Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Year New

This time of year I find it especially helpful to take a moment and reflect as we prepare to enter a new year. Many of us have experienced significant changes during 2010, personally and professionally. Whether these changes have been for the better or worse, it’s important to remember and reflect. It seems that hindsight is always clearer than when the path was ahead. Is reflecting enough?

Recently while ringing the bell at Walmart (thanks for setting this up, Jani) I thanked a contributor and said, “Merry Christmas” to him. This older gentleman replied, “and a Happy Year New.” At first this struck me as being odd, but I wonder if it was a slip of the cliché or a restating of it in a new context. I’d like to think that he was telling me to have a happy year and make it new: to move beyond my trials of 2010 and make it a happy year. To do this I need to do more than simply reflect. I needed to rethink and use my 20/20 hindsight.

The root of reflection is improvement, not just remembrance, so reflection can lead to a new and different coming year. To make a year brand new, then, we need to identify what needs to be different in 2011. To honestly answer this question we need to begin with the individual. It’s too easy to point out reasons why things can’t change – it’s much more difficult to create the positive energy necessary for creating a year that’s new.

We must be the change we wish to see in the world. Mahatma Gandhi

Through my reflections of 2010, I’ve been truly impressed with many of the initiatives created by all of you to make AAK and the North Country better than it was in 2009. Most recently – the backpack challenge, CSEA’s Neighborhood Center donations, food pantry donations, InterAct helping with the Holiday Baskets and Holiday Mail for Hero’s, mittens and scarves from the Teachers Association, and bell ringing for the Salvation Army. I’ve also heard that many of you have helped to undecorate local giving trees so that families can have a good Christmas. Your generosity is overwhelming. I’m sure that Ghandi would be impressed. But what would you change about 2010, if you could, to make 2011 a new year?

I’d like to regale you with a personal story. Ten years ago my health was not good, my teaching position was eliminated and my wife’s teaching position wasn’t a tenure track. I was fortunate enough to be able to retain a job, but it was at our high school. After my second week of teaching that September, I visited with Mrs. Chorba, my principal and mentor. I asked her to find a way to get me back to the middle school. As we discussed my dissatisfaction she had discovered that my request came from the fact that I found the climate much different from what I was comfortable with. Her words cut me to the core, “If you don’t like the climate and ‘feeling’ of the school, then what can you do to change it?” This sage advice was the beginning of a personal realization that I could have a significant impact on others and my surroundings. Shortly after this, I began working with the policies and procedures at the high school and district levels. It dawned on me that the only time I felt like I couldn’t enact positive change was when I told myself that I couldn’t. Over the course of the six years that followed, I realized that sometimes change is good. What once seemed uncomfortable to me ended up being a tremendous experience. I came to learn that the high school was filled with wonderful teachers and students whom I learned a great deal from. I enjoyed working there and I am a better educator because of my experiences there. As I now reflect on that long-ago adventure, I’m unsure if the school climate was influenced positively by me after my conversation with Mrs. Chorba, or influenced negatively by me before my conversation.

I’ve been asking you throughout the last few years to make a positive impact on the lives of children. You have done so and then some. You have influenced more than just your students, you have made an impact on me. I am genuinely impressed by you and I challenge you to own your day and make the new year truly new.

Merry Christmas and a Happy Year New!

Friday, December 10, 2010


I was visited this past Thanksgiving vacation by one of our PCS alumni. This young man was a former student of ours who also played soccer for me. Consequentially, he was also the namesake of my youngest child, Lucas. This young man had always impressed me with his maturity, insight, and ability to remain calm when everything around him was chaotic. As he grew he had shown tremendous tenacity and drive in all areas of his life as well. I had not heard from him in about one year as he was then preparing to enter an internship for his pending engineering career, therefore, we had a lot of catching-up to do.

Every once in a great while I hear or see something that stops me in my tracks. I had one of those moments when visiting and was struck with a word he used as we talked. He used the word value when he told me about his professors, supervisors, and teachers. He used this word value again as we talked about the other athletes and coaches from the “old days.” He told me what he valued about the various people and situations which helped him develop into who he is today. It was like I was hearing this word for the first time.

Attempting to sort my thoughts regarding this epiphany-type occasion, our dialogue turned to this word. Through discussion, I discovered that he valued these people for what they valued and what they taught him. This young man’s own value system was formed by the ideals expressed by those around him. My mind instantly raced to the implications in our daily interactions with colleagues, students, and parents. What is it that we value and are we portraying this to others?

This time of year is a wonderful time to reconnoiter and rethink about the big picture. Values go to the heart of what’s important. Individuals in our work-family have experienced much loss in recent months, which makes this all the more important. In a quick version of the long answer to the above question, I compiled a list of words which represents what I value; my HOPE is that I’m conveying this to others through my interactions: family, humor, respect, enthusiasm, compliance, work-ethic, compassion, empathy, information.

I hope you have a wonderful weekend – stay warm!

"Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value."
Albert Einstein

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Teach Your Passion

As I watched our guest presenter, Tim Bedley, at our last staff development day I was struck with a single thought; this guy is passionate about music. Furthermore, he found a way to incorporate his passion into his lessons to enhance engagement and increase learning. This was very cool.

I recently read an article referencing words from one of my favorite children science fiction authors, Bruce Coville. He said, “If someone were crazy enough to let me run a school and I had the privilege of interviewing teachers, my first question would be, "What's your passion?"” This struck me because passionate people move me. The energy, the excitement, and the love push all of us to become better people.

"What's your passion?" Imagine that in an interview. I’m not sure that my college training would have prepared me for that question. The honest truth is that the most inspiring people in the world are teachers. No matter what the topic, they move people to better themselves in some way – to me this is the root of teaching with passion. Unfortunately, I see some of the initiatives coming from our state and federal government being counterintuitive to this. Some of our current educational reformists have, in my opinion, forgotten that public school is a vehicle for personal betterment. Many of the new mandates (and some of the mandate relief proposals) are missing the boat on education and they are certainly not aligned with the SED’s own Essential Elements for the middle-level. If we’re not inspiring kids to search for their own passion, then why are we teaching?

These outside factors do negatively affect us, when all we want to do is teach/inspire. This exact dilemma was presented by Alfie Kohn who posed a very difficult question, “Will teachers treat students the way they, themselves, are being treated…or the way they wish they were being treated?” I encourage you to stay-the-course of the Essential Elements. This is the “secret” that SED and many of the reformists are missing – schools that implement the Seven Essential Elements have proven to be effective, affective, and have high student achievement levels. AAK is such an example of excellence.

Be proud of what you do and have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

'Tis the season to give thanks!

Guest Writing – Randy Burlingame

When Jamie first asked me to contribute to his Friday Focus, I wasn't quite sure what I could offer. But, as the Thanksgiving holiday draws near, I began to think about how it might be nice to give thanks for the many great things that make A.A.K. a special place.

I am thankful for many things here at A.A.K., and as I reflect upon my lengthy time here, I am most thankful for the people whom I often refer to as my "work family." Seriously, I spend more time with the people in this building than with my "real" family. My colleagues are more than just co-workers. They make me laugh when I need to, listen to my frustrations and complaints, give me support when I need it, and genuinely care about me and my well-being. This family isn't comprised of only Team 7; it extends throughout the building. This staff has a good time together, in and out of school. For this, I am thankful.

I am also thankful for the community spirit that permeates this building. Walk down any of A.A.K.'s hallways and it's easy to see that every adult and every student is a part of this community. Each person's role may be different, but when all of those roles are put together, the sense of community in this building is very evident and very real. Just ask a member of the Schools-to-Watch team that visited earlier this year or ask a substitute who has experience in other buildings or other districts. They recognize what many of us may take for granted. For this community spirit, I am thankful.

Despite what I may lead many of you to believe, I am also thankful for the students of A.A.K. Our students are really good kids! Compare them to students in other districts and our worst troublemaker would look angelic to teachers in other places. If you have any doubt about this, talk to a substitute who has worked at other districts (some not too far away from us). Do they frustrate us sometimes? Absolutely! But, before screaming at (fill in the blank) next time, remind yourself that you could be teaching in one of these other schools. For our generally well-behaved and respectful students, I am thankful.

