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 www.NJAMLE.org.  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!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Shelly ( A Tale of Joyful Learning)

When the fourth nor'easter in four weeks finally ran out of steam it left private and public school administrators with a daunting task. How exactly would the "snow days"be made up? Ultimately the decision would force the restructuring of school calendars and the Spring recess. Some schools enjoyed partial vacations while ones hit the hardest by the snow would lose their entire breaks. The district where I am employed, removed two days of the recess, one at the beginning and one at the end. Teacher and students had their vacations honored if the necessary documentation was produced. Those who did not have previous plans showed up to teach and learn on the makeup days.

Yesterday students and staff returned to school to complete the second required makeup day. Many were not thrilled at the prospect of cutting their spring recess short but showed up nevertheless with an open mind to see what the day would yield. Professional discussions took place prior to our return about creating an instructional day that while structured would combine both fun and learning.  The day that unfolded went well above and beyond my greatest expectations.

In my corner of the world, students worked enthusiastically to meet and overcome the "Egg Drop" challenge. The objective students were asked to meet was to protect an egg from breakage after being dropped from 10 feet above the ground. Students were placed into groups of five and provided with supplies that included a plastic bag, plastic straws, a plastic cup, a rubber band, a paper plate, a paper towel, an arms length of duct tape and of course an egg. Students were given 30 minutes to design and construct a product that would protect the egg from breakage while using only the materials provided.

Throughout the 30 minutes group dynamics and attitudes varied. Some students worked peacefully and cooperatively, while other students struggled with respect for each other. However when they did struggle, they realized that their conflicts impeded their ability to achieve their goal. Usually they were able to make the necessary adjustments in order to accomplish the task. One thing all of the groups shared in common though, was that they didn't want their egg to be the one that broke. 

After the construction and design phases were completed, the spokesperson from each group explained the thinking behind the design and the efforts of the group to complete the construction process. Honest and genuine reflections were shared that included both reasons for group success and struggles. Additionally, adjustments were proposed by other students that could have prevented future struggles and perhaps facilitate success.

Following the brief group presentations it was time to drop the eggs and reveal weather or not enough protection was provided. Enthusiastically throughout the day we repeated the count down process from 10 to 1 and then I had the honor of dropping the eggs.  After hitting the floor they were scooped up and the reveal followed. Consequently 18 eggs were dropped and all but four emerged unscathed. While students were thrilled that their eggs survived they were more curious as to why four of the eggs became damaged. They analyzed the possible reasons for the failures and provided possible solutions that may have prevented the breakage. Unquestionably, a day was evolving that can best be characterized as a joyful learning experience.

While joyful learning was not in short supply on this day there were two experiences that were especially memorable. The class prior to lunch was one of the smaller groups of the day and as a result we only created two contraptions to protect the eggs during the drop process. This particular class finished earlier than the time allotted for preparation which meant there would be extra time available before the period came to a close. (An idea of how best to take advantage of the extra time quickly came to mind but I am getting ahead of our story.). Thus we began to discuss design and construction and then proceeded to the commencement of the egg drop challenge.

 The first group carefully crafted a contraption and pridefully shared the design and construction phase. The second group had not gone to the same length in preparation , they were not as careful or prideful and this was apparent. However they were honest about the reasons for their struggles and were not overly optimistic about having their egg survive the experience undamaged. The egg drops took place and the results that followed were as expected. The groups egg  that was placed in the carefully crafted contraption  survived unharmed, while the one that was hastily crafted due to group struggles revealed damage after the fall. What happened next was truly special.  

With the extra time that remained both groups were given a second crack at the challenge. Even though the first group had already successfully completed the activity, I wanted to challenge them.  I wanted the second group despite essentially failing, to take advantage of the second chance and learn from their failure.

 The successful group was asked to attempt to craft another contraption, this time not using their most essential material. The group that was unsuccessful explained why they failed, were instructed to use any material they hadn't previously used and were give 15 more minutes to complete the task. Each group focused on what they identified as priorities for success and work towards making sure their contraption could accomplish the goal before them. Moreover, the second group after identifying the lack of patience and cooperation within the group made a conscience effort to improve upon those factors. The result was a much improved contraption. 

