Friday, December 9, 2011

Old Words with a Different Perspective

A simple, straightforward thought for you today. A quote which I have read many times but just recently came to me in an email. It caught my eye this time because I read it with a different perspective.

Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought for with ardor and attended
to with diligence.

~ Abigail Adams

I have always interpreted this quote thinking about the student. When I read it this time I was thinking about my role in the education and learning of the student(s). I then thought about your role. Mrs. Adams’ quote caught me off-guard and I have a deeper appreciation for her words.

Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Challenge

How do you learn best? As teachers, we all should know our own learning styles and modalities. If you’re not sure, then the answer may be to look at how you develop your own lessons. We’re all more comfortable using strategies which “make sense” to us. I have seen this in different venues, too, like sports. Team strengths usually reflect the strengths that the coach demonstrated as a player. This may not be a coincidence. History tells us that we prefer to work within our comfort areas.

I am an active learner with a preference for working within groups. Can you picture how I conducted my classes? My lessons involved strategies which benefited the tactile and kinesthetic learner. The auditory learner would also benefit from the group activities, but, unfortunately, I probably did not serve the visual learner well. I didn’t have many graphic organizers, media displays, charts, or posted objectives. Periodically, I would plan an activity preferred by the visual learner. This would occur once, maybe twice in a unit. This was not enough.

We need to develop lessons in which our students can best comprehend; all our students. In the coming weeks, I challenge you to extend yourselves to incorporate strategies which address all learning styles, in each lesson. You will observe an increased level of student engagement. This will translate to student performance. If you doubt me, then try it and prove me wrong.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

'Tis the season to give thanks!

I found this past Friday Focus to be more relevant than ever. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks, Randy, for allowing me to share it once again. Enjoy your Thanksgiving Vacation. Jamie.

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.


Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Are You Bored Reading This?

I must preface this Friday Focus with informing you that I scripted this only after a seventh grade student with learning disabilities said to me, “Look what I did!” Their excitement was palpable as they produced, wrote, spoke, collaborated, organized, and learned.

Sitting and listening can be boring. I’ve actually heard many teachers tell me how awful a professional development opportunity was based on the simple fact that they had to sit and listen. Let’s stop and think about that…

Most people don’t place much time thinking about all the years they spent sitting and listening as children. They’re usually just glad it’s over. As educators, we endeavor to educate children who have an ever broadening spectrum of consumer technology at their fingertips and ever decreasing attention spans. The time-tested methods are no longer sufficient. Now more than ever before, it’s important that we are relevant in the lives of our children.

Friday, October 28, 2011

It's Been a Long Week

I started writing this Friday Focus about a dozen times between Thursday night and Friday morning. Words are not flowing freely.

What is there to say?

My heart goes out to the family of Garrett Phillips. My hope is that they can somehow move one foot in front of the other. Their strength has been inspiring as they work to rationalize an irrational tragedy. My heart breaks every time my thoughts drift to various family members.

I’m worried about our students. How can their little minds work through a tragedy which took their friend? It’s our responsibility to recognize their anguish – it will present itself in many differing ways. We will need to help them with this for many years to come.

How can you AAKer’s focus? I’m concerned that you will need more than I can give you. A child is a precious being and you know this best of all. I am sorry that you have had to go through this.

I learned many lessons this week. I would encourage you to think of some positive acts of courage, compassion, caring, and love which you’ve witnessed. This will help you – it has helped me. I’d like to share with you a Facebook entry that a former student (now a teacher) shared with me.

Today I am so grateful that I live in Potsdam, NY. I saw 11 and 12 year olds be much more than should ever be asked of them at this age. I am so proud that my children have chosen such amazing people to call friends. To the faculty and staff at AAK...I think I can speak on behalf of the entire community when I say that you set the bar for educators. Your kindness, compassion and guidance has provided so many families the strength that they needed this week. I am in awe of what you do. Thank you.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Habit or Rut

I recently found the following writings, written for teachers by teachers. I believe that it will be thought-provoking and challenging – which is what makes a great Friday Focus. It forced me take a reflective lens towards my own practices, processes, and patterns. I’m sure it will for you, too.

“Habit is necessary; it is the habit of having habits, of turning a trail into a rut that must be incessantly fought against if one is to remain alive.”
~ Edith Wharton (American Novelist and short-story writer, 1862-1937)

We are creatures of habit. Look around at what you do. Has your desk been in the same spot for the last seven years? How about the posters on your walls? Is that worksheet you just sent to be copied the same one you created years ago on Microsoft Office ‘98? Is the way you teach spelling the same as it was when Bobby’s father sat in your class twenty years ago? Whether or not you believe he is credible, Dr. Phil would ask, “How’s that working for you?” In today’s world of education, this is a valid question.

As our professional obligations change, we have all been required to more closely and extensively examine the content we teach. But now is also the time to think about how we teach that content. If we have to change, we might as well go for it all. It is admittedly unsettling to suddenly have to move out of a comfort zone. But if you have found yourself or a colleague complaining over and over again about something that is (or isn’t) happening in the classroom, maybe it isn’t the kids. Maybe it isn’t the change in schedule or the people you work with. Maybe it isn’t parents. Maybe it’s you.

“The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.”
~ John Dewey (American Philosopher, Psychologist and Educator, 1859-1952)

So many times we as educators think that all students “get it” the same way, or at the same pace. Anyone around for any length of time knows that’s never the case. (Even though NCLB and the “testing czars” seem to have that mindset!) As frustrating and time consuming as it is, changing things up a bit might be necessary. We’ve all heard the faculty room conversations about how students seem to be less skilled than in previous years. Whether that’s true or not, that’s just a statement of the problem. More importantly, what can you as the instructor do about it? What’s your solution? Maybe it’s time for the positive approach, especially at a time in education when it’s so easy to become negative.

The “How’s that working for you?” question might also be directed at classroom management. Is barking your expectations of students more loudly really making them understand better? Is asking the same student to sit in the hallway for consecutive classes altering his/her behavior any more the third time than it did the first two times? After slamming the door to get the class’s attention for the third time this week, maybe it’s time to rethink that strategy. Again, how’s that working for you? No matter how much experience you have, asking colleagues for help or what their strategies are for making students/classes successful might be a good place to start. Don’t be afraid to keep growing as a professional.

The only avenue to make change rests within yourself. Being willing to change even when it isn’t easy or might require more work might provide you with the answer to “How’s that working for you?”

Friday, October 14, 2011


This entry has been resurrected from one of my past writings. In 2009-10, it seemed to garner some attention. I hope it remains a thought-provoking and discussion-provoking entry. Enjoy!