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, let me extend a very heartfelt thanks to all of you for helping to make our work setting a pretty great place to come to every day. Have a great break, don't eat too much, and enjoy your time with your family and friends.


Monday, November 15, 2010

Parent-Teacher Conferences

I’ll never forget those anxious, nail-biting moments when my parents—usually my mom—took off for parent-teacher conferences. I wasn’t always the most diligent of students, so I worried. Would I get in trouble for combing my hair in social studies class to impress the girls? (Yes, I actually had hair at one time.) Would I have to begin my science fair project when she got home? The due date was only a few days from now, and in my opinion I had plenty of time remaining to complete the task. Years later, I prepare for my own child’s parent-teacher conferences, and I am still nervous. What if my child isn’t doing as well as I hoped? What if they’re not socializing in class? Will the teacher think I’m a bad parent? This is what goes through the minds of parents.

Be positive with people and you’ll get positive results (Blanchard, Lacinak, Tompkins, Ballard, & Blanchard, 2002).

As a former coach, I view parent-teacher conferences like a time-out in a game. It is a brief opportunity in a contest (school year) to praise or redirect performances. Todd Whitaker (2004) is known for stating, “Raise the praise and minimize the criticize.” A conference is not the time to vividly describe and elaborate on every single minor classroom disruption.

Great teachers help create magical moments and have the ability to ignore minor errors (Whitaker, 2004).

Here are some additional tips for successful conferences that I found from the Illinois Education Association (2000). I hope you will keep these in mind as you prepare for next week’s conferences:

1. Prepare an outline. How are you going to budget your minimal time with parents?
2. Gather student samples for praising and for redirecting.
3. Anticipate possible parent concerns.
4. Greet each parent with a handshake and a friendly smile. (I always stood to greet a parent.)
5. Ask parents if they have any concerns, and reassure parents that their concerns will be addressed.
6. Before addressing any concern, describe students’ improvements or successes since Interims.
7. Collaborate when addressing any concern. There should be teacher suggestions as well as parent input. Both parties should agree to this strategy. Suggestions may include more parent involvement by having parents sign daily agendas, assignments, or tests. This may mean more teacher involvement also, such as signing agendas, checking notebooks or binders, or having a phone or email contact.
8. End on a positive note.

It is impossible to praise too much as long as it is authentic (Bissell, 1992).

Conferences have provided me with some of my most rewarding moments in teaching. Just as we appreciate praise for our efforts, parents appreciate praise for their efforts and their child’s progress. The school calendar may set aside time for parent-teacher conferences each year. However, I believe great teachers know that parent-teacher conferences are held throughout the entire school year. A great teacher keeps the student, the team, and the parents informed at all times. Enjoy meeting and getting to know the parents of your students.

Happy Weekend!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Jack Berckemeyer at NYSMSA Conference

“It became apparent during the interview that humor would play a huge part in our team’s dynamics if I got the job. The interview was going along well until, while I was answering a question enthusiastically, a big drop of spit flew out of my mouth and landed well toward the middle of the table.”
Jack Berckemeyer

This past week I had the huge pleasure of listening to Jack Berckemeyer at the NYSMSA State Conference. Jack was an enthusiastic, motivating teacher from Colorado who spoke at the banquet dinner after a series of awards and short speeches. When it was his turn to be on stage, he nearly jumped out of his seat and before too long, I found that I was falling out of mine, laughing. Jack’s message was as straight to the point as it was funny.

Jack’s first rule in the classroom is to engage the students. Keep them moving. He described middle school students being like that of herded cats and movement helps to keep them focused. He continued to say that learning is a collaborative process; cooperative groups can be engaging for middle schoolers. His second rule is to show that you care for the students. Humor helps, but students can tell if you don’t want to be in there. He also discussed the learning environment and the effect it can have on students. These rules were discussed during his speech, but he goes well in-depth in his book, “Managing the Madness.” (I have a copy of the book – let me know if you’d like to borrow it.) His book provides many strategies and processes to reinforce his rules, in true Berckemeyer style.

During Jack’s talk to the assembled teachers, administrators, and honored guests, he rolled from one comical story to another; each tale seemed relatively familiar since most of us had spent time in a middle school, which made everything that much more humorous. At one point during the talk his voice calmed, the tone turned serious, and everyone leaned forward to hear. The message was clear – success in the classroom comes down to the relationships we form with the students. As he explained this, the gathered professionals were silent. Gradually, as the truth seemed to permeate our core, the applause began. Jack Berckemeyer understood the secret to the middle-level: Relationships. I found myself standing with ovation, appreciation, and agreement. The team from AAK knew this as the truth. I felt pride in being a part of that team which understood the power that Jack Berckemeyer spoke of.

Let’s keep building positive relationships with our students and enjoy your weekend.

Happy Halloween!


Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Today, eight of our colleagues are standing out. They will be presenting their procedures, products, and programs before the masses at the New York State Middle School Association’s state conference. Still another member of our faculty will be presenting at another state-level conference in about a month. They have agreed to prepare and plan, then present a usable product for other educators to learn about. They have placed countless hours before computer screens making sure every nuance of their ‘show’ is perfect. I speculate that many have also practiced their talk in front of a mirror in the attempt to gauge their timing. This is extremely stressful and I commend them for it. However, I believe the real stress comes from standing out.

Early in my career I took a graduate class from one of our favorite college professors, Harvey Smith. Harvey told me that one of the components to being a leader is the ability to take risks. I didn’t understand this at that young age, but I certainly know now. In the various positions I’ve held throughout my career I’ve had to place myself on the front lines and stand out for one concern or another. There is a risk to leadership. Criticism and possible ridicule is always a hazard for those that stand out. Is this a reason not to stand out and stay in the shadow of conformity and capitulation?

There are both professional and personal rewards to placing yourself in a leadership position. Our nine colleagues will experience these rewards, most likely after their presentations; they will sense the professional and personal satisfaction that comes from standing out. AAK is looked at as being a leader in the forefront of middle-level education and these nine leaders confirm our standing as a School to Watch. Through the frustration of being a presenter, the rush of time since they agreed to placing themselves up on stage, and concern over leaving their class and finding the “right” outfit – they’ve come to understand that leaders don’t always have an easy path. Our nine colleagues are voluntarily placing themselves in positions of leadership.

AAK has experienced success in many areas. None of this would be possible without people voluntarily standing out. On Thursday I checked into this hotel I now write from. The desk clerk greeted me with a smile and asked me how my trip was. This clerk was a leader in his own right and made an impact on me. I felt that this person really cared about me and about placing the “best foot forward.” He stood out. As I walked away with a smile I thought about all the little tasks people do that make an impact on others. I thought about my dad telling me that a job worth doing was worth doing well. Our nine colleagues have decided to stand out and make a difference in other middle schools by telling them what we do well.

AAK can be proud of Doug, Randy, Corey, Denielle, Tommy, Mary, Kristen, Carol, and Chrystal. It’s never easy to stand out as leaders. We’re fortunate to have these professionals a part of our work family. We can take a lesson from them and stand out in our own ways.

Have a great weekend!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Long-Distance Running

In support of LEAN Challenge, I’ve decided to focus my thoughts on what I consider to be one of the most difficult sports to engage in. Few athletes have participated in long-distance running. Fewer still have mastered or even done well in this sport.

I’ve always been impressed with an athlete who can run a marathon, a half-marathon, or even a 10K. Personally, anything more than the required thirty minutes of activity three times a week is a struggle for me. There’s something about a long-distance runner that I admire; they can’t fake it. They either finish the race or stop. They can’t sit-back and be covered by a teammate. There are no “bad games” for a runner or everyone knows who’s at fault. I’m not looking down at team sports, in fact one of my favorite quotes is from Coach Mitchell, “All you need to know in life you learn playing basketball.” This may be true for some, but I played basketball and have had bad games – and still my team won. Rather, I’m speaking to the preparation that is required to run a marathon: planning, mind-set, pace, collaboration of information, discipline, and the ability to listen to a coach.