Next we proceeded to drop both eggs yet again This time the first group after identifying the plastic bag as the most essential item did not include it as instructed in the design. The egg was still protected but this time after the drop it did not emerge unharmed. Their theory that the egg must be protected was spot on as was the fact that the plastic bag would decrease the impact.  Ultimately the plastic bag served as a makeshift parachute and thus prevented damage to the egg. Although their second attempt without the plastic bag failed to protect the egg,  their hypothesis was proven correct. They had accepted a challenge, taken a risk and learned something in the process.

The group that was initially unsuccessful was up next. We dropped the egg once again,this time their contraption also included the plastic bag which served as a parachute. After removing the egg from its harness, it once again revealed tiny fractures but nothing like the damage that had allowed their yolk to protrude from the egg the first time. The group was happy with the improvement, they had been grateful for a second chance and the chance to learn from their previous failure. As time ran out it was evident that something memorable and unexpected had just taken place. We all learned that failure is okay , we can learn from it and that it allows us to move forward and grow. I couldn't help feeling inspired as I headed off to lunch.

After lunch I looked forward to building off of the inspiration left from the morning. Again the energy of my students along with their positive attitudes led to an engaging afternoon. My final class of the day would help to put the finishing touches on what turned out to be a rather extraordinary day. One of the groups in the last period like some of the groups throughout the day decided to name their egg. This particular egg received the name Shelly. They proceeded to protect that egg from cracking as if it had taken on human characteristics. They took all of the necessary steps, insulating the egg, building the parachute to minimize impact and placing a protective cover over the top of the cup to prevent the egg from being dislodged upon impact. 

After conducting the final egg drop challenge of the day followed by the final reveal,  Shelly proved to be unharmed. The nurturing efforts of this paticular group of young ladies had led to a safe voyage for Shelly. Care, cooperation and compassion were key elements that allowed this particular group to enjoy success. It was obvious to everyone that this careful approach had been intentional and was vital to the successful achievement of the task. As much joy that was experienced in observing the preparation and the eventual successful completion of the task, this too would be surpassed following the dismissal of my last period class.

As I walked to my door to observe the dismissal process. I heard the fading chants from my 8th grade students Shelly, Shelly, Shelly. The had taken their joy with them as they departed for their own private destinations. I can't imagine placing a more poignant punctuation mark symbolizing an unexpected perfect ending to an unexpected perfect day.


Monday, April 2, 2018

A Recipe for Success or Disaster?

Gabe Kapler's success in Philadelphia as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies will ultimately be contingent upon the ability of his players to execute and succeed within his system. After experiencing a small sample size, (just three games) the time certainly has not arrived to jump ship. However, it is time for the skipper to pump the breaks and do some self reflection on the use of his "analytical" manegerial style. Quite simply, what we saw in the first three games was unacceptable in terms of managerial and player performance. The early returns are in and Kapler's analytical recipe for success looks like anything but, rather it appears that it could be a recipe for disaster for the 2018 Phils.

A stellar pitching performance on Opening Day by staff ace Aaron Nola was ruined by the tinkering of  the rookie manager who lifted Nola after 5 1/3 innings and just 68 pitches, while leading 5-0. After that the dominos began to fall and they didn't stop falling until utility player Pedro Florimon retired the final Brave late Saturday night. This due to the depletion of the Phillies bullpen which saw Kapler hand the ball to 21 pitchers in just three games. The end result was two losses, 27 runs and more hits from the Braves than one finds on a popular Bruno Mars album. To hear Kapler say that part of their pre season strategy, was to prepare position players to pitch in situations when they run out of pitchers defies a logical approach to managing. Furthermore not having Hoby Milner warmed up and ready after calling him into the game, drew the ire of MLB umpire Jerry Lane who basically called for imposing sanctions from Major League Baseball against Kapler and the Phillies.