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 our 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 have this new accountability using 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 frequently witness deviation in your lessons and classrooms, 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, October 7, 2011

A Science Teacher’s transition to the Middle-Level School (Creating an Exciting, Productive Classroom)

By Guest Writer, Lisa Dunkelberg

“Are you crazy? Why do you want to teach that age?”, or the raising of the eyebrows was a common reaction when I told adults about who and what I taught. “Aren’t you afraid of losing all of that?” another person said to me. “Did they force you?” “Do you really want to go?” “I’m sorry!” said another. Let me back up by stating that previous to teaching middle school, I taught high school science in the same district. I had taught Living Environment, Chemistry, and SUPA Forensic Science. Don’t get me wrong, I loved what I taught, but I was looking for something just a little bit more. I also wanted to teach an age in which students still loved coming to school and were willing to try new things. I found it at A. A. Kingston Middle School in Potsdam, NY.

Most of the material and information that I had built up over a number of years while teaching had to go. Some went to colleagues, some to the trash; I kept very little. I knew what students needed to know as far as science curriculum by the time they got to high school. I needed to find out what they knew before they arrived in my middle school classroom. My principal was great by helping me get materials that I needed for the middle school science classroom. We discussed what I would need and use throughout the year. Having an encouraging administration was key to a smooth transition (E.E. 5.12).

My classes consisted of 7th grade science groups, and a 7th grade accelerated group. For the accelerated group, I would teach 7th grade science during semester one and 8th grade science during semester two. Seventh grade science is mostly life science and 8th grade is physical science including physics, chemistry and earth science. I chose a variety of materials that would maintain student interest (E.E. 4.8). I also applied for technology equipment through local grants offered by the Potsdam Teacher’s Learning Center. I received a SmartBoard and Interwrite tablet, as well as an ELMO. These have been well received by students and greatly enhanced learning (E.E. 4.9). What I saw in the middle school far exceeded my expectations.

The climate of our middle school building is one in which students thrive in. It takes the cooperation of many staff members to have a building run efficiently and effectively. As a teacher, working with a great bunch of professionals is key to feeling comfortable, and supported (E.E. 1.4). I love coming to work every day. My classroom consists of single desks and lab stations along the walls. Students usually see me every other day for double periods. Occasionally, I may see all my students for a single period one day a week. This flexible scheduling allows for interdisciplinary team tasks to be accomplished. Assemblies, study skills, guest speakers, state tests, extra work on projects, etc., are to be completed during this “FLEX” period, every other day (E.E 3.3). My students and I enjoy the double periods as we accomplish more than we do with two single periods. We can complete activities, write up labs, and complete experiments, such as dissections, during a double period.

Adolescents are completely different human beings than teenage high school students. They love inquiry-based learning, experimentation, and asking questions. They want to know if what they see on TV is correct. They want to know about themselves and the environment around them. They want to share what they know with you. Students come to my classroom during study halls and ask to help out by watering plants, cleaning glassware, feeding animals, or helping to prep for the next activity. This year, I’m planning a lab assistant program to utilize their excitement. These students will come to my classroom during their free period and help to set up, maintain, or break down labs. If you teach classes that involve labs, you know the work involved in preparing and keeping laboratory experiments. Middle school students love to assist you and want to learn with a hands-on approach. They appreciate the time that you put into your classroom and your work with them (E.E. 1.5). I have high expectations of them and they have high expectations of me.

Materials that I have found effective for demonstrations, labs, activities, and experiments, include those found at garage sales, dollar stores, Wal Mart , and on-line. Asking friends and family members for recycled items is also helpful to stock my shelves. These items are useful such as using empty water bottles, straws, balloons, and elastics to create lungs, and then having students to go home and give it a disease for homework. This is part of the respiratory system unit. The diseased lungs that they bring back are very creative, have a story behind them and they understand how it affects breathing. Students have also created an arthropod of their choice using recycled materials. They loved to share what they made and how they made their animal. During a unit on the skin, students fingerprint themselves and then identify their own characteristics. Plain paper, ink pads, a reference chart, and small magnifying glasses are all that is needed. Students are focused and fascinated at how unique they are. I’m always looking at the core curriculum and my materials to see if I can use them in a way that will reach all learners (E.E. 4.5).

So, do I like teaching at the middle school level? No, I love it! Where else can I teach students that are just as excited as I am about science? I get to teach my favorite subject every day. It’s a lot of work and a lot of time to get to know each and every student, but it is worth it because they respond in a positive way (E.E. 1.5). I am thrilled to implement the new lab assistant program this year (E.E. 5.11). It goes along with so many middle-level essential elements, that I predict it will be successful. I would encourage any high school science teacher to take the challenge of teaching middle-level students. Teaching at A. A. Kingston Middle School has been a very rewarding experience.

New York State Education Department. (2003). Essential Elements of Standards-Focused Middle-Level School and Programs. Retrieved July 22 2010

Thursday, September 29, 2011

It Happened to Them

I read a recent blog by Marilyn Rhames, a teacher who experienced an epiphany-type event. Her words, which I read this past summer, have stuck with me and forced that all-too-clear reflective lens to the forefront. This author, as a young teacher, experienced working in a school which had an ineffective leader, unknowing teachers, and chaotic students. She didn’t stay too long and decided to leave that school for a more affluent community. While working in these new surroundings, she did what many of us do every day – she talked with her peers around the proverbial water cooler and commiserated.

On one such day, the talk was animated. A few teachers were reminiscing about their classroom horror stories at other schools: John dashed out of the classroom ... Sarah threatened to jump out the window, again ... Joe knocked over bookshelves in a fit of rage.... And in her desire to fit in and one-up the last tale, she began to share about the unbelievable dysfunction at her old school. As she spoke, she conveyed that she was persevering to educate the youth despite the insanity within that school system. She was the heroine of the story, fearless and unafraid.

That’s when it happened. As she reports, a quiet and unassuming social studies teacher said four simple words. “It happened to them.” He said again, "It happened to them, not to you. You tell the stories like it's some kind of entertainment, but it happened to them—the kids. They are the ones who 30 years from now will remember these stories with tears in their eyes." He went on to explain that he, too, used to complain and feel like the victim until another teacher rebuked him with those words. He felt compelled to pass that wisdom on.

It happened to them. Since reading this truth, I have been twisted by my past actions. I’m glad that I’ve been set straight and I’ve attempted to approach our current educational issues with this in mind. Educational reform isn’t about administrator or teacher rights – it’s about student rights. As Ms. Rhames points out, “Our needs are important – I have a mortgage; I have a family; I would like to retire one day – but they are not the core issue.”

As we endeavor to create policy, from the state/federal level right down to the building and classroom level, educators and policymakers must boil down the discussion to two essential questions: To what degree will this policy enhance student learning and how will we know? In the current climate of education, these questions must not be ignored. As was so eloquently stated by Astrophysicist Jeff Goldstein, “The teacher lights the way.”

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rules to Live By

Those who know me understand that my belief in self-reflection runs deep. Solid and honest hindsight is how we are able to move forward. Well, I thought you’d enjoy “reflecting” on these thoughts and rules from the past. Enjoy.

Following is a list of rules for a teacher in 1872:

1. Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
2. Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
3. Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
4. Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church.
5. After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
6. Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
7. Every good teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not be a burden on society.
8. Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity, and honesty.
9. The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.