Coincidentally, this is also what it takes to be a great teacher.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The 17 Intentions of an Effective Teacher

Over past several weeks I’ve written about the concept of intentionality. I’ve stated my conviction regarding the necessity of intentionally creating positive relationships; however, there’s more to this concept. The 17 Intentions of an Effective Teacher was introduced to me when I was teaching mathematics at the high school and I often thought that it would be difficult to consistently implement into individual lessons. Well, you have proven me wrong. While visiting your classrooms I have ‘intentionally’ looked for and found specific evidence of these components. You have provided some highly successful learning experiences for your students.

I would encourage you to continue implementing these Intentions.

The Foundation-
Underlying classroom practices

1. Safe and nurturing environment – do you create a classroom environment where students feel free to think critically and express their views without fear?
2. Public speaking – do you structure lessons that require and nurture public speaking, in pairs and small groups as well as in front of the entire class?
3. Opportunities for success – do you provide every student with frequent opportunities to experience “success”?
4. Validation of student work and responses – do you let each student know when his or her efforts are praiseworthy?

The Exploratory Phase-
The beginning of the lesson or unit

5. Grab attention – do you begin class in a manner likely to encourage students to look forward to what comes next?
6. Prepare students to engage – do you create activities that focus student thinking, excite their imaginations, and prepare them to meet and exceed the learning standards.
7. Assess and access prior knowledge – do you design activities that will help students (and you) to access and assess their prior knowledge, interests, and needs?

The Discovery Phase-
The part of the lesson in which students learn and demonstrate they are meeting the learning objectives of the lesson

8. The learning objectives – do you clearly state the one, two, or three specific things you want your students to learn? Have you cast these specific objectives in terms of what your students will understand, relate to, perform or create? Are the objectives aligned with appropriate learning standards?
9. Authentic task – do you frame learning tasks that are as authentic as possible and that will allow students to demonstrate their skill with or understanding of the learning objective(s)?
10. Ownership – do you create learning tasks that enable students to feel pride and assume responsibility for their own learning?
11. Options – do you offer students optional ways to accomplish the learning task, and therefore reach the learning objectives(s)?
12. Multiple intelligences – do you offer students frequent opportunities to utilize their stronger intelligences (recognizing that there are going to be times when they will also have to rely on their weaker ones)?
13. Appropriate resources – do you make sure that the resources necessary to accomplish the assigned student-centered activities are available, or can be made available, to students?
14. Interventions – do you look for opportunities (teachable moments) to intervene either in response to student questions or in reaction to student work, by “working the room” while students are engaged in an activity?
15. Cognitively rich questions – do you seize every opportunity: to intervene in student work with questions that require students to think critically; to phrase task questions to require critical thinking; and to require students to create their own cognitively rich questions that create disequilibrium?
16. Reflection – do you, during a learning experience, create opportunities for students to think about their thinking, to assess their progress and their decisions thus far? Do you, at the end of each day’s lesson, provide students with a brief closure activity that elicits evidence of something students have learned as a result of the lesson?
17. Assessment measures – do you utilize multiple forms of assessment to judge student performance, including effective use of rubrics? Is instructional improvement the primary reason you assess students? Is teacher observation structured to be the most meaningful form of assessment?

Copyright (c) 2005, Institute for Learner Centered Education.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The "Ike Special"

One day this week, a teacher shared a news story with me about Ike Ditzenberger (thanks, Brad), a 17-year old football player who dreams of playing college football. He attends daily practices and toils away in offensive drills with his Snohomish HS teammates. Ike could represent thousands of young athletes, but he doesn’t: Ike Ditzenberger has Down Syndrome.

Ike achieved a major milestone last Friday in a game as he ran for a 51 yard touchdown with 10 seconds remaining. The “Ike Special” provided the only points in Snohomish’s 35-6 loss. It was Ike’s first varsity touchdown, a ramble through an opposing defense that mirrors the end to Snohomish practices every day, when he gets the final run of practice and somehow finds the end zone, through a combination of running guile and intentionally passive defenders.

I was certainly touched by this sentimental moment for this young athlete; however, it was the other players on the field that struck me. They created a moment for this young man that will be with him forever. It was evident from the news video that Ike’s teammates cared about him; lifting him into the air after the touchdown. It was just as evident that the other team cared for this young man, too, as they intentionally missed diving tackles and feigned being blocked, all this to create a special moment for Ike. These young men knew and understood what it meant to be empathetic, compassionate, and caring.

As I watched this news story I felt wonderful warmth in this event, which made our recent 4th-6th grade assembly on Thursday that much more meaningful for me. For those of you who couldn’t attend, we had Chris Burke and the DeMasi Brothers perform many wonderful skits and musical numbers, sponsored by the Down Syndrome Society. Many of you probably remember Chris Burke as “Corky” from Life Goes On. Chris’ message was that of perseverance and setting goals. He believes that Down Syndrome should be called Up Syndrome and that people should concentrate on what they can do instead of their limitations. It was an inspirational assembly and I was impressed with how our students enjoyed and “got into” the presentation.

As I clapped, sang, and signed along to the music (I found out I sing better in sign language) I realized how fortunate we are to have students with special needs here at AAK. I don’t mean to sound facetious, but as Chris Burke mentioned in his performance, he wasn’t allowed to go to public school as a child. It’s one thing that many students like Chris Burke have the chance for an education, but it’s just as wonderful that our general education students have this tremendous opportunity that many of us didn’t have. They’re learning all the traits demonstrated by Ike’s teammates; empathy, compassion, and caring. Acceptance is a gift that we give to others as well as ourselves.

I was impressed with Chris Burke’s abilities. I was touched by the news story of Ike. I’m also glad that our students have the opportunity to learn about others who may be different. Celebrating diversity means so much more to me today.

I hope you have a fantastic weekend.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Questioning the Zero Factor

The Potsdam Central School District is beginning the third year of reforming its Grading and Homework Policy. This process began in Spring, 2009 with a district committee including teachers, parents, students, administrators, and a Board of Education member. After considerable deliberation and research, the committee crafted a draft policy and presented it to the Board of Education for consideration. Though normally most policies become effective immediately upon ratification, the Board provided the 2009-10 school year as a time for presenting the new policy to all teachers, students, and families for discussion and feedback. Training was provided during staff development days and a consultant was used periodically to guide the effort and present the philosophical basis for the new practices. As a result of this period of gathering perspectives, the policy was rewritten and adopted for full implementation in the 2010-2011 school year.

As with many changes in education, this reform-minded policy garnered substantial debate. However, one component stands out as being particularly controversial; not accepting zeroes as grades for missing, late, or incomplete work.

When I began exploring how this new policy might affect the middle-level, I found guidance from the Essential Elements of a Standards-Focused Classroom; most importantly that assessment and evaluation should promote learning and inform our instructional strategies. From this research and my own experience, I concluded that our traditional system for dispensing zeroes for missing homework did not allow students any learning opportunity past the due date. The idea of allowing a student to “opt out” of an assignment for the measured consequence of a zero certainly did not help a student develop personal responsibility and self direction (EE 2.12). Moreover, I found that the student who struggles with a concept only to be punitively assigned the zero deters a positive sustained relationship between that student and the teacher (EE 3.6). In many situations, the formative assignment for which a zero is given may be the last opportunity to practice/learn a particular concept. This may also be the only opportunity for the teacher to monitor a student’s progress and inform their instructional strategies (EE 4.14, 4.15, 7.10). The intention of our new policy is to allow the learning process to continue throughout the formative as well as after the summative assessment.

