Thursday, July 23, 2020

Building Culture in a Remote Learning Environment

"Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything." ~George Bernard Shaw

On Tuesday evening July 21, a group of educators from various parts of  New Jersey with  a strong connection to Middle Level education assembled for thirty minutes on Twitter for #NJAMLEchat; a virtual conversation that focused on Building Culture in Remote Learning Environments in our public schools. The conversation was presented by NJAMLE and hosted by Black River Middle School and Centenary University educator Joseph S. Pizzo.

The questions ranged from techniques used in a regular or remote classroom  to maintain the existing culture, to challenges presented by remote instruction, to strategies that could be implemented to combat some of the challenges presented by the remote learning experience. In response to the question of techniques used to maintain the existing culture, NJAMLE President Tina Monteleone said " A daily check in of some kind is key in both situations. As simple as using the question function in the Google Classroom to connect or monitor students both for understanding and emotional status."  Longtime NJAMLE leader Sandra Wozniak emphasized the importance of student/teacher relationships with her reply stating " You need to get to know the kids. I think the same activities that you use to introduce yourselves can be done virtually. " Dr. Frank Rudnesky,  a former South Jersey principal, current author and motivational speaker added that " There are still many team builders that can be done remotely that still resonate positivity." All three educators provided great advice for districts that may be implementing a remote model as we move toward the fall re-openings.

 The second question shifted to challenges facing educators and students in an asynchronous or remote learning environment. Here there seemed to be a common thread among the educators that responded regarding issues with interaction, engagement and relationships.  Bruce Reicher a Technology Educator from Upper Saddle River said " The biggest challenge with asynchronous learning is that all the students aren't always there and it's so tough to get non verbal clues when you can't see the students, when you are sharing your screen. Dr. Maribeth Edmunds the principal of the Monmouth Junction Pre K-5  school, doubled down on this idea stating, " Correct, asynchronous learning is more difficult to manage. We need to ensure that students are engaged in the activity and are self regulated and motivated." adding on that " Check ins with students would be helpful. Brianne Adams a Technology Teacher in Westwood and a member of the NJAMLE leadership team added "As an elective teacher I had many students in March who had only just started my class and thus I wasn't able to build that relationship with them that I was able to do with students in September." Moving forward, understanding the nature of these challenges will undoubtedly help educators when preparing for and implementing some type of remote learning model.

The third and final question focused on the implementation of strategies to ensure success within the Remote Learning Model. Dr. Rebecca McLelland-Crawley an accomplished Gifted educator from the West Windsor- Plainsboro School District shared the following regarding her experiences." Frequent check-ins with learners & 1:1 conferences whenever possible. Hosted lots of open Google Meets throughout the day for kids to jump on when it was convenient for them. I let them choose their passion projects and brought outside experts to speak often." Bruce Reicher added " I also gave them more choice with choice board assignments. I hoped they would find one assignment to get excited about."  Dr. Rudnesky shared that his  University class "literally got up and danced." Kristin Baker the Lead Stem Teacher from Mansfield Township said she used,  " Intriguing projects that built upon each other, growing in spiral: geometrical constructions, tessellations, Celtic knot patterns."  Dr. Cheryl Wright an Instructional Coach and University Lecturer said " Some of the strategies I use include protocols, discussion boards, guiding questions, podcasts and student created You Tube videos.  A different type of strategy was shared by both Mr. Reicher and Dr. Edmunds to ensure connection with students. They suggested that there be an open time at the end of the day to conference with students or a time slot for routine office hours. Not only does this meet the need for connection but it also allows the teacher the opportunity to address any academic concerns for their individual students. Professor Pizzo emphasized the importance of this adding, " Agreed, middle level students need to have the opportunity to ask questions. In fact we all do."

Our panelists provided a sample blueprint for future success as it pertains to Building Culture in a Remote Learning Environment. They addressed how to build a positive culture in a traditional and remote learning environment, identified challenges brought on by remote instruction and offered solutions to various types of challenges brought about by this current mode of instruction. The discussion clearly demonstrated the passion that this group of educators has for their craft. Moreover it revealed a strong desire to provide assistance for both students and educators, as they continue to clear hurdles brought on by an educational landscape that shifts often and unexpectedly.