(This list of teacher rules can be found on page 29 of Raymond Bial’s One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999).)

Following is a list of rules for a teacher in 1915:

1. You will not marry during the term of your contract. You are not to keep company with men.
2. You must be home between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless attending a school function.
3. You may not loiter downtown in any ice cream stores.
4. You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have permission of the chairmen of the board.
5. You may not smoke cigarettes.
6. You may not under any circumstances dye your hair.
7. You may not dress in bright colors.
8. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he be your father or brother.
9. You must wear at least two petticoats.
10. Your dresses must not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles.

(This list of teacher rules can be found on page 29 of Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996).)

Following is from an Oswego yearbook, 1931: (Thanks for sharing this, Dave.)

The Teachers Pledge

Reverently do I pledge myself to the whole hearted service of childhood.
Earnestly will I strive to keep my body, mind and affections fit for childhood’s service.
Cleanly will I live so that I may prove worthy of the faith reposed in me by the children whose lives I am to fashion.
Justly and patiently will I deal with each child so that the best in him will blossom and bear fruit.
Cheerfully will I cooperate with my co-workers to further the welfare and progress of the children entrusted to us.
Diligently will I prepare myself and practice my profession as though I expected to be a teacher all my life.
Gladly do I accept this opportunity: through the nurture of its children, to leave this world better than I found it.
Richard K. Piez

I hope you enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Patriot's Day

Patriot’s Day is observed on September 11th. Since this falls on a Sunday, we’re recognizing it today, September 9th. Patriot’s Day was signed into law on December 18, 2001 as a day to remember those who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks on our country. It’s been 10 years, but I vividly remember what I was doing at the fateful moment I learned of the attacks. This is the day I learned what terror really meant. Former President Bush described the attacks as, “Evil, despicable acts of terror.”

In recognition of Patriot’s Day, our school will endeavor to create a human flag. This event will take the coordinated efforts of everyone in the school. It may take an entire period, but the learning experience for our students, none of whom remember this tragic day, will be one they’ll remember forever. I’m proud of the way in which the faculty and staff have embraced this learning opportunity. A main tenet of education is to produce a citizenry which can self-govern. If there was to be a silver lining in this dark cloud of our American History, it would be the ideals of national pride. Those very ideals were the target of the 9/11 attack on our country. It was an attack on our freedom – which can only exist if education continues with its production of a self-governing citizenry.

I found it interesting that September 11th is also the National Day of Service and Remembrance, calling upon Americans to make an enduring commitment to serve their community and our nation. Both the National Day of Service and Remembrance and Patriot’s Day are intimately connected and it is most appropriate to celebrate our nationalism with a commitment to serve. President Kennedy’s inaugural words from 1961 still ring true, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country”.

So, while we carry on with our most noble of professions, I continue to ask more from you. An additional duty, extra class, or simply your understanding – our task to prepare the next generation of citizens is daunting. I also ask for you to look towards the community for opportunities to volunteer, to become involved, and to make a difference. To emphasize this need, think about your own personal mentors. I imagine that they were active in the classroom, community, and various organizations.

Be proud. Fly the red, white, and blue. Remember the sacrifice of others. Make a commitment to serve.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Sacred Trust

“A Sacred Trust for educators and parents. We’ve got to be that light.”
-Jeff Goldstein

The excitement and anxiety surrounding the beginning of school is an experience which I relish. Colorful notebooks, fresh pencils, new clothes, and the smells of floor wax and cleaner all bring me back to fond memories. This is my twentieth year as an educator and I’m as nervous as I was in seventh grade. I walk the halls with great anticipation. Serving the dreams of children is an awesome task and I want to live up to the expectations of our students.

At our first faculty gathering I shared with you a production of Jeff Goldstein’s keynote address to the NSTA was put to music as a gift to teachers. What a gift! With unwavering script, Jeff points out the magnitude of our position in educating young minds. A Sacred Trust is, quite simply, the best way to characterize the world’s most noble profession.

During our first meeting we discussed many of the converging issues, changes, and challenges facing education at the national, state, local, and building levels. While we brace and prepare, doing more with less, it’s critical to keep Jeff’s simple phrase as our focus. With understanding that our mission is a Sacred Trust, we will weather the changing roles each of us is facing. Further, we will have a better product and process afterwards. While reflecting on Mr. Brady’s admiration of The Greatest Generation and how they may have approached the issues of today, a quote from an unknown member of that generation comes to mind, “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” We are facing unprecedented changes in education in a post-recessional climate and we will prevail. With our clearly stated mission and the Essential Elements in our pocket, AAK will remain a beacon of excellence for others to follow.

I expect this school year to be exciting. I anticipate each child and their bright expressions as I greet them on Tuesday. I look forward to finding solutions to the unforeseen. I’m curious to see the processes develop with how we accomplish our goals. I want to celebrate success. In summation, I can’t wait for school to start.

Have a great year!

Friday, June 17, 2011

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 2010-2011. 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.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

One Step at a Time

This is what I kept saying to myself over and over again. It was hot. I was tired and sore. The air in my sunroom-turned-treadmill venue was stale. I looked through blurry eyes to the red numbers indicating my distance and it blinked, “0.9 miles.” I must admit my embarrassment to have allowed this to happen. I’m a proponent of healthy living and learning life-skills for good health. Me. I used to run this in five minutes during warm-ups.

That was a few weeks ago. Now, I’ve surprised myself by how easy this distance comes and goes. As I perceived my small, incremental improvements I began to deliberate how this relates to most everything that we do. A little devotion and discipline, taking one step at a time.

At the last faculty meeting I mentioned to you that I see personal goal-setting as being essential. My nightly walks have inspired this sentiment and I’ve now set other benchmarks for myself, including the one mentioned at the meeting; reading three books for pleasure. Along with “walking the walk” with regards to healthy living, I also strongly believe that we should be life-long learners. Thus, I’m currently accepting titles from any who have suggestions.

This summer I will be working with the other administrators and board members to formulate our 2011-2012 BOE Goals. Some of the professional goals which I plan to bring to the table began as conversations that I had with you, the teachers. As I convey our excellent ideas, it will be important to remember what our purpose is. Schools are all about learning. Most district mission statements purposely use the words life-long learner. AAK’s very own Mission Statement professes, “…preparing each student to become a life-long learner…” While we know and understand what this implies, do we educators actually model this or do we simply expect that children will have the internal motivation to become life-long learners? Is there a magic switch which turns-on when they become interested in a concept or initiative?

As you transition from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 school year, it’s important for you to set personal goals. It will be rewarding. Likewise, it’s important to place some thought into your professional goals. To assist, I leave you with the following questions for reflection.

What would our kids gain from us if, as educators and parents, we did a better job of showing that we, too, are learners? What would schools be like if the adults in the building purposefully and explicitly lived and shared the process of being a learner? What would education be like if we adults intentionally created opportunities to be co-learners with the children that we work with?