The basic premise for our policy is to accurately measure a student’s knowledge in a usable format. The policy states that grades should reflect achievement, in other words, what students know and are able to do. Assigning a score of zero indicates that the student knows nothing and is able to do nothing, which is most likely inaccurate. Furthermore, when computing an average, a score of zero in a percent system carries a disproportionate weight. For example, a student who earned an 80 on four assignments and failed to turn in a fifth would have an average of a 64 and fail the course, even though the four 80’s would indicate competency with the subject matter. The policy also states that allowing a student to receive a zero for incomplete homework is “letting them off the hook”. Personally, I have had many students say to me, “I’ll take the zero” or “Just give me a zero”. When we allow this option, we fail to hold the students accountable. I would rather have a student say, “I hate this. The teacher is making me do homework even when I don’t want to.” I would rather have these students whine all the way to the honor roll instead of failing a class for not doing their homework. Traditionally, most of our course failures were a result of zeros being included in grade calculations. If many of these zeroes were inaccurate measures of a student’s academic ability, then the conclusion would be that we are failing the student on their behavioral merit.

From this policy’s opponents, we have heard both parents and teachers claim that assigning a zero for work not completed “teaches responsibility.” They have also opined that extended timelines are unfair to the students who complete their work on schedule. While these arguments sound logical prima facie, the reality is that most students who are assigned zeroes in September are the same students who receive them in June – and the same who will probably receive them the following year. If we are “teaching responsibility,” we are not doing a very good job. I would rather have students be given a behavioral consequence for missing the deadline but be required to complete the assignment. This will indicate that zeros are not accepted and will have a greater potential to change behavior if it is known that the teacher will not give up on students by allowing their work to go uncompleted. Such a practice is not inequitable but rather creating the conditions for all students to meet the standards.

Inherently, the traditional approaches to homework and grading have forced teachers and students into adversarial relationships. If a student did not complete a homework assignment, justice was swift and sure – a zero. Teachers appeared to be insulted by the perceived slight and simply put, the learning opportunity was over. In many cases, there was no guarantee that late work would be accepted, so few students made the attempt. It was a matter of fact, if you didn’t get your homework done then you would earn a zero, and our students paid for this through continued poor habits and lack of knowledge assessment. With the new policy adopted at PCS, it is our goal to open a dialogue between students and teachers about the reasons why homework is not completed. Is the student just being lazy or are there other reasons, which, if uncovered, can lead to better practices and less angst? Though this will require some additional effort from administration and faculty, it could pay dividends in the long term through mutual understanding and a better environment for individual learning.

The new Grading and Homework Policy at Potsdam Central School also focuses on additional ideas for improvement, beginning with teachers not assigning a grade for routine formative homework. For the most part, formative assignments are designed for practice after the student receives feedback and additional practice, if necessary. They should be evaluated by teachers and may be graded. The overall grade for formative homework under the new policy may not exceed 10% of a student’s overall grade. This will ensure that a student’s grade is a more accurate reflection of achievement as it will be based chiefly on work completed under direct supervision of the teacher. Summative homework (homework whose intent is to ascertain the level of student achievement) will be assigned, evaluated, and graded by teachers. Teachers will decide which summative assignments to include in grade determination.

It is our intent that consequences are levied for students who do not turn in their homework. Consequences will be behavioral, not academic, in nature. After school detention, lunch detention, or loss of privileges should be dispositions instead of assigning an inaccurate grade of zero. Furthermore, natural consequences are enabled for our older students who should learn the value of practice. Students who fail to complete formative assignments often perform poorly on tests and quizzes. Per our policy, teachers also have the ability to assign an Incomplete for assignments/assessments which are so crucial that course credit should not be awarded if a student fails to complete them. With an Incomplete, the policy also encourages the teacher, student, and parent to collaborate and coordinate a process for completing the missed work.

From our perspective, a policy that does not permit a score of zero is raising the bar for student achievement. It also has the potential to create a more positive school environment which is critical for student motivation and learning. Though we know there will be challenges with any educational reform, it is our intention that this new policy will lead to more students meeting the standards and their potential.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Special Memories

I remember being told by my sixth grade teacher that everyone had a special talent. I’m not sure what my talent was, but I think she spent most of the year trying to help me discover it. This was no easy task. My sixth grade experience with Mrs. Maguire is a memory worth keeping. In retrospect, she went above and beyond to help me. She connected with me and at the time I didn’t truly appreciate it, but I do now. I think sixth grade was when I learned the most about who I was and who I wanted to be. It appeared to be a turning point of sorts. Was this due to my natural maturation or was it because I had a guide? I can’t really answer this, maybe a little of both, but I do think fondly of everything Mrs. Maguire did for me.

My thoughts now turn to my classmates and I wonder if they got this special treatment, too. I’m not planning on calling them to ask, but I can speculate that they probably have similar memories. My evidence is in my own memories. The special moments that my teacher created for me weren’t just for me, they included some of my classmates as well. They were there with me and we were all being guided by Mrs. Maguire.

Who are you thinking of now? Which teacher helped you find your talents?

Who are you helping to guide today?


The concept of intentionality came to me this last year as I discussed Invitational Education with Carol Fries; SUNY Potsdam professor, former AAKer, and 2003 Teacher of the Year. The concept of our discussion surrounded AAK and how we unintentionally developed an inviting atmosphere and climate. We concluded that this developed through years of individual people making a true difference in the lives of their coworkers and of their students. They made a positive impact on others. This welcoming spirit at AAK has led Carol to additional prominence as a conference presenter and author.

The next time the idea of intentionality was mentioned to me was at a conference this past summer. Paul Vermette, a Niagara University professor who is best known for collaborative educational strategies, spoke about the Social-Emotional Learning Standards (Yes, NYS does have standards for SEL). He suggested that we should be intentional about our interactions with kids. He professed that we have to teach them proper rules for society, civility, and etiquette. I don’t think he was referencing Emily Post – he was simply stating that to get a desired behavior we have to teach and model it. During my time with Paul Vermette I discovered that the concept of Invitational Education and Social-Emotional Learning are infinitely connected. Both depend on intentional actions which positively impact others.

This has led me to the idea of purposely and intentionally creating the environment that we treasure here at AAK. Is eating together one of my intentional acts? Yes. Is saying good morning to you with a smile intentional? Yes. Do I really want to smile? Actually…yes! Are the huge plants in our entryway intentional? Yes. What about our new painted Sandstoner Man in the office? Yes – and thank you Jani, it’s really cool. We need to be intentional with our thoughts and actions towards others and create an environment that is inviting and welcoming.

What about our interactions with the students? Can we intentionally impact them? We definitely can. Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I’m not sure where this quote came from, but I would speculate that the originator of this taught more academic information than I ever dreamed of as a teacher. Creating a welcoming environment for students is paramount to their success. Kids really will tune you out if they don’t believe you’re there for them.

According to Carol Fries, AAK already has a tremendously inviting climate and I would agree. Paul Vermette is trying to come to AAK this fall to see us for himself – not that he doesn’t believe me, simply to find an example of a school who attends to the Social-Emotional Learning of the students. What both Carol and Paul recognized was that schools who implement the NYS Essential Elements are, by design, inviting. We are the stewards of this environment and our responsibility lies within Essential Elements.

Thank you for your intentionality. The students, staff, and AAK are better because of it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Welcome Back!

I took a walk around the darkened halls of AAK recently and found myself thinking of the wonders our students will experience over the course of this new school year. This surreal moment exposed each closed doorway that I passed soon to be a portal for a student to enter. What will they learn? What will they do? Who will they become? What will you mean to them?

This Tuesday will be my nineteenth “Opening Day” and I still get just as nervous as I did on my first. The sense of excitement and anticipation which I feel surely pales in comparison to what a young student feels. We are challenged to live up to their expectations. I am confident that you will continue the tradition of excellence that is AAK. I am proud to be the leader of such a tremendous group of professionals.

With that said, this year will be full of challenges for us. A new Grading and Homework policy, shifting cut-scores, more rigorous assessments (or elimination of some exams), budget woes, bullying, and the list goes on. As Superintendent Brady mentioned in his opening speech, there are now more requirements on public educators than ever before. It is imperative that we succeed.