While Kapler's frequent hooks certainly did not enhance the Phillies chances for victory there was plenty of blame to go around. The starting pitching on both Friday and Saturday night did not pitch beyond the fourth inning as both Nick Pivetta and Vincent Velasquez worked in and out of jams before surrendering the ball to Kapler. The Phils were fortunate enough to escape with an appeal aided extra inning victory on Friday night,  but on Saturday the excessive overuse of analytical pitching formulas caught up with them in a 15-2 loss. 

There were bright spots for the Phillies in the opening three games which featured consistent and impactful offensive performances by Rhys Hoskins, Scott Kingery ,Carlos Santana and Caesar Hernandez, but the defense was absolutely woeful at times, as the Phils committed five errors in the three games.  This ultimately contributed to the carasol that allowed an abundance of Brave runs. Again a small sample size, but one in need of quick remediation, if this 2018 version is to live up to the "bold" post season expectations of its manager.

For the record, I want Gabe Kapler to succeed as the manager of our Phillies because his success will ultimately result in on field success, translate to more wins and eventually signal a return to the postseason. Moreover analytics can yield positive results. There is plenty of documentation that supports creating favorable pitcher/hitter matchups. In fact that happened well before the analyics became a household buzzword. However, Kapler needs to manage with common sense, not overuse the analytics and develop a feel for the game as it unfolds.  Computer data cannot take these human variables into account and that was glaringly obvious as both the team and its manager consistently struggled this weekend.

Gabe Kapler needs to be accountable, recognize failures, listen to his brain trust and make changes where necessary. A willingness to do this will endear him to the Philadelphia fans, failure to do this along with achieving the same results will lead to a quick exit and a vacant chair in the manager's office.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Standing Up for Something

"If I were to remain silent I would be guilty of complicity."
Albert Einstein 

Earlier this school year during one of our Celebrate Monday discussions, my eighth graders and I were reflecting about the recently released movie Marshall. We talked about the struggles that Thurgood Marshall faced as an NAACP lawyer, and his eventual rise to becoming the first African American Supreme Court Justice. We talked about the challenges that he and his clients consistently faced while standing up for their civil rights. After the discussion I played the powerful Oscar nominated song from Andra Day, "Stand Up for Something" that is part of the movie soundtrack. When the song concluded I asked students what they were willing to "stand up" for. Their answers were similar, sharing that they would stand up for their families and friends. I shared with strong conviction that I would stand up for my family, my friends, and my students.  I took the opportunity once again to emphasize that I believed in them and was there to support them.

Immediately following the recent school shootings in Parkland Florida, students have elevated their voices. They have organized rallies at the local and national level in an effort to condemn school violence. Moreover they have put the blame squarely in the hands of the lawmakers as a result of their failure of to pass rigid gun control laws. Their mantra is loud and clear, " thoughts and prayers are not enough", action is needed.  Those who can vote in the next election have vowed to vote out leaders who fail to pursue legislation to create gun law reform. They may have been victims in Parkland of unimaginable school violence but they are taking full advantage of their opportunity to "stand up", and speak out. 

On Wednesday, March 14 to support the students of Parkland Florida, High School and Middle School students held a national walkout in protest of school violence. For 17 minutes to honor the victims of the shooting in Parkland, students held walkouts or sit ins at districts throughout the nation which primarily were supported by their administrators.  At my middle school in Robbinsville New Jersey, students in grades 5-8 organized in the gym and the cafeteria for 17 minutes. Supervised rooms were respectfully provided for those students who decided not to participate in the protest.

 While in both venues, students listened as student leaders supported by staff and building administrators spoke passionately about their disdain for school violence. Some even spoke about the need for immediate gun control and the benefits that it would bring. On this day our students were attentive and well behaved and made the school and surrounding community proud. On this day our students and students around the country had a chance to Stand Up For Something that directly impacted them and many of them did.

Our nation has been built on the foundation of revolution and reform. If we are to continue to grow and prosper, we as the current gatekeepers of democracy must encourage, guide and support the civil disobedience of our younger generations.  We must encourage them to engage in civil discourse and challenge social injustice.  Anything less neglects to protect the democratic society that they are set to inherit as adult citizens.