I hope you have a fantastic weekend.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Effective Teaching Strategies

Strategies for Direct Instruction
• Specify clear lesson objectives
• Teach directly to those objectives
• Make learning as concrete and meaningful as possible
• Provide relevant guided practice
• Provide independent practice
• Provide transfer practice activities

Strategies for Students with Disabilities*
• Sequence – Break down the task, step by step prompts.
• Drill-repetition and practice-review – Daily testing of skills, repeated practice, daily feedback.
• Segment – Break down targeted skill into smaller units and then synthesize the parts into a whole.
• Direct question and response – Teacher asks process-related questions and/or content-related questions.
• Control the difficulty or processing demands of a task – Task is sequenced from easy to difficult and only necessary hints or probes are provided.
• Technology – Use a computer, structured text, flow charts to facilitate presentation, emphasis is on pictorial representations.
• Group Instruction – Instruction occurs in a small group, students and/or teacher interact with the group.
• Supplement teacher and peer involvement – Use homework, parents, or others to assist in instruction.
• Strategy clues – Reminders to use strategies or multi-steps, the teacher verbalizes problem solving or procedures to solve, instruction uses think-aloud models.

*Excerpted from Swanson, H.L. (1999). Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, 14(3).

Friday, May 27, 2011


People use signs to give information, direct visitors, and occasionally inspire. Statements placed on signs are usually guiding phrases, such as, park on left, main entrance, no smoking, etc. Sometimes organizations, including schools, use signs to inspire. Normally, these inspirational signs are not too direct, but encourage amenability without offending, such as, We miss100% of the shots we don’t take, Learning Zone, and other inspirational quotes.

I recently attended a presentation at one of my neighboring schools, Norwood-Norfolk Central School, who used signs that were informational and inspiring. These signs were also extremely direct, which is a rare combination. As I walked into the school I noticed some large signs hanging on the outside of the building, which said, Norwood-Norfolk Teachers Work Hard and Care Deeply. My favorite said, Norwood-Norfolk Teachers Believe and our Kids Achieve. Kudos to the NNCS Board and Administration for saying what needs to be heard; a strong, commitment statement to your community about your teachers – your teachers should be proud.

While I feel the same about the faculty and staff at AAK, I have never posted signs such as these. I should.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pondering Perspectives

In the past few weeks, I’ve experienced the entire gambit of emotional endurance; often within the span of a few minutes while discussing only one issue. Concerns with many issues have had multiple levels and perspectives and my thoughts have been polarized.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, …”
Charles Dickens

While my quandaries pale in comparison to the turmoil Dickens wrote of between England and France during the year 1775, the month of May has left me with a somewhat deeper understanding of this age. In that setting, there was social upheaval and turmoil which eventually led to the French Revolution. I feel this fervent passion of revolution building now, not between social classes, but rather within our own individual senses and sensibilities.

This internal controversy, for me, is most prominently displayed with my impression of standardized assessments. State exams hold the promise of accountability and ensuring an equitable education for all, but conversely we have been experiencing the negative ramifications of this obsession with standardized tests, such as, stress, fatigue, burn-out, anxiety, etc. Included in my polarized version of today’s educational landscape is the anticipated rebirth of APPR. I’m excited about the potential but terrified of the effects if not properly done. To continue my dissection, Common Core standards are coming and they hold tremendous power to bring an equal education to all children, rich or poor, but are we taking state autonomy away by endorsing this? And, is this necessarily bad? My conflicted feelings aren’t diminished as I move towards more trivial pursuits. Has spring really been worth the wait? The sunshine that we have received only serves to bring light onto the destructive nature of floods. It’s certainly warmer out, finally, so now the black-flies are able to take flight. These, Tale of Two Perspectives, or conflicts, has also been in my mind as school districts look to dismiss many experienced teachers while recent graduates look to compete for nonexistent jobs. Will we lose valuable resources as teachers move away from education?

Recently, while attending an awards ceremony at SUNY Potsdam, which saw many of the newest members to the teaching profession receive recognition, our own Mr. Vroman delivered a stunning oration. One of his many jobs, most of which he volunteers for, is as the Vice-President of the Alumni Association at SUNY. In this capacity, he was to simply hand out the award for this semester’s outstanding student teacher. He completed this task, but not before conveying to the audience his version of these conflicting feelings. He spoke with sensitivity regarding the current job prospects. He affirmed many of these young teachers’ concerns. Then, he brought the ultimate message of what it means to be a teacher and why this noblest of professions is worth the endeavor. He spoke to the internal conflict these bright, new teachers were feeling and he pressed the message of what it truly means to be a teacher. I was awe-struck.

Pondering writings from notable authors holds much curiosity and interest to me. I’m fascinated with the perceptions of other people. I also enjoy reading quotes, famous speeches, and literary pieces; I always find relevance and comfort in their words. The words spoken by Mr. Vroman ranks among the highest-caliber of speeches penned. I found his presentation of the conflict all teachers experience extremely profound. His message touched everyone in the room and we were all better because of it.

A commentary on Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, stated this concerning the conflict experienced in 1775, “…turmoil leads to an awakening. Flowers bloom where before nothing could grow…” I suspect that my inner turmoil will continue to focus toward resolution through the crystal clear lens provided by Mr. Vroman.

Friday, May 6, 2011


“I know but one freedom and that is the freedom of the mind.”
Antoine de Saint-Exuper

This past week a historic event took place which brought my reflective lens out for a cleaning. I wasn’t sure how to respond to the news that our military, specifically SEALS Team 6, finally “got” Osama Bin Laden. I didn’t find myself in the mood for a celebration, but I certainly feel an astounding amount of relief. Ten years; it’s been a long-time coming, but now the “hunt” is over. The man who has been the face of terrorism is no longer a direct threat to the people of our great country. I admire our men and women who have dedicated their lives to my safety and I hope for their safe return. This news came just as my nephew was returning from a year-long tour in Afghanistan. He’s now home with his wife, getting acquainted with his baby daughter, born two weeks after his departure. It was a satisfying week for me.

While I stand firm in my patriotic resolve, there is a part of me that speculates how our educational system would vie if our teachers garnered the same level of support that our soldiers received. For the past ten years, when military missions yielded small incremental gains in Afghanistan, we all realized that the fault was not with our men and women who were in the trenches. We spoke of failed policies and looked toward the leadership. There was not one mention of our soldiers being lazy, overpaid or having too many benefits.

Unfortunately, in education we see this blame-game from community, media, and governments. When our students perform below proficiency levels, there is no acknowledgement to the many factors which influence the results. We simply blame the men and women who are in the trenches. Our military, when faced with obstacles in reaching success, were provided additional resources and training. They even offered incentives to enhance recruiting efforts. Our educational system must do the same. We know that a good teacher is worth their weight in gold and that a poor teacher will negatively affect a child’s future. This is the main reason for my total endorsement of the Essential Elements, which provides a landscape for teachers to develop and a model for student success. As we face our obstacles, it’s important to remember that the Essential Elements are the vision, I know that we have the will, now we must find a way. Keep yourself above the media frenzy which seems to populate the education articles in recent headlines. We know the truth.

