevin's new schedule allowed little time for fishing. After a few weeks Kevin became frustrated with his inability to manage his new schedule to acccomadate his love for fishing.  Eventually he devised a plan to skip some morning classes a day or two a week in order to steal some time away at the beach and fish.  Kevin's classes were large and his absence went unnoticed at first. He would usually arrive in time for lunch and then resume his day as scheduled.

 Balance was returning to his life and Kevin was happy to be able spend some quality alone time doing one of the things he enjoyed most in life, fishing for Striped Bass.

 For awhile no one was the wiser to his morning excursions. Then one day there was a substitute teacher in Mr. Mooring's Science class who kept meticulous records. Miss Watts had finished taking attendance and noticed that Kevin Hope's name did not appear on the attendance list. She called theschool attendance officer who verified that Kevin was not in school and not marked absent. The attendance officers next move was to call Kevin's mom to inform her that Kevin was currently unaccounted for.

On this beautiful Tuesday morning Janet had just returned to her classroom after dropping her students off at their Music class.  As she prepared to grade some papers the phone rang and the voice on the other end informed her that Kevin turned up absent in Science and was currently unaccounted for after a thorough search.

Janet was alarmed at first but then remembered Kevin complaining lately about not having enough time to fish. She thanked the attendance officer for the call and told her she had a pretty good idea where he was. 

Janet arranged for coverage and headed for the beach. As she pulled up to 51st Street she noticed a boy about Kevin's height with headphones on, standing next to his fishing pole. As she got closer there was no doubt that it was Kevin, who had cut class to go fishing.

As Kevin turned to start packing up, he saw a shocking sight. His mother was 15 yards away and heading towards him. The gig was up and his morning fishing excursions were about to come to a quick halt.

After listening to his mom share how disappointed and worried she was, and telling Kevin how important his education was to his future, they headed back to school.  Kevin tried to tell his side of the story but realized the error of his ways and vowed to stop cutting class.  On the ride back to school Janet grounded Kevin and told him that he was not allowed to fish for a full month. Kevin protested but accepted the punishment.

The fall went by without further incident and then a colder and snowier than usual winter settled in. Storm after storm had forced the residents of the Cape inside throughout most of the winter. Kevin was itching to get to the beach and go fishing, but conditions just wouldn't allow  it.

When spring finally arrived Kevin was thrilled that not only were his Redsox poised to make a run at the pennant but calmer oceans meant the fish would be running soon.

One afternoon after school on a day when a downpour had forced the postponement of his baseball game, Kevin decided to go fishing.  Excitedly he headed home grabbed his fishing gear and headed for the beach. In his haste to get to the beach he forgot to call his Mom and tell her. 

Eventually Janet arrived at the game only to find out that the game had been postponed. Some of the boys were still hanging around and told her that hadn't seen Kevin since fourth period.  Not happy to hear that news she headed for home. When she arrived home she noticed that she had two voicemails. The first was from the school attendence officer informing her that Kevin had cut last period. In anger she rushed to her car and headed for the beach. In her haste she never listened to the second message.

When Janet arrived at the 51st Street beach she was beyond angry. Not only was Kevin cutting school again but he had broken his promise to her and that was heartbreaking.  When she finally arrived at Kevin's fishing spot a joyful Kevin turned and greeted her with a hug and kiss. The look on Janet's face though indicated this was not a coincidental or happy visit. Kevin had caught a 50 lb. Striper and was beyond thrilled to share the news, but his Mom's look worried him. She asked him to pack up immediately and head for the car.

On the way home she began to cry because after informing Kevin about the phone call and the "broken promise" he denied it.  He insisted that he went fishing after school only when he found out the game had been postponed, but had been in school all day. Not only did he break a promise Janet thought, but now he was lying too. This was unacceptable. Janet's next move was to ground Kevin from fishing for two whole months. It would be June before he fished again.  This was more than Kevin could take. He couldn't fish for two months and the most important person in his life thought he was a liar. Distraught he ran out of the car as they pulled in the driveway and headed in a direction away from his home.

Sitting at her kitchen table, Janet called her dad in tears and told him the details of the conflict with Kevin which ended with him running off. Her dad reassured her that things would work out and that he had a good idea where he was.

Sure enough Kevin's grandpa found him drinking a milkshake at their favorite ice cream shop on the Cape called Soft and Sweet. After calling Janet to tell her he found Kevin, he talked to Kevin and assured him that things would work out. Full from the milkshake and satisfied with the conversation, Kevin and his grandfather headed for home.

After hanging up with her dad and learning that Kevin was okay, Janet noticed that there was an additional voice mail message. The school attendance officer was calling back to apologize for the first phone call. It was actually Kevin Jones and not Kevin Hope who had cut last period. The school had regretted the error.  