(Note: The entire text of last nights conversation can be found on #NJAMLEchat. If you wish to add any responses to any of the questions in an effort to help other educators, please feel free to do so.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

The Road Back..... A story of Resiliency and Restoration

"Devoted to providing leadership, professional learning, resources and support for middle level education." NJAMLE

On March 6, 2019 NJAMLE was ready and poised to provide middle school educators in the state of New Jersey and surrounding areas with a professional development experience for the ages.  All of the boxes were checked, everything from the venue to the keynote speaker to the presenters to the caterers were ready to go. Truthfully, it was about managing the final days leading up to our State  Conference and then running the conference. Confidence was high that we had put ourselves in position to provide a special event for the middle school educators who committed to attending our event. We were sold out and we were ready!  Unfortunately there were catastrophic events that were rapidly unfolding in the world that ultimately would have a preemptive impact on our plans.

Just two days later,  a virtual meeting with our NJAMLE leadership team was convened.  The Covid 19 virus was worsening daily and a national quarantine was a definite possibility in the upcoming days. Postponing, even cancelling the conference now, just five days away, was on the table for discussion. Arriving at the decision to cancel was difficult emotionally because of the hours of preparation and the passionate effort that had already been put forth by the organizational team. There would be economic consequences that would result from the decision to cancel as well. Ultimately, although a difficult  decision, there was only one right decision to make.  Do what was in the best interests of our members and attendees and cancel the conference. The response to the cancellation from the majority of the attendees was extremely supportive and positive.  There were monumental tasks to complete as a result of the decision, but they would be completed efficiently in the days ahead.  We were moving forward, confident that the right decision had been made.

We all know what happened next, as five days later on March 13, ( the scheduled conference date) we were all at our respective schools drafting remote learning plans for a three week period that would keep learning fluid for our students. What we didn't know at the time was that the three weeks would become the norm for the duration of the school year.  As dedicated professionals and caretakers of children we immediately began to consume our efforts with finding the best methods to teach our students remotely. As a result of the resilient, committed and crafty leadership efforts of our President Tina Monteleone we continued to meet remotely as an executive board, first in an effort to support each other professionally, socially and emotionally, then as time went on we shifted our efforts to our membership. We focused on and discussed how we could best serve them during this crisis brought on by the Pandemic. Slowly we began to travel the road back and develop a plan full of strategies that could help educators manage the crisis and provide support for them as we continued to move forward.

Moving forward into the summer months NJAMLE continues to be committed to providing first class, cutting edge professional development for our members and middle school educators in the state of New Jersey.  We also know that we have to modify the manner in which we provide these experiences knowing that quarantine restrictions still in place prohibit us from utilizing physical space for large groups of people.  Our message is clear " We are Still Here" for you.  We appreciate your needs and we appreciate your consistent support of our organization. We are all in this together and in continued recognition of this, the organization is providing all existing and new members for the current membership period, (now through June 30 of 2021) with Free Membership to NJAMLE.  We are all traveling the road back together and we will continue to be there for you as the navigation continues.

Implementation of various ideas generated by the NJAMLE brain trust continue to evolve. Our Summer Newsletter is currently under construction and will be available during the early part of the Summer.  Beginning on July 6 we are launching a mini professional development series of short videos called the Middle Ground Minute. They can be found on our Twitter handle on Monday Wednesday and Friday thru August 28 and are designed to share wisdom from our executive board members on various educational topics that hopefully will prove beneficial to beginning, new or even seasoned educators. We have two Twitter Hashtag Chats scheduled, one for July 21 from 8- 8:30,  focusing on Building School Culture in a Remote Learning Environment hosted by Joe Pizzo (using the Hashtag NJAMLEchat) and then another focusing on Transitioning Back into the Classroom, to be held in August on a date and at a time to be determined. We also continue to share an almost daily dose of articles and blogs on various educational topics written by experts in their fields. Finally, the centerpiece of our efforts culminates on August 5th with our Virtual conference that is the masterpiece of designer Christina Requa.

The conference will be conducted virtually on August 5th from 9am-12pm and is free to all educators. There will be a series of relevant and fantastic pedagogical workshops, including but not limited to the following content areas, SEL, Virtual Instruction, Foreign Language and more. There will be a focus on interdisciplinary teaching strategies and resources. The session board is currently live on Twitter and we have over 450 people registered for the event already which will be provided in a Zoom room format. The event should provide a great deal of inspiration and multiple tools in which to help attendees confidently follow the road back to their classrooms in September.

We all continue with this personal navigation of the road back to our respective schools.  While the road has been cracked and requires rebuilding,  we will continue to navigate it together. We will provide guidance and support, while utilizing and sharing resources with each other as we go. Because that is what we do, we are NJAMLE, and "we are all better together".