This is Teacher Appreciation Week. I’m unsure if there’s any irony in the fact that this is also the week we’ve begun our state assessments. Either way, I know the extent to which you have gone to ensure our students are prepared. I appreciate that you’re “in the trenches” and admire your successes.

Once the sunshine returns, we should hang our American Flag proudly and be thankful that we do live in a country that endorses freedom for all. Public school is the best representation of those ideals.

Thank you and enjoy your weekend.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Thought-Provoking Quotes I've Recently Read

For the Love of Learning is a blog written by Joe Bower, a Canadian teacher I follow on my iGoogle page. He has the following words displayed prominently on his blog, “Teachers who blame students for being bored is the equivalent to yelling at the hammer after you strike your own thumb.”

Another blog that I follow, Mind Dump, written by teacher and educational leader Scott McLeod, had an interesting comment to one of his entries. “Why is it that every generation panics about the next generation, and is wrong every single time?”

David Coleman is a nationally known educational leader who has been instrumental in the creation of the Common Core Standards. I participated in a NYSED webinar who fortunately had him as a keynote speaker. I didn’t read this quote, but rather heard it and quickly wrote it down. “Much of the work done towards the development of the common core standards was done by New York State. The standards stand on the shoulders of the work done by New York."

As I experience the changes in weather that has seen bright blue skies, dark skies, rain, wind, hail, and then back to bright blue – all in the span of fifteen minutes, I have been reading a lot from the weather pages. John Ruskin, an art critic and poet, wrote, “Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces up, snow is exhilarating; there is no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.”

Kin Hubbard, cartoonist and journalist, entertained me the most when he wrote, “Don’t knock the weather. If it didn’t change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn’t start a conversation.”

I found my final quote while moving some items around my basement in an effort to make room for rainwater. Basil Cruikshank, my grandfather, wrote a short, humorous poem on an old baseball he gave to me, which ended with the profound sentence, “Don’t give up the ship unless it’s sinking.”

Enjoy your weekend

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Success in the Middle Act

This past week something of significance occurred on Capitol Hill and I almost missed it. One could hardly place blame for missing this small bill introduction, especially from the beaches of South Carolina. The Success in the Middle Act (H.R. 1547/S. 833) was reintroduced by Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) to renew an effort to strengthen middle level education as a way to increase high school graduation rates; something that many reform efforts have neglected.

In Senator Whitehouse’s statement on the Senate floor, he stated, “This bill recognizes the role of the middle grades as a tipping point in the education of many of our nation's students, especially those who are at risk of dropping out…" He continued to say, "Success in the Middle invests much-needed attention and resources in middle grades education, requiring states to create plans to specifically address the unique needs of students in the age group, and focusing on schools that feed into some of our country's most dropout-prone high schools so they are ready for the curriculum and the unique social pressures they will encounter there."

This bill is a collaborative vision from NASSP, NMSA, and the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, as well as many other educational groups. Furthermore, it incorporates many of the practices outlined in Breaking Ranks in the Middle and The Essential Elements of a Standards-Focused Middle-Level Schools and programs. Specifically, it would:
• Authorize $1 billion annually for grants to local school districts to improve low-performing schools that contain middle grades.
• Require states receiving grants to implement a plan that describes what students are required to know and do to successfully complete the middle grades and transition to and succeed in an academically rigorous high school that prepares them for postsecondary education and the workplace.
• Require states to develop early warning and intervention systems to identify those students most at-risk of dropping out and intervene appropriately to help them succeed.
• Encourage states and districts to invest in proven strategies, such as: 1) Providing professional development and coaching to school leaders, teachers and other school personnel in addressing the needs of diverse learners and in using challenging and relevant research-based best practices and curriculum; 2) Developing and implementing comprehensive, school-wide improvement efforts in eligible schools; and 3) Implementing student supports, such as extended learning time and personal academic plans that enable all students to stay on the path to graduation.
• Authorizes an additional $100 million to facilitate the generation, dissemination, and application of research to identify promising practices in middle grades education, as well as review existing research on middle grades education practices.

I was extremely pleased to see this bill brought back to life with lawmakers. To me, it signifies a sense of intelligence as we seem to be enduring too few thought-out manifests coming from the government regarding education. I believe in having a strong middle-level as a way to improve the high school dropout situation. This is not to understate the importance of other levels, it is simply my belief that without a middle-level which incorporates the principals of the Essential Elements, we are not providing the education our children need and will be unable to improve the dropout situation. I encourage you to contact your federal representatives and tell them that you support Success in the Middle Act (H.R. 1547/S. 833).

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Team Leader's Attend Meeting

This past week your Team Leaders spoke at a Board of Education Finance Committee meeting. Their words touched many who listened, including me. I am humbled to be in the presence of these great educators. While their words were much-to-kind to me, they do cut to the heart of what a middle school can and should be.

We are here this afternoon representing the A.A.K. family – the teachers, faculty, and staff. We at A.A.K. wish to commend those of you on the school board, Mr. Brady, Mr. Cruikshank, and the other administrators who are working to devise a plan to continue the excellent programming offered to the students of our district during these difficult budgetary times. Your job is not an easy one.

Besides commending you on your hard work, the teams at A.A.K. want to encourage you to revisit the New York State Essential Elements when considering the impact of any cuts at the Middle School. While we consider all programming to be important in developing well-rounded students, we also understand that cuts are unavoidable. These cuts will affect everyone, especially our students. Because of the numerous funded and unfunded state mandates placed upon the Middle School, we realize the difficulty currently faced by decision-makers.

Simply put, A.A.K. received the “Schools to Watch” designation in 2009, making us one of only 200 middle schools nationwide to earn this recognition. We believe in and practice the principles of the Essential Elements every day. Schools to Watch site evaluators - and our own students - recognize and appreciate the team concept and flexible block scheduling that allow the invitational environment and approach that are necessary for the complete development of the middle level child – socially, emotionally, and academically. The STRIDES program, the 7th grade advisory program, the Greek mythology project in Grade 6, and the 5th grade Latin American project are just a few of the experiences and opportunities that benefit our students. Our students like to be at school.

Four years ago, Mr. Cruikshank saw something special at A.A.K. His insight was validated when we earned our distinction. He supported us then, and we support his efforts to maintain our excellence now. We trust him and all of you charged with making these difficult decisions.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What is a Middle School?

Last spring, I was speaking with Amy Guiney from SUNY Potsdam. You may have heard of her, she is responsible for many areas involving the education students, including observation and student teacher scheduling. During our discussion she asked what SUNY Potsdam could do to improve their program. This was the “in” that I needed. I framed my reply beginning with, “Well, since you asked…” and ended with a question: “What specific middle-level concepts do you teach?” I knew the answer, but wanted her to state that they didn’t have any specific courses involving the middle-level. After this wonderfully productive discussion, I have found myself being asked to periodically lend my perspective to various graduate and undergraduate classes.