As Janet hung up the phone she began to cry tears of joy and tears of sadness all at once. Her son was not lying and had not broken a promise after all, but she had refused to believe him despite his assurances otherwise. Now it turns out that his entire story checked out.  How would she repair the damage done to the one relationship in her life that mattered most?

When Kevin returned home a few minutes later it was apparent that his Mom had been crying.  Kevin sat down at the table and listened to Janet's apology. Then he listened as she shared the details of both voicemails. Angry at first Kevin eventually turned empathetic, telling his Mom that he understood why she reacted in the manner she did.  While Janet felt much better now that they had cleared the air, she still had more to say.

She told Kevin that she learned a valuable lesson on this day that would serve her well as both a teacher and a parent. She went on to say that two plus two doesn't always add up to four.  When you gather your facts and confront someone else with your evidence, you should always leave room for doubt and other possible explanations. When you dig in and refuse to listen, you close the door to all other possibilities.  Most importantly you forget to allow for the possibility that things are not always as they seem and perhaps you are being told the truth.  As she found out on this day this can often be the case.  She promised Kevin to keep an open mind in the future and always give him the benefit of the doubt. Kevin nodded, smiled and asked his mother if she could cook him a burger because while the milkshake was a good snack he was still rather hungry.

Janet smiled and replied that takeout was a better plan. Kevin smiled in agreement and said "deal."  They got in the car and headed down the road to their favorite fast food place. As they pulled into Bob's Burger Bonanza they observed a beautiful sunset, thus signaling an end to what had become an emotional and exhausting day.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Words to Live By

""They say a word begins to die when it's been said. I say it's just begun to live."
-Emily Dickinson 

A few years ago I began to realize the inspirational power of Jon Gordon's gifts as a writer, when I read The Energy Bus. The lessons which included taking responsibility for ones own life, making good choices and surrounding yourself with positive people all resonated with me at the time, as I was undergoing a personal and professional transformation.    I was looking to grow and Jon's book was contributing to the inspiration. 

Last year in early January, I read a blog post written by Gordon that emphasized the power of committing to just "one word" over the course of the year in order to create more "meaning and focus " for ones life.( 

Inspired by the article, my word for 2015 became "passion."  Every personal and professional endeavor was pursued with an increased level of energy and passion. As a result 2015 was ultimately more positive and productive  in various aspects of my life. I was experiencing greater levels of joy, strengthening existing relationships and building new ones.  Opportunities for growth were becoming available and I was taking advantage of them.  Passion began to replace existing fears and avoidance was reaplaced by action. I was living a more rewarding and fulfilling life.

This year as we ushered in the new year I began to contemplate my "one word" for 2016.  I realized that as a writer and an educator, words mean a great deal me, especially when they precede action. Therefore committing to one word over 365 days just wouldnt do.  I realized what was necessary for my continued personal and professional growth was a commitment to a multitude of words.

The following are a sampling of the words that I will consistently commit to in my quest to stay on the top of my game throughout 2016.

Authentic- Every effort will be made to create opportunities that allow my students to pursue real world learning experiences. I will continue to pursue those professional development opportunities that yield the most potential  for strengthening my craft and improving my practice. An emphasis will continue to be placed on providing students with choices and on developing their individual voices.

Challenge- To prevent complacency and ensure growth I will continue to push my students to levels beyond what they believe they are capable. 
Furthermore I will continue to consistently step out of my comfort zone and continue to take risks that will allow me to grow professionally,

Inspire- I pledge to continue to use any available medium to bring excitement, energy and passion to the culture within our classroom community. Moreover I will continue to exhaust all efforts to elevate my personal spirit as well.

Reflection- Improvement will only occur as my students continue to honestly assess their performance and their approach to learning. This practice must be guided, modeled and supported in order to ensure that growth is achieved. If  I am to continue to maintain a classroom culture which fosters student growth and promotes a love of learning, reflection must remain an integral part of my practice.

Relationships- In order to serve those who depend upon me it is is vital that I understand them as people. The only way to do that is to cultivate relationships that are based on love, trust and respect.  I must be present, interested and invested in all of the relationships that are part of my life.

Connected-I will continue to make valuable connections with amazing educators from all over the world. These connections continue to provide me with inspiration and various resources that allow me to elevate my practice.

The preceding list of words represents just a sampling of those I willl commit to in order to fulfill my responsibilities professionally and personally. Dedication  to "one word" is admirable, It definitely produces the desired results for some, but  for me , committing to just "one word", just won't do. 

I will continue to identify my "words to live by" and then do so accordingly.