In an attempt to add some humor to my prosaic start, I found the following:

You Might Be in Education if...
• You believe no one should be permitted to reproduce without having taught in a middle school for at least one year.
• You want to slap the next person who says, "Must be nice to work 8-3 and have your summers free."
• You can tell if it's a full moon without ever looking outside.
• You can't have children because there isn't any name you can hear that wouldn't elevate your blood pressure.
• Your personal life comes to a screeching halt at report card time.

Thank you, in advance, for your prodigious efforts this coming week. I can’t wait to see you all in action. You hold the power to shape tomorrow.

Have a fantastic Labor Day weekend,


Friday, June 18, 2010

The Importance of Self-Reflection

Well, it’s the end of June; time for goodbyes and getting caught-up on the list of home repairs and improvements that we’ve all been avoiding. It’s a time for summer relaxation, recharging, and mowing your lawn. Maybe you’re planning a trip. I also know that many of you will be looking at your lesson plans for next year and getting yourself ready to begin anew. As all of this takes place, I’d encourage you to reflect on 2009-2010. What worked? What didn’t? What could be better? Reflection is harder than most people think – you have to be prepared to acknowledge the positive and admit your weaknesses.

The practice of self-reflection goes back many centuries and is rooted in the world’s great spiritual traditions. During my later years as an athlete, I was taught visualization techniques, a component of reflection, to help with my soccer skill. I found these techniques invaluable in more areas than just sports. Adherents of formal practices include the Christian desert hermits and Japanese samurai. More contemporary proponents include Albert Schweitzer and Ben Franklin. Franklin, in particular, had a rather comprehensive and systematic approach to self-reflection. He developed a list of thirteen virtues and each day he would evaluate his conduct relative to a particular virtue. Daily self-reflection was a fundamental aspect of Franklin’s life.

It’s important to note that while we all don’t have the motivation for a formalized practice, there are certain times when genuine reflection is easier with regard to time. The summer months are the perfect time for this.

A sincere examination of one’s self is not an easy task. It requires attention to what has not been attended to. It involves a willingness to squarely face our mistakes, failure, and weakness. It requires us to acknowledge our transgressions and actions which have caused difficulty to others. The fourth step of the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve step program asks us to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. Albert Schweitzer’s suggestion was to “make a secret account of what you have neglected in thoughtlessness or in consideration of some other person’s existence.” Such self-reflection leaves little room for blaming others or complaining about how we have been treated.

As human beings, we possess the heartfelt desire to know ourselves and find meaning in our lives. We have the capacity to do so. Actually, we may be the only creatures in the universe who can reflect on ourselves. We can observe our own thoughts and feelings and recall the actions and events of the past as if observing ourselves in a mirror. This capacity for self-reflection holds the key to our intellectual evolution, while, at the same time, residing in the roots of our own suffering.

So let us give ourselves a gift and embark on a summer journey of reflection. On this journey we’ll destroy falsehoods, do battle with ego, get snared by pride, get stuck in selfishness, and then, finally, swim in serene ponds of gratitude and confidence. Yet even as we travel, we may become aware that the path, and the ability, even the desire to travel, are gifts themselves.

Enjoy your weekend and your summer.
Resource: ToDo Institute

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tread Softly

I recently was introduced to Sir Ken Robinson, a British Author and internationally-renowned expert in the field of creativity and innovation in business and education. His visionary consultancy skills are employed by governments, major corporations and cultural organizations worldwide. I watched a video of him giving a speech at TED 2010 regarding the education revolution. He ended the speech with a quote from one of my favorite authors, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), who wrote,

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Sir Ken Robinson concluded by saying, “Every day, everywhere our children spread their dreams beneath our feet and we should tread softly.”

I would encourage you to watch his speech at

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Reflections on Our Footsteps in Education

This week's thoughts were composed by one of my contributing writers. Mrs. Carol Rossi-Fries, 2003 Teacher of the Year, SUNY Potsdam Education professor, and former 8th grade teacher at AAK Middle School. Today she delivers a unique message to us as she has traveled where we are. Reflection is always one of the hardest, yet most productive practices that we can endeavor in. I hope you enjoy today's thoughts.

June! A month that is both dreaded and eagerly anticipated is finally here. As the school year is now winding down at AAK, it might be good to take stock of it both personally and professionally. In the middle of the chaos we call the end of the year you might want to take time out for yourself and consider where you’ve been and where you are going. I could guarantee that sometime this year you probably have asked yourself, “Is teaching really worth it? Do I have anything left to give? Can I make it any further? Do I really make a difference?”

I considered those questions hundreds of times in my 27 years at AAK and still do to this day. Luckily, something happened back in April that reaffirmed my career, or more aptly, my lifestyle choice. For me, the answer to all of the questions above is a resounding “YES!” How do I know?

Again this year, SUNY Potsdam continued its tradition of hosting an academic festival every three years on issues pertinent to the college and the world at large. This year it had a much more personal meaning to us here in this neck of the woods since the theme of this year’s festival was Footprints in the North Country: Pathways on the Planet.

What does this have to do with Friday Focus and the questions posed above, especially now at the end of the school year? A lot, as it turns out.

As part of the festival, Jamie, Randy and I were invited to participate in a Thursday morning session entitled Footprints in Education. Based on our invitation and the initial description of the event, the three of us were a little uncertain as to how this was going to work, and we had our doubts as to how meaningful the session would actually be. In fact, we wondered if anyone would even show up to listen to the old hands talk about their experiences in education. We were going to be among the last to speak because of our positions in the “line-up” which were based on where we were in our journeys as educators. Randy and Jamie were billed as “veteran teachers” and Chip Lamson and I, both conspicuously grey haired and sporting bifocals, obviously represented the (semi) retired in the profession. Much to our surprise, it turned out to be an experience in time travel which left us with a myriad of feelings we did not expect: amazement, hope, gratitude, exhilaration, bewilderment, satisfaction, affirmation, lucky, and just plain old YIKES!

Let me explain. Before it was our time to speak to a few questions that the moderator had prepared for us ahead of time, we were treated to listening to others who were at various stages in their professional journeys. Preceding us in the line-up were those individuals who are now treading in places that we once walked – mainly with uncertainty, the three of us agreed. First, was “Becoming an Educator: The Early Lessons,” addressed by current field experience students. They were followed by “Complete Immersion: Trial by Fire,” with current student teachers. Then, recent graduates who are out there teaching now moved up the ladder with “Educational Preparedness: How Did We Do?” Finally, our intrepid AAK dynamic duo stepped up to the plate with “Ongoing Reflection and Growth: A Seasoned Point of View.” Lastly, Chip and I finished with “A Muse: I Have Walked Where You Will Go.” The session was followed by a Q&A in which most were fielded by Randy and Jamie who modeled professionalism and a sincerity that made an impression on the audience of SUNY education students and faculty, alike. When they were done answering questions, it was no wonder to anyone why AAK earned the “Schools to Watch” distinction.

As the session unfolded, the three of us were amazed by the maturity and poise of the guest speakers regardless of where they were in their journeys as educators. This gave us hope for our profession and the future of the kids we strive to mold every day in our classrooms and beyond. We were grateful for the idealism and enthusiasm that were the hallmark of the current field experience students who were ready to save the world. Their outlook was rosy and the sky was the limit; anything could be accomplished with some hard work and caring. The student teachers concurred, but added the realization that the work was a little harder than they initially thought. Like Jamie, Randy and I, the teachers who were now out in the field in their own classrooms were exhilarated by the rewards and challenges of teaching despite their realization that they couldn’t save everyone. They have also come to know that it is difficult to balance one’s personal life with the demands of their professional one and struggled with this daily.

Sound familiar yet? It certainly did to us as we kept asking each other, “Remember feeling like that? Do you believe we’ve been there and done that?” Bewildered, we kept asking each other, “Where did the time go? How did we get here on the end of the line-up? How did this happen? Was it really 20 years ago (or even more!) that we were the new teachers – some of us flitting on a cart between classrooms?”