Today I will be speaking to a group of student teachers, fresh from their first high school experience. Almost all of the students joining me will be moving into their second placement at a middle school. I think this is why I was asked to speak to this specific group; to help prepare them for our mysterious world called middle school. I’m sure that most of them will be spewing with confidence as they stroll into their next placement. I also think it’s safe to say they have a solid grasp of the subject matter. However, I’m positive that … they really have no idea what they’re about to encounter.

The root of my discussion will center on the title of this Friday Focus. Furthermore, I hope to discuss what a middle-schooler is. By investigating the concept of a middle school, I hope to introduce to them the Essential Elements, for this is the blueprint of a successful school. These elements indirectly tell us about the actual middle-schooler: development (body and mind), coping skills (or lack thereof), relationships (teacher-student, student-student, and even teacher-teacher), and the necessity of co-parenting for 6 ½ hours each day with their guardians.

I would encourage you to personally reflect on what you would say to a group of bright-eyed future teachers. This exercise has been invaluable for me.

I hope you enjoy your weekend.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Ten Things We Should Unlearn (or at least ponder)

  1. Teachers know all the answers. If this were true, then why do companies produce a teacher edition? Some of my best lessons were developed from a student asking a question and my reply of, “I don’t know, let’s figure this out.” I don’t know anyone who has ALL the answers.
  2. Teachers have to control the class. Sage on the stage or guide on the side; there’s a place for both in the classroom. Early in my career I heard, “Trust the Chaos” from a co-worker when I walked into their classroom. I began to embrace opportunities which engaged the students and allowed them to collaborate. A novice observer may have thought that my classroom was not controlled, they would have been wrong. An active class does not mean that a class is out of control.
  3. Teachers are responsible for the learning. In truth, students are responsible for the learning. Teachers are responsible for providing the proper environment, modeling, practice, and engaging activities to enable the child to learn.
  4. Students are obliged to respect teachers. Respect isn’t given, it’s earned. I respect people (students included) who’s actions I admire.
  5. Learning can be measured by a letter or a number. A more precise system would allow us to indicate a level of success for each individual learning standard.
  6. Teachers should plan activities and then assessment. I became a much better teacher when I created the final summative assessment and then developed the learning opportunities. The Understanding by Design (UbD) approach really works!
  7. Learners need to sit quietly and listen. I’m not encouraging free talk and pandemonium, but the only subject matter learned by this is compliance. Brain research has found that we are social creatures (big surprise) and we learn best through collaboration, discussion, and trial.
  8. Technology integration is optional. Is it our task to prepare our students for tomorrow’s world? Do you think that technology is a fad or phase?
  9. Worksheets support learning. What was the last worksheet you filled out? Mine was from the IRS and I didn’t learn much from it. Worksheets provide an opportunity to practice a concept independently, but the application of a concept is when deep learning occurs. A worksheet on its own will soon be forgotten.
  10. A subject must be taught independently to be mastered. Looking back, I must admit that one of my most successful experiences as a teacher was when I used four fictional novels to teach a year-long science class. This included two books by Jean Craighead George, one book by Gary Paulsen, and one by Doctor Seuss.

I hope you enjoy the weekend.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Combating Cabin Fever in Teachers

The following is what I sent to my faculty today. I had a secondary motive, other than having my teachers review other websites, to send each other positive notes. March is a long month and cabin fever is real. Getting a positive note from a colleague always lifts the spirits and motivates us. Enjoy.

I normally begin my Friday Focus with a quote, thought, or idea, which expands to a reflection and sometimes a revelation. Today I’m changing things up and asking you to be an active participant. Your task is relatively simple and will take only a few minutes of your time. I would like you to visit five teacher websites and spend a moment navigating around them. If you like something about the website, then send that teacher a quick note to let them know. Here’s the catch – I would like it if you would only view one site from your team and one site from another teacher at AAK. (That leaves three sites left, right?) Please select one teacher site from the high school and one teacher site from the elementary school. For the fifth site I’d like you to travel the internet waves to another district and view a teacher site from outside the Potsdam district. It’s important to remember to send a note or email telling the teachers what you liked about their site.

Thanks for being such willing participants in this exercise. Have a fantastic weekend!

Friday, March 4, 2011

How do you measure the health of a school?

We’ve had a lot of distractions lately. Budget, testing, homework, apathy, cut-scores, subgroups; the list is long and each have the ability to increase anxiety and raise the blood-pressure. So I’ve decided to focus on the question, How do you measure the health of a school? As I ponder this cardinal question, it strikes me that the answer most likely depends on the perspective of the one doing the pondering.

It would make sense that a physician may say that the health of the school depends on the number of absences, known illnesses, and concussions received while at school. A lawyer may believe that a healthy school is one which experiences no litigation. Arne Duncan would think that standardized test scores would indicate a healthy or infirmed school. Ruby Payne would look into the level of generational poverty and the cultural backgrounds of the teachers before answering this question. Governor Cuomo would undoubtedly say that all New York Schools are first in cost and 34th in results (even though his data is one-dimensional, outdated, and simply wrong), therefore we’re all unhealthy. Paul Vermette would tend to think that a healthy school is one that takes care of the social-emotional and development needs of each child. Mel Riddile, former principal and an associate of NASSP said that his barometer of a healthy school is to listen to what the staff of the school talks about. Teachers in [healthy] schools talk about students and how they are meeting their needs. [Unhealthy] schools talk about adult wants and adult needs. I found that perspective the most intriguing.

I believe that the most accurate answer to this question is from the perspective of the Essential Elements. These elements encompass all the aforementioned thoughts and ideas. So, a healthy school is one that implements the Essential Elements to a high degree. This is where AAK excels.

The distractions that claim our time and focus will not diminish in the coming days, weeks, and months. It will be imperative to remember that our objective is to remain a beacon of excellence for our students, families, and other educators looking for solutions. We are developmentally responsive to the needs of our students and this will be our continued emphasis. Programs will change, but our mission will not. Being a healthy school, as being an excellent school, is not a destination, but rather a process. We will continue with the process of excellence regardless of the distractions.

Thank you for providing a healthy, child-focused school. Have a wonderful weekend.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Guest Writer - Schools to Watch visit

"We sure ain't in Kansas anymore Dorothy! They (the GPS) told us to just follow the yellow road, but there are SO many roads. Yellow ones, grey, black, red... and isn't there supposed to be paint on the roads to keep us side by side? What is this BRONX.... is that like OZ? I never knew there were so people in OZ, and they kinda talk funny, is that their munchkin accent?”

What do you do when the GPS tells you one direction, MapQuest another, and Google maps a third? I went with the GPS, a lot easier than trying to read. I got there!