Saturday, February 29, 2020

NJAMLE 2020 A Commitment to Joyful Learning and Connectedness

"The joy of learning is as indispensable in study, as breathing is in running."
   - Simone Weil

Recently on  a warm February afternoon I had the opportunity to sit down and engage in a relaxing conversation with NJAMLE President Tina Montelone and State Conference Chairperson Christina Requa. We took advantage of this particular occasion to launch the first episode of our new podcast, "The Middle Ground". The primary focus of the conversation was the organization's mission to provide high quality professional development for Middle School educators.

The discussion began with the emphasis on the rapidly approaching State Conference on Friday March 13 at Kean University from 8:00 a.m.- 2:00 p.m.  A specific target of this year's Conference Steering Committee according to Chairperson Requa was to build on the success of last year's conference by being mindful of the rich feedback that was given by last year's attendees.  This  essentially helped to drive the planning and assisted in identifying what the focus would be this year.

One of the first things to plan for was the selection of this year's keynote speaker and President Monteleone enthusiastically spoke on this year's choice, Adam Welcome.  She indicated that Adam as a Principal and Director of Innovation for a district of over 35,000 people has the ability to reach people in different ways.  She went on to say that he pushes the envelope when it comes to kids and he will bring a "call to action"when he comes to New Jersey. Moreover it is her belief that people will be impressed with his energy and his "in your face way of getting things done."  "Adam  is passionate about technology and a huge advocate of using social media to connect with educators throughout the country.  He makes it clear that  kids come first as  he has preached the message team kid for years." ( , Adam Welcome Biography).

Following the keynote address there will be three 50 minute breakout sessions featuring  an outstanding field of educators. There will be two morning sessions followed by lunch and then a final breakout session after lunch.  Chairperson Requa indicated that this year the attendees can expect a variety of different sessions which feature sessions that are interdisciplinary, cross curricular and relevant to the needs of Middle School educators. Requa went on to say that the focus was on the practicality of the sessions and that the content of the various sessions could be implemented in classrooms when the educators returned to work on Monday after the conference.

The full compliment of breakout sessions address both the needs of he classroom teacher as well as school administrators.  On the day of the event it was Chairperson Requa's advice that attendees map out their day using the session board. In using the session board the following advice was given; click on the title which brings you to a Google Doc., here you can find the session notes. The presenters can edit these notes and upload resources there as well.  Moreover, on the day of the event all of the identification tags will have QR codes that bring attendees to the session board directly. These are just a few of the measures that are designed to create a joyful and efficient learning experience for those in attendance.

As the discussion moved toward closure President Monteleone addressed her desired takeaways for attendees at the conclusion of the days events.  She passionately shared that there was a desire for everyone to leave with practical resources and stronger personal and professional relationships. She stressed that the theme is "better together" and really wants individuals to walk away with a more solid connection with NJAMLE and other middle level educators who attended the conference.

Continuing on with the topics of connection and NJAMLE identity, Monteleone also spoke about a new SWAG store where NJAMLE T-Shirts, Sweatshirts, Tote Bags and Stickers would be available for purchase online.  Adding to the excitement was the fact that the proceeds from the sale of the merchandise will be used to partially fund a new initiative, a Mini Grant for teachers. The details will be announced during this year's conference and the initiative is something that NJAMLE is excited to unveil to their members.

In the months following the conference NJAMLE members and middle school educators should continue to follow developments on Twitter and Instagram. The seasonal newsletter will be available in early spring for all members as well. As the calendar turns toward summer there is a great deal of enthusiasm for the continuation of the Summer Skills Sharpening Workshops along with possible expansion into new locations in both Northern and Southern New Jersey. Stay Tuned!

Monday, July 8, 2019

Serving Up the Learning

This summer with the return of their Regional Summer Skills Sharpening workshops, the New Jersey Association for Middle Level Education continues its commitment to providing professional development experiences that are purposeful, practical and productive.  The learning begins in Point Pleasant on July 16 at Memorial Middle School, continues in Marlton at Marlton Middle School on July 23 and concludes with the finale in Somerville at Somerville Middle School on August 6th. All three workshops last from 8:30-12:30, include three breakout sessions and door prizes that accompany the closing remarks.