As the session wore on, the seasoned veterans shared their experiences and mantras about teaching being a lifestyle and fair isn’t equal; fair is getting what you need. They extolled the benefits of working on teams that are like family and were satisfied knowing that they have made, and continue to make, a difference in more lives than they probably realize. The (semi) retired affirmed these notions and more. We recognized that we will never get rich in monetary terms because our investments were made in the hearts and minds of our students – “our kids.” The realization of their potential is our greatest dividend and that defies quantitative measure by any standard or state test. As we looked back – and forward to different dimensions of teaching on our never ending journey of being life-long learners and teachers – both the gray haired folk knew that the rewards of teaching far outweighed the seemingly overwhelming challenges inherent in our vocation, and that it has been a gift to have been called to this way of life. We agreed we were lucky and wouldn’t have traded it for the world.

Over lunch, we all reflected on the morning’s event and the chatter continued about the time that has seemingly passed so fast. We marveled at how we managed to make it through the rites of passage that the youngsters who preceded us in the line-up are going through now. They are following our “footprints on this planet” just as we have followed in the steps of those who came before us. Have we changed over all that time? Yes and no. Change (paradoxically) is a constant, but we have basically stayed true to whom we believe we ultimately are and why we do what we do every day, year in and year out. We were content.

YIKES! What a revelation! I HAVE walked where you will go on your journey as a teacher. I HAVE been there and done that. I HAVE repeatedly asked myself the questions posed at the start of this Friday Focus, but the answers weren’t always as clear as they are today. I guess age has its advantages. From my vantage point of looking back – and forward – my answer is clear now because I have come to realize the secret to being happy and fulfilled is to “do what you love and love what you do.”

So ….wherever you are on your journey, enjoy your summer and take the time to look back – and forward – to think about the questions, to find balance and answer with a resounding, “YES!”

Friday, May 21, 2010

When Work Seems Like Work

Sometimes work is tough. We have tough days, tough hours, tough meetings, and tough conversations. It isn't always fun. Nobody likes conflict and sometimes things happen that make you wonder if it is really worth getting up and putting on that nice tie and pretty Joseph A. Banks suit to get insulted, slammed, and put down.

Yes... sometimes that is exactly what happens and we all hate it.

In the past few years, I’ve stumbled upon articles and books that have made me really dig down and think about my work, my life, and my approach to challenges. At the end of this entry, I have listed for your enjoyment Ten Paradoxical Commandments from one such book written by Kent Keith.

However, that is not what I’m writing to you today about. I am writing about what I see as a real challenge that we have in schools. This challenge is that schools; public, private, and charter, are facing a sort of identity crisis. We are struggling like adolescent kids trying to figure out what we are and we have so many people telling us we should be this, that, or the other. There is differentiated instruction, 21st Century Skills, budgetary items, homework, technology, professional development, meetings, etc, etc, pulling us in different directions. Yes, I realize that I have placed many of these stresses in your lives.

The fact is that we have a set of young, impressionable, bright-eyed clients that don’t really care what we are. To them we are THEIR school and they depend on us.

We are expected to deliver the best to them that we can offer – despite the critics. No matter what we are asked to do, we must do the best for those kids in our rooms who are waiting with hope and fear and excitement and boredom and interest and … (well, you get the point) … we must do the best for them despite the issues. No matter what happens they deserve the best education we can provide.

Today I was venting my frustrations about the many issues we face and someone with a voice of reason piped in and reminded me that tomorrow the kids will come to school and they deserve the best education we can offer. It does not matter what the adults do or say. They deserve the best. (Thanks, Kate.)

The type of environment I’m extolling is described throughout the Essential Elements of a Standards-Based middle-level program. More precisely, we educators need to be developmentally responsive to our students’ needs. AAK has been tested on this principle with the School to Watch designation and it’s important for us to rely on this when times are difficult. You do deliver an excellent education to our clients and AAK is a proven model for others. I am comforted by knowing this even when things at work seem like work.

Enjoy the weekend,

The Ten Paradoxical Commandments

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.

Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.

Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.

Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.

Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.

Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.

Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.

Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.

Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.

Give the world the best you have anyway.

Taken from the book, "Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments, Finding Personal Meaning in a Crazy World" by author Kent Keith

Friday, May 14, 2010


I’d like to be honest about something. I am a deviant. When I was in upper elementary, I tested the patience of every teacher. When I sat in school between the ages of 10 and 14, I engaged in deviant behavior. During high school I conformed enough to graduate with honors and enter the college of my choice, but this wasn’t easy for me. I found that even in college, I excelled at deviating from the norm. As a young teacher, I wanted to deviate even though my students would need to pass “the” test. Seriously, what self-respecting content specialist would teach science through a fictional book, paint t-shirts to save the Earth, begin a compost pile in the classroom, make art depicting the human heart with only masking tape, or have the students develop a dichotomous key for make-believe monsters. Honestly, what was I thinking?

Yet, the idea of being a deviant intrigues me. I’m not a big fan of labels, but I see many student behaviors in this office that certainly would classify as deviating from the norm. In looking to see if there can be a positive side to deviant behavior, I came across the phrase, “Positive Deviants.” The writer-physician Atul Gawande has written about the phenomenon of "positive deviants" in the medical profession, that small set of players who are mired in the same environmental conditions as everyone else but stubbornly refuse to allow themselves to be constrained by conventional wisdoms, and as a consequence are able to identify fresh and often counter-traditional ways to address seemingly intractable problems. Retrospectively, many of the students presenting the deviant behaviors are also displaying characteristics which would be admired in leaders in many situations. Was my deviant behavior as a student positive? Well, I wouldn’t have to ask my teachers to know the answer to that. Was my deviant behavior always a negative? No.

In speculating the aversions to deviant behavior, I think it comes to the root of change. Deviants desire change – for both good and bad, but change nonetheless. Conformists seem to balance out the deviant behaviors. This occurs in all realms of life, but it comes front and center in education. Education is grounded in tradition and change is slow at best. Conformists have more of an upper hand in this field than in most; let’s say compared to business or industry, where change occurs in the blink of an eye.

Maybe I’m being unfair to this field, but in understanding the effect that relationships have on learning I feel that we all need to display some positive deviant behaviors. To help explain this statement and since we recently completed the bulk of our state testing, I’d like you to contemplate these two related questions concerning all students.
  • Will a student perform poorly on a test if you didn’t give them the information?
  • Will a student perform poorly on a test if you didn’t provide them with an opportunity to analyze, synthesize, and share information?
One fact that I enjoy about AAK is that ideas are not met with pragmatism, realism, and skepticism; which would be common in education. That may be a factor in our designation as a School to Watch. I have witnessed many of you deviating from tradition this school year, allowing the students to create their own concept map instead of traditional notes, debate and construct the rules for a society, race like the Olympians, care for others through their actions, role-play, and collaborate. I’ve also seen some specific deviant acts committed by some of our professionals, such as crashing into a cardboard box, blowing little plastic bottles up in the hall, cheering for the students (pompoms included), having fun, debating policy and philosophy, creating an experience, listening, and collaborating. You deviants make me proud.

Enjoy the weekend.

Friday, May 7, 2010

“Diet or Regular? Medium or Supersized?”

Once again I have found some words of wisdom from my own faculty. Denielle Baxter is the 8th grade team leader and ELA teacher at AAK. Here are her words...

I’ve stumbled on a concept that certainly isn’t new. It isn’t even earth shattering. It’s something that I’ve incorporated into my life outside of school with my own kids, and it’s something that I’ve used in my classroom for quite a few years. For whatever reason, however, it is a notion that I’ve been more aware of over the last few weeks. It’s something that I’ve needed to use more consistently over the last two weeks. (I guess staying home for days on end over vacation with a charming two-year old “princess diva” and a very witty and clever six-year-old kindergartener will necessitate the need).