Jamie asked me to share some of my recent experiences as a member of a “Schools to Watch” site visit team to Garden City Middle School. The problem I face is sorting through all the interviews and observations over the past two days. Garden City is an upper middle class community which has a very clear emphasis on high academic performance with a school (grades 6-8) population of 1100. They regularly score in the mid/upper 90's percentile having 3’s and 4's on all state assessments, they also have strong athletic modified and intermural programs, as well as expressive arts offerings. A healthy competitive nature runs through the building. Speaking of the building, it does have a newer built section, but for the most part I felt like I was visiting Hickory from the movie “Hoosiers”. Crammed rooms, often very little heat, outdated halls and stair wells which led to ???. To say the least, our first day was off to an auspicious start. The Superintendent no showed, HS sent an assistant, elementary principals no showed and several staff and faculty had very little idea who and why we were there. We witnessed less than impressive classroom practices. This is a school to watch? Our evening wrap-up and start of the evaluation process was not very positive. Maybe it's good to have the second day. First thing Tuesday morning we all had our “A-HA” moment, the kids! Each one of us was blown away with these kids. They loved being in this school. This universal message was received loud and clear. Yes there were significant deficiencies in the building, technology, and classroom practices, but there is something going on there that has a near total “buy in” from the kids. They LOVE being there, they want to perform well in class, they love the clubs, activities, the athletics, the arts, and they feel safe in doing them. As the second day evolved a new light was shed on Garden City. We saw a school community. From the administrators , counselors, teachers, aides and staff, the students do and always will come first.

It was clear the students left a lasting impression on all of us. This also is where I felt, as a representative of AAK, most closely connected with our Island colleagues. There is something special about the school community environment we have. Now more than ever, we need to remind ourselves of what it is that we do at AAK that warranted recognition, and be able to continue these practices. We owe it to our kids!

Have a great break,
Dave Vroman

Friday, February 4, 2011

In Japan, ceramics of high value are repaired using an ancient technique called kintsugi – filling cracks with gold-laced lacquer. Visually, kintsugi celebrates breaks, flaws, and points of weakness as opportunities to create new beauty. Skillfully done, kintsugi can make a broken piece of ceramic more prized than an unbroken one. (Olson, 2009)

This quote came to me through a book that I recently read called, “Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture.” It simply framed the idea that every student brings their life experiences with them into the classroom.

Admittedly, wisdom for me on this topic is short, but I recognize that a basic flaw with our educational system is that we try to place students into categories. When, in fact, we should have 400 separate categories – one for each student enrolled at AAK. Tony Wagner said it best in his book, The Global Achievement Gap, “Our system of public education … was created in a different century for the needs of another era. It is hopelessly outdated.” For most schools in most communities, this sentiment is corroborated. However, AAK is not most schools. Through our curricula, teaching methods, and common belief t
hat change is not taboo; we have remained a beacon of educational excellence. By creating dynamic, engaging, and differentiated lessons, our teachers have helped all students reach their potential.

I remember my own infamous legacy as a student at a near-by school, and the trials that I faced each day. For me, I brought my obvious flaws into each classroom and the teachers that I fondly recall are the ones that worked with me despite these flaws. The teachers that truly gained my admiration were the ones that went one step further – they taught to my strengths and taught to my flaws. They understood how I learned best and encouraged me, gave me confidence, gave me a second chance, allowed me to fail with dignity, and created a desire within me to do better. You could say that they celebrated the flaws that were Jamie Cruikshank and inspired me to be intrinsically motivated. They could not have accomplished this without helping me meet my basic needs.

I have previously shared with you Maslow’s Chart, and I do so again – this time with a small explanation. Maslow believed that a child’s basic psychological needs must be satisfied (lowest level) before they can be concerned with the next level of needs (safety). Basic safety needs must then be met before the next level (Belongingness and Love) can be addressed. As you can see by this chart, the lower portion of the pyramid deals with the most basic of things that most of us take for granted. Once these basics needs have been met, a student is ready for the classroom (Need to Know and Understand). This pyramid makes sense to me – A child must be provided with the most basic of needs and be cognitively able, they must feel safe, they must have a sense of community/family belonging, they must be secure – before they are ready to learn.

Many of you are constantly searching for ways to reach a student and help them become intrinsically motivated. I have had numerous conversations that show me just how conscientious, concerned, and involved with the students that our faculty and staff truly are. I am proud of the fact that AAK provides individualized instruction. You are aware of your student’s needs and how they learn best. This is one of the most impressive components in our educational program here at A. A. Kingston Middle School. Your students admire you.

Enjoy the Weekend!

Monday, January 31, 2011

Baseball and Teaching

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.” Henry David Thoreau

Students with learning problems need constant motivation in order to learn. For the teacher, this task can seem nearly impossible and ex­hausting, especially when students enter your classroom with no ma­terials but lots of baggage—past failures, academic frustrations, and less-than-ideal attitudes.

At some point in my coaching career I remember coming across an article by Robert Harris (1991), a writer and educator, who wrote about how what we do in our classrooms can be compared to the game of baseball:

Think about a group of young people playing a baseball game. The very things that motivate them to work hard and do well playing baseball can be adapted to the classroom:

  • Teamwork: Young people like working as a team. Yet often the learning activities we assign call for individual effort. By designing more team assignments, we can reap the benefits of teamwork. The weaker students will learn by having others help them. And, since teaching someone something is the best way to learn, the students who teach each other will learn better than if they were learning alone.
  • Fun: Sports are fun, exciting, and highly emotional. Learning expe­riences should be, too. Strong and lasting memory is connected with the emotional state and experience of the learner. People remember more when the learning is accompanied by strong emo­tions.
  • Enjoyment of Success: Playing a game provides a constant flow of accomplishments. Even the players on the losing team enjoy a strikeout, a good hit, a great catch. Breaking learning into smaller parts that can more easily be conquered, producing feelings of ac­complishment and success, will help motivate students to go forward, even through very difficult material.
  • Activity: A baseball game is definitely not passive—it requires both mental and physical activity. Teachers should strive to make learn­ing always mentally active and often physically active as well.
  • Flexibility and Creativity: Baseball has rules, but within those rules the players have a range of choices and strategies for accomplish­ing a given goal. Students learn better when the directions have some flexibility and they can put some of “themselves” into the as­signment.

On a more personal level, I have tried countless strategies to moti­vate low-performing students with varying degrees of success and high levels of frustration (mostly mine). The one strategy that consis­tently works for me, though, is caring. I do know that we are all caring individuals, or else we wouldn’t be in this noble profession called teaching. What I’m talking about, though, is taking caring to the next level:

  • Allowing ourselves to be human in front of our students. Share sto­ries, lessons learned, mistakes made. Young people are quite insecure at this age—they need to see the person, not just the teacher or authority figure.
  • Developing a relationship with our students. Try to learn about your students’ lives outside of school. It can make a world of differ­ence, especially when their home situation is less than ideal.
  • Setting goals with individual students. For one student, it might be an attendance goal. For another, it might concern disruptive be­havior. And remember to check on their progress—your concern and approval might be the only reward needed.
  • Enlisting the help of your colleagues.