This year's focus " We Bring the Learning to You" is particularly appropriate because that is specifically what NJAMLE hopes to accomplish by providing a variety of breakout sessions presented by outstanding educators that include Technology, Stem, Literacy, SEL and Mathematics for starters. ( Visit for the full session boards at all of the venues.) NJAMLE President Tina Monteleone when asked to consider the purpose of the Summer Skills Workshops shared that "The purpose of these workshops is to create an opportunity for Middle Level educators to come together for a few hours in a relaxing environment with other Middle School educators, reflect on their past year and reconnect with their "why"(-why they are an educator.")  She continued to reflect on what she hoped would be specific takeaways from this years experience indicating that " we hope our attendees leave with new ways to approach their content area, effective ideas to engage their young adolescent students that are developmentally appropriate and a feeling of connection to a large network of resources and educators."  From her remarks it is clear that Monteleone is passionate about working with her NJAMLE team to create professional development experiences that arm Middle School teachers with pedagogy and strategies that can best serve the needs of their students. Moreover, an environment is provided at these workshops that empowers educators to connect and potentially collaborate with each other.

While the Summer Skills workshops continue to provide for the professional development needs of Middle School educators there is always room for growth. When asked about Summer Skills workshops in upcoming years Monteleone went on to discuss possible expansion saying " NJAMLE is always looking for new opportunities and spaces to bring Middle Level educators together. We will continue to seek school districts that would like to host a NJAMLE learning event in order to expand our outreach into different corners of the state." Clearly NJAMLE remains steadfast in its commitment to providing Professional Development of the highest quality to its members as well as all Middle school educators throughout the state of New Jersey.

In the upcoming months Middle School educators and NJAME members  can look forward to the following Professional Development opportunities. The AMLE national conference in Nashville Tennessee from November 7-9, a Hungry for Learning afternoon of Professional Development in Bergen County and the New Jersey State Conference on March 13, 2020 sponsored by NJAMLE. (The Keynote Speaker announcement and Call for presenters will arrive in the early fall. Please continue to follow NJAMLE on Twitter or on their website at for all information related to this organization.)

Once again NJAMLE has provided a tremendous opportunity for Middle School educators to improve their craft and connect with other educators with the organization of the Regional Summer Skills workshops.  Registration remains open at all three venues. The cost for the Summer Skills Sharpening Workshops is free to current members and $20 dollars for all non members. However,the $ 20 dollar fee provides admission to all venues and a one year membership to NJAMLE.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Middle Level Magic!

      The magic is back! After a one year hiatus the New Jersey Association for Middle Level Educators returns to Kean University and presents their annual conference on March 15 from 8am-2pm.  This year's conference planning committee led by chairperson Christina Requa has been hard at work since October putting together a professional learning experience that is practical, purposeful and productive.  There are many reasons to attend this year's conference, especially if you are a Middle Level educator and it all begins with the innovative and energetic Rick Wormeli.

     Rick Wormeli delivers this year's keynote address and brings quite an extraordinary resumé to the podium. He has 36 years of professional experience in various content areas. He has written the award winning "Meet Me in the Middle and two other best sellers, Fair Isn't Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom and Metaphors and Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching Any Subject. Moreover, Wormeli is one of the first recipients in the United States to become a National Board Certified Teacher.  Unquestionably Wormeli's impressive credentials make him an excellent choice to lead off the day of learning by providing a powerful message that is sure to unite and inspire this year's attendees.

     The theme of this year's conference is Better Together based on the belief that when we learn together, when we motivate and inspire each other, we create a synergy that elevates our craft to new heights that were previously unimaginable.  The slate of presentations that was created for this year's conference was developed with the goal of providing a diverse platform of pedagogical experiences for all those in attendance. Committee Chairperson Requa is excited about offering sessions that focus on pedagogy as a whole and provide interdisciplinary skills, tools and resources for everyone.
Furthermore, she believes that this year's conference is unique because it provides a space and platform for middle level educators to collaborate, learn and grow together. 

     After distinguished Keynote Speaker Rick Wormeli finishes his address, the conference continues with an awards presentation that honors the most distinguished Middle School Teacher, Administrator and team in the the state of New Jersey.  Following the awards are three breakout sessions featuring a diverse array of topics provided by educators who are passionate and distinguished practitioners.  Topics range from STEM to Social Studies to Math and Science to Climate and Culture, Special Education to Edtech to Mindsets to Makerspace to Genius Hour to Literacy to Gaming to Leadership. Full session descriptions and our lineup of presenters can be found by visiting the NJAMLE website at  There certainly is something for everyone in attendance if middle school is where you find yourself spending most of your days.