What is this wondrous concept? It’s choice…and we all need to have it in our lives. Whether we are two or six, eleven or thirteen, still in our twenties or thirties, or moving into the forties, fifties, and beyond, we need to feel that we have some control over what affects us in our lives. We need that empowerment.

I find it amazing how many clashes can be avoided just by giving some options. Done effectively, both “sides” win and can be happy. For the two year old, it may be the choice of which pair of pajamas to wear or which cup to use. For the six-year old who is really trying to put off bedtime, it may be “Do you want to brush your teeth before we read the next chapter or after?” For the teen, it might be giving a choice of completing a chore in the morning or waiting until after dinner. In any of these situations, the task at hand is accomplished, but the child can take ownership of how it was done.

In my classroom, one way I incorporate choice is in the form of how students may go about completing a project. It will still be completed based on the criteria I set, and it will still meet those all-important standards, but the student can decide what materials, which method, and what content to use. Student choice also benefits the teacher…think about the variety of material that can be appreciated when a project or task is assigned and later needs to be graded.

For adults…oh, admit it, you relish the idea of being able to make choices in life. It’s the message in Robert Frost’s classic poem “The Road Not Taken.” If you haven’t read it in a while, go ahead—read it and apply it to your own life. I’ll wait.

There. Now think about the choices and decisions you’ve made over the years. Good or bad, big or small, you were able to define your life based on your decisions—and the reason for that is because you were faced with choices. It’s made all the difference. It’s what makes us feel we are important—that we have a say in how things work. Even making a bad choice can still be viewed as a learning opportunity.

By giving children choices, we are giving them some control over their lives when it seems to them that adults have all of the authority. By giving students choices when possible, we are preparing them for the world beyond these hallways and for making good decisions in their futures. Even when we, as educators, are given choices, it makes us feel that our experiences and expertise matter. It’s what makes us feel that we are valued as professionals.

That isn’t to say that giving choices should be the only way. Of course, there are times when it just won’t work. I do find, however, that when people frequently have options to choose from, they are more willing to cooperate in a situation when choice just isn’t possible.

Do you want fries with that?

Happy Weekend,


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Relationships Matter

From time to time, I ask my teachers to provide an entry to my blog. This entry was written by Todd Kaiser, fifth grade teacher and varsity lacrosse coach. I hope you enjoy Todd's words.

Jon Gordon is a motivational speaker and the author of a new book called Soup. The main theme of this book is that soup is meant to be enjoyed by others. In his words, “Life is more meaningful and rewarding when you take the time to create relationships that make life more enjoyable.”

In this spirit, here is an excerpt from Soup, where Nancy, the CEO of Soup Inc. shares her thoughts about the power of relationships:

"Nancy walked back to Soup, Inc., headquarters thinking about all the turning points in her life and realized that every great event happened because of one relationship or another. She had met her husband through a relationship. She had landed her first job out of college because of a relationship. She’d been hired at Soup, Inc., because of a relationship. She reasoned that the people we meet and the relationships we develop have the biggest influence on the course of our lives. It was a lesson she wanted to impart to her kids and anyone who would listen: The world is a mosaic of people and opportunities, and when you make relationships your priority, the possibilities are endless. Great relationships lead to great outcomes. Develop as many great relationships as possible. Make time for them. Nurture them. Engage them. Not just at work but at home. In your community. On airplanes. At the ball field. Everywhere. You never know where your next idea, opportunity, or life-changing moment will come from or which relationship will be behind it.” Today, I want to encourage you to take a little more time and energy to invest in your relationships. I can’t promise you that the relationships you create will change the world but they will definitely change your world!

As we look forward to the end of the school year, it is a great time to reflect back on the relationships we have created with our students. Have we tried to reach out to every student we work with? Is there one little thing that you have learned about a particular student that you didn’t know before? Does a student believe in you because of the relationship that you established from day one?

We all probably have similar answers to some of these questions, but think about how we can improve our relationships with our students to try to help them be the best people and students they can be. By encouraging our students to continue to work on their social skills and developing and maintaining relationships, our students will be more prepared for the “real world.”

Next year will be difficult for all of us at PCS, but if we all take some time to think about the power of relationships and how they can impact our students, our fellow teachers, parents, administrators, and friends…we will be able to be successful!

Visit Jon Gordon’s website at

Next week is Teacher Appreciation Week…

Enjoy the weekend,
Todd Kaiser

Friday, April 23, 2010

What do you remember about school?

My memories of school are focused on people. The funny and caring teachers, the cafeteria lady who used to give me an extra grilled-cheese sandwich, the kids who I sat with in math class, the custodian who seemed to know everything about the NY Knicks, my coach, the secretary who still remembered my voice on the phone long after I had graduated, the smell of the floor cleaner, the sixth grade trip on Uncle Sam’s Boat Tour, selling pizza’s to raise money for the sixth grade trip, graduation, that big game, baking ‘stuff’ in Home Ec and then putting-on a dinner for the Board, the play (I was the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland), playing my trumpet with my friend Aaron, my principal going to all the basketball games, ect., ect., ect.

I also remember many things about the academics…listening to Mr. Grudowski in Chemistry, learning Mrs. Buckingham’s science vocabulary for the next laboratory, Mrs. Master’s grammar lessons, Mr. Pitkin and Mr. Stemples teaching math through problem-solving, Mrs. Maguire telling me that I don’t have to go to Resource Room anymore, Mrs. Brothers dramatizing stories of the Civil War, Earth Science and Physics with Doc Cardinal, Mr. Richardson telling us about puberty, Mrs. Romonda and Mrs. Francey helping me learn my times tables, and who can forget Mr. Tasitano teaching me what it really meant by the phrase, To be or not to be.

As I reminisce, it dawns on me that I can’t balance a chemistry equation and have no idea what an endoplasmic reticulum is. Calculus is kind of like math and you can tell from my writing that grammar sometimes escapes me. I do think of myself as a problem-solver, but I will admit that a Geometry Regents would stump me. I do remember what I learned in Health class and my times tables are rather solid, but I am still trying to figure out Hamlet.

So, what do I really remember about school? It’s the people. I obviously learned the academics along the way, but it is the people who shaped me through the experiences and opportunities that they provided.

I had an incredible experience today which I’d like to share. It started me thinking about the experience our current students will remember. After speaking at a workshop for education majors at SUNY Potsdam, a young woman came up and introduced herself. I couldn’t believe who was standing in front of me – it was a student who I had taught in 7th and 8th grade math back in ’93 and ’94. We talked for a few brief minutes and she shared many things that she remembered about my class and her time at AAK. She did not regale me with her memory of algebra and she had no idea about the number of hours which it took me to plan each lesson and unit. Rather, her memory was about me, how I treated her, the classroom dynamics, our time struggling together with basic algebra, and the climate of my room.

As I conclude my thoughts, I should have chosen a better title. Maybe, “What do you want your students to remember?”

(Anna Allen-Wolf, PCS class of 1998, is becoming a math teacher at SUNY Potsdam.)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

In The Middle

This week, I had the opportunity to speak with many other professionals from around the state, middle school principals, superintendents, and NYSED associates. One such meeting with was Dr. John B. King, Jr., the NYSED Deputy Commissioner of P-12 Education. He outlined the current agenda from the Board of Regents and Commissioner of Education. One such item, Financial Crisis, was a topic which he spoke to with much concern. He conveyed to us the idea that the current crisis has initiated the essential question, “Are our investments in education worth doing?” He recited research figures from across the state indicating that less than two-thirds of our students are graduating. This figure becomes desperately worse in the big cities and epically worse for minority males. While many people don’t see the relationship of this statistic to their own districts and neighborhoods where graduation rates are good, it has certainly influenced the budget discussion. With a state-wide success rate (graduation) that wouldn’t be acceptable to most tax payers combined with a tremendous financial burden, I understand why they have asked this essential question.