It truly “takes a village” for special needs children, because they require that constant push. There are so many examples right here at AAK. I have seen Todd Kaiser mentor some mighty challenging boys, with great success. I see Mary Clary smoothly lead a three-ring circus each day as she helps stu­dents. I know that most stu­dents can’t wait to take Mr. Fili’s technology class because they get to make things. I know that Trudy Knowlden can pull some quality work out of the toughest seventh grade boys, and that she loves every minute of it. I know that our coaches support aca­demics and make sure the players know their expectations. I know that Theresa FitzGerald works with struggling kids and is piloting a co-teaching venture with Michelle McMahon, who elicits volumes of written work from all her students. I count myself blessed to be among each of you and learn from you daily.

Just don’t give up, for long after the content has been forgotten, the teacher will be remembered.

Enjoy your weekend.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Front of the Class

It was late and I was tired. Just getting home from a long Board meeting I thought that a little time of mindless entertainment would be exactly what I needed. I turned on the television and began watching a “Hallmark” movie, Front of the Class. It was about half over, but looked interesting. What I got was anything but mindless. The movie was about Brad Cohen, a teacher with severe Tourette syndrome. It depicted the incredible courage he needed daily to face a room of students and all the prejudices from the homes.

I thought about the disabilities we bring with us everyday into the classroom. I have seen teachers work from a wheel chair, with an arm in a sling, with a cast on a foot, and with a patch on an eye. Many of these have been temporary disabilities, but not all. A former student teacher of mine had a degenerative muscular problem, and other teachers bring their own learning disabilities into the classroom. I brought ADHD.

Brad Cohen fought against prejudice all of his life. This was portrayed in YouTube videos about his life which I found after watching the end of this movie. As a child, he could not stop making noises in class or twitching any more than a person in a wheelchair could run faster. He was ridiculed and punished for a disability; something that he had no control over. This continued as he grew into adulthood. He went on over twenty-five interviews before finding a school that would give him a chance to teach. He did not disappoint them. That year he was named the Sallie Mae’s First Year Teacher of the Year in the state of Georgia. He continued to earn recognition and awards for his outstanding service in the classroom.

During his acceptance speech for that initial award, he thanked those who had supported him, but he gave the greatest thanks to his most influential teacher and constant companion, Tourette’s. This took me by complete surprise.

During our next faculty meeting I will be showing some excerpts of Brad Cohen.

Have a great weekend and look for a chance to watch the Hallmark Hall of Fame Movie, Front of the Class.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Half Full or Half Empty

Two days ago I received information from the NYS Education Department stating that the Board of Regents has adopted the new National Core Standards. You can get more information from your team leaders, as they have been provided the actual statement. This curriculum is certainly not unexpected, however it does place a certain challenge on all of us to be prepared for the 2011-2012 school year.

This curricular change comes at a time when our state and federal education departments are working on new initiatives on many fronts. They’ve altered our cut-scores, created unpredictable tests, and eliminated tests. They are investigating changes to teacher and principal evaluations, working with NYSUT, looking for test-data in non-tested areas, winning RTTT and then trying to figure out what that means, and still attempting to leave no child behind. There is also an issue with the budget. It’s enough to make our heads spin. The challenge is obviously daunting as we figure out what this means to us, our students, and our classrooms. In a profession which has historically witnessed change occurring over generations, the pace of these initiatives resembles characteristics of the hare instead of the turtle. My hope is that our leaders haven’t forgotten the moral to that story.

I sit in contemplation reviewing these curricular changes and my eyes are drawn to a sheet of paper on my desk from This paper is titled, 20 Tips For a Positive New Year. As soon as I saw this I smiled and thought of the irony. Being a touch ADHD, my focus was instantly away from the task of reviewing the NYS document. I began to read the 20 tips and realized that they all relate to me and my current situation. I will post these tips at the mailboxes – feel free to make a copy for yourself.

Jon Gordon has helped me realize that these changes and challenges are opportunities. I will be focusing on his tips as we enter a seemingly new-age of education.

I hope you enjoy your weekend.

Bullying: Now and Then

The movie My Bodyguard was a pretty big hit when I was a teenager in the 1980’s, and I remember seeing it and cheering for Clifford in his battle with the incessant bullying dished out by Moody. I remember it being a pretty good movie. Sure, the kids get their revenge on the bullies, something I doubt many bullying victims actually seek, but it does a great job of capturing the eeriness of bullying. I remember wondering whether the bullies I grew up with rooted for Matt Dillon, who plays the bully with an absolutely perfect creepy heartlessness, and who, of course, gets his in the end.

I might be all grown-up but bullying continues, in both direct and virtual form; yes, today’s kids bully online too. Recently, the New York Times launched a series of articles called Poisoned Web, with an expose’ covering “cyber-bullying – a newly coined term that covers all sorts of creative abuse that takes place through texting and on social networking platforms like Facebook.

Bullying has also gained national notice because of the case of Phoebe Prince and People Magazine’s cover story: Bullied to Death? Phoebe Prince: Her Final Days. She committed suicide on January 14, 2010 after months of being bullied by her classmates in the western Massachusetts town of South Hadley. Phoebe faced both direct confrontation and cyber-bullying, through negative Facebook messages and texts. Phoebe Prince’s suicide spawned a wave of anti-bullying legislation through the US, including New York. The New York Times article does a good job of exposing some of the legal boundaries, many of them free speech related, to combating forms of bullying that stop short of physical violence.

Over the years we have come to learn that there are long-lasting social effects to incidences of bullying. Its existence severely subverts the social atmosphere in schools and the emotional development of kids, regardless of whether they’re the ones doing the bullying, getting bullied, or just passively watching. Today we know that nearly 9 out of 10 kids say they have seen someone bullied and at least 10% of all kids are bullied on a regular basis. The National Crime Prevention Council reports cyber-bullying is a problem that affects more than 40% of all American teens and that, of those affected, almost 60% do not tell their parents or another adult (teacher) about the incident. We also know that bullies are 4 times more likely to evolve into criminals and that being bullied can cause children to experience fear, depression, loneliness, anxiety, low self-esteem, physical illness, and in some cases, even, as noted in the Phoebe Prince case and others, suicidal thoughts or even suicide.

We also know that bullying can be reduced by up to 50% when there’s a school-wide commitment to end it. Meanwhile, in case you’ve forgotten what it feels like to face the wrath of the bully, check out My Bodyguard.

I’m currently involved in a book read with the other PCS administrators. We’re reading, The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. After reading chapter one I noticed that there are many scenarios which I’m too familiar with being the principal of a middle school. My hope is that this book will give me insight into stopping the cycle of intentional violence. It shouldn’t take long for me to complete this book and I would be happy to share it with any who wish to read it.