     The cost of the one-day event is $119 for non-members, $99 for members and $29 for college students while Lead Presenters are free. Registration is currently underway and can be completed by visiting the website or by accessing the Conference Registration Smore on Twitter @NJAMLE.  Requa and her committee's hope is at the end of the day attendees will take away something they can try in their classrooms on Monday and that they can build connections with other educators that continue well beyond the conference.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Better Together

Our path to professional growth as educators has been changed forever and it’s the responsibility of each of us to navigate our individual paths. Truth be told it’s never been easier or economically affordable to “get better”. Without question the school districts that employ us bear a significant responsibility to train and invest in our professional growth but their are significant challenges that limit their ability to meet the needs of their very diverse staffs. These challenges include creating professional development days that will satisfy the demands of state requirements as well as creating sessions that will help the district and the individual educator grow. The last piece is perhaps the most challenging. With multiple content areas how do you create professional development that targets the individual educator. This is where we need to develop a sense of autonomy, use professional days and seek opportunities that will contribute to our own professional growth.

Growing as an individual requires us to exit the doors of our school district and pursue professional development opportunities that are unique to our own professional growth. This is where the concept of “ better together” comes in, but what exactly does that mean? 

Does it mean, if two or more people work together they can solve a problem? perhaps.

Does it mean that if two or more people work together they can accomplish something more efficiently? Sure

Does it mean that if two or more people work together their chance of success increases. Okay 

While all of the above statements are potentially true, the concept of “better together” is much more transformative and much more far reaching. Better together means that the individual educator learns something new and then shares what they learn with educators and they share with their educators, and it keeps networking forward without limitations. The networking usually begins online as a result of Twitter usage and the creation of Professional Learning Networks then eventually moves to face encounters at professional conferences and edcamps. The concept is both simple and inspiring as hierarchies are flattened and people of various educational status are brought together with multiple purposes, improve yourself, improve others and most importantly take what you learn to improve your students.

While “ better together” is simple philosophically it requires quite an investment. It requires a relational investment. It requires that we spend time on line and in person and willing network with other passengers educators. It requires that we listen to the expertise of others and it requires that we are willing to share our own expertise. It requires that we attend professional conferences and that we present at them. Yes, better together is always a two way street. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Signature Moments

Over the course of ten months if we as educators are 
open to it, we can establish wonderful relationships with the students that we teach and coach. Those of us who are extremely fortunate, get to observe wondrous student growth throughout their entire middle school tenure. The key to taking in these wonderful moments,  is to allow our students to get a glimpse of the special things that occur in our lives as well. This helps to create a mutual respect and trust and ultimately helps bring cohesion to the relationships.

This year provided me with a unique opportunity, as I was able to witness the culmination of a journey that I essentially watched begin just two years ago. I moved from the sixth to the eighth grade and was given the rare chance to work with students for a second time.  Throughout the course of the year students shared personal experiences and were always eager to learn of the events that were shaping my life.  There were athletic championships and the birth of siblings and various types of celebrations observed.  We endured a month full of nor'easters in March and swapped war stories about power failures. We supported each other when we faced personal challenges and we celebrated our personal triumphs.

Academically, as the year unfolded the conversations became richer, as student passions and attitudes became more transparent. The quality of the work went from superficial to significant, as expectations took root and students began to embrace them. Students were achieving academically and extracurricularly with consistency and were obviously proud of their accomplishments. Their  growth was a source of great joy and I feel privileged to have had a front row seat. 

The other day my students completed an ELA writing activity that was designed to show gratitude to their teachers for their efforts. The depth of feelings and the thoughtful comments that were shared with me reflected that indeed our meaningful relationship had made a difference in their middle school development. I grew quite emotional as I read each one, proud not just for the impact made, but also for contributing to their confidence in creating and sharing their notes of appreciation. 

The roles then switched from reader to writer just a few days ago. The end of the year brought the issuing of yearbooks and the opportunity to sign those belonging to our students. This was my opportunity to thank them for all they contributed, to show gratitude for their attitude and energy and to compliment them on their growth during their middle  school years. Moreover,  it was a chance to wish them well and send them off confidently, as they took the next step on their educational journey.  These "signature moments "would not have been possible or as celebrated had we not forged relationships, some beginning this year and some beginning two years ago.  

As I watched students depart today, some joyful and some sad, I was grateful for the opportunity that the year brought to build and solidify meaningful relationships with my students. Over the next 11 weeks I will reflect and recharge but most importantly I will prepare to develop new  relationships with the next group of students that will be placed in my care.  I can only imagine the experience that awaits. Sign me up!