This meeting with Dr. King, Jr. spurred a later debate among the middle level experts. Where would the middle-level be in what was said to be a three to four year crisis? Many middle school principals shared common experiences of cutting programs which led us to investigate the original foundations of middle schools. Is “middle school” a philosophy or is it a programmatic practice? For me, philosophy is paramount to the programs we offer. Our philosophy allows us to engage in what some perceive as alternate educational methods. Our programs are influenced by our philosophy. The issue comes when trying to explain the middle-level philosophy in defense of a program to someone who has never experienced it or only knows the antiquated junior high model.

Being of a scientific nature, I thought I’d quickly investigate the research behind the middle-level philosophy. I found volumes. Because middle schools are a fairly recent practice in comparison, the newest research is now based on actual test data, versus the original conceptual ideals. There is also a new publication which details much of this called, “Research and Resources – In Support of This We Believe.” Some other current articles are found below.

Student Achievement and the Middle School Concept -
Interdisciplinary Teaming -

Personally, I feel that promotion of the positive programs and outcomes should be the focus to the essential question. In looking to defend the middle, we should begin with the research and end with outcomes. To further corroborate these researched programs, one only needs to look as far as the Essential Elements of a Standards Based Middle School. These are a part of the Board of Regents Policy Statement (2003) regarding middle-level education.

AAK’s programs and philosophies are a model for the Board of Regents; however, budgetary issues cannot be ignored. As we endeavor to place an acceptable budget before the voters of this district, balance has become a primary concern. This balance is difficult when our philosophy is foreign to so many. My task has been and will remain the health and vitality of the middle school.

Thank you for being excellent ambassadors for the middle-level.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Should Have, Could Have

A simple thought for today. If you could travel back in time, what would you change - in your own behavior or in the school itself - to make your school experience better? Would it have been the organization and structure of the school? Would it have been how the teachers taught you? What about you as a student? Would you have made different decisions?

My mind is reeling with the possible changes that I would make.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Feel the Fire

This is an expression that I, the coach, often used to inspire and motivate my student-athletes. It was my belief that if you could find the passion of the moment then you would not only experience joy in what you were doing, you would also experience the success in what you were doing. This battle cry seemed to catch-on with the students and I began to hear it in the halls at school, “Hey Shank, do you feel the fire?” My instant reply would be, “Always.” As this credo edged into my classroom, I saw an immediate connection to my own excitable instructional style, but I saw more of an implication of this in the learning of content. Passion for math. I had it. Did my students?

We have all taught kids that we knew would grow up and do great things. From the moment we meet them there is just something about them that make them stand out from all the other kids. They would never settle for just average. They always have to be the best at everything. Whenever we assign a project they always have to go above and beyond what the other kids do. Whenever they are in PE they have to score the most baskets or run the furthest as well as the fastest. It’s never really a competition with other students, but a competition within themselves. They want to do better than they did the last time. They have ambition. They have drive. But above all else, they have passion.

Can you guess where I’m heading with this? That’s right. Not all of our students come to us with this innate zest for learning. We have to teach the kids we have, not the kids we want. So I searched for ways that we, as teachers, can help all of these other students find their passion. I found many great discussions and lots of great ideas. Here is just a sample of what I read from various teacher blogs and articles.
• Discovering one's passion is provoked by allowing students to make mistakes and find what they like through experimental learning.
• Educators must take genuine interest in students & get to know them before being able to encourage toward passions.
• Don't be afraid to invest a little extra time with them or for them. Sorry, but teaching isn't 9am-5pm. (I think that is why I see so many of you taking books and papers home. ;>)
• Passion entails risk, so we must create an environment where risk-taking and mistakes are ok.
• PBL is an avenue we use. Many call it problem/project based learning but it could easily be passion based learning.
• Sometimes I think we squash passion in the name of "order.” Let's not be afraid of "messy" education.
• Educators must model a passion for personal learning by regularly talking about what they themselves are learning.

Here are some of my thoughts...

Is it the job of the educator to find the passion for the student? Absolutely not. Is it the job of the teacher to crush the passions of our kids? Absolutely not. Alright, so maybe the way I just asked those two questions was a little harsh, but we all have probably experienced an educator who stifled a student’s passion for one thing or another. If we look at this as a continuum, with answers to the questions at either end a resounding, “NO,” then where should we strive to be?

I think that it depends on the individual child. The thing with passion is that sometimes kids don't really know what their passion is. That is when it takes an educator with an eye for identifying it. The key is to provide opportunities in the classroom that allow a student to explore and expand their understanding.

Some students need more help in finding their passion. A classroom that offers choice with assignments, different and varied assessment tools, and a global connection helps the passion.

I see passion in every classroom at AAK. But looking regionally and even statewide, I feel as educators, in order to help students find their passion, we have to have passion ourselves. We have to have passion for our job and the work we are doing. But above all else we have to have passion for those kids we have and make it known each and every day that we have passion for our teaching. We have to make sure we create environments that are comfortable for learning new things and safe enough for kids to make mistakes. And maybe then our kids will begin to discover what they really care about.

Thank you for Feeling the Fire in what you do. Thank you for providing our students with opportunities to experience this passion for learning.

Have a great weekend

Friday, February 26, 2010

Google-Proof Questioning: A New Use for Bloom's Taxonomy

One of my professional goals this year was to provide free online resources to you. I have spent much of my free-time reading, learning, and trying many of these resources. I have also subscribed to a number of blogs that I find interesting and intellectually stimulating. (I have kept track of these many blogs with my iGoogle page, which I showed you during February’s Faculty Meeting.) The Friday Focus for today is actually from a blog called, The Electric Educator. It is written by John Sowash, a Google certified teacher from Michigan. I hope you find this information useful to your teaching and provide some fodder for discussion.

Enjoy the weekend,

Google-Proof Questioning: A New Use for Bloom's Taxonomy

The internet has revolutionized information collection. The answer to virtually any question or problem is at our fingertips. Google has made this possible.

While I am a great admirer of Google and an avid user of its products, in a way, Google has made my life as a teacher a LOT more difficult. Let me explain. In the "old days" (that would be pre-internet) when a teacher assigned a worksheet with a series of questions on it students had a few options to get the answers.

1. Ask mom.
2. If mom doesn't know, ask Dad.
3. If Dad doesn't know look it up in the textbook.
4. If the answer isn't in the textbook, give up.

Now I am a teacher. When I give worksheets with questions on them my students immediately type the entire question into the omniscient search box on Google and in an instant, they have their answer. They have expended absolutely zero energy or effort to find the answer and as a result will not remember the question or the answer.

There are two solutions to this problem:

1. Ban the use of Google by all school-aged children.
2. Learn to write "Google-proof" questions.

Through extensive research and investigation I have come to the conclusion that option number one will prove to be an ineffective strategy. Therefore, we will proceed with option number two.

So, what is a "Google-proof question?" It is a question that cannot be directly answered via Google (or any other search engine) because it requires analysis, interpretation, and investigation. Writing such questions can be challenging. A helpful tool is Bloom's Taxonomy.

Bloom's is arranged into six different levels of questioning ranging from knowledge (the simplest) to evaluation (the most complex). It is only the top two levels, synthesis and evaluation that can be considered Google-proof. The verbs associated with these two levels include "compose, create, construct, rate, evaluation, design, appraise, argue, and assemble." Here are some sample questions that would fall into the analysis and evaluation levels of Blooms:

1. Rate the importance of the parts of the cell from least to most important.
2. Construct a graph to display the cost-benefit data of three types of biofuels.
3. Design an experiment to test the consumption of oxygen by germinating seeds.

These questions cannot be Googled. The web will be a very helpful resource in collecting information related to these questions, but search engines will not lead to easy answers.

We are in an age of information. Storing facts in our brains is a pointless exercise (unless you plan on being on Jeopardy!). In the era of the iPhone, any fact, statistic, or desirable piece of information is only a few clicks away. The skill of the 21st century that will set people apart is what they can do with the information that is available to them. What new products, services, or procedures can be improved, created or derived from the information that we have? Knowing is not as important as using.

Google has made my job as a teacher a lot harder, but I'm glad. Now I have to think of new ways to challenge my students to evaluate and synthesize information.