Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Connected Educator's "State of the Union"

362 days ago, I published my first blog post. I don't know if I would call it a blog post. I might call it an essay since it really didn't have an audience. Jerry Maguire might call it a mission statement. You can actually call it whatever you want if you read it, LINK - but buyer beware! I've received some feedback on my blog, both positive and negative. If I could say anything about the process, I would say, "Its been fun."

Processing the process is how we learn and grow. When I think about the process of becoming a connected educator, I can acknowledge my own growth, but moreover, I am in constant awe of how many creative, intelligent, and innovative people work in education. There will never be enough zero's at the end of our paychecks to quantify the importance of our jobs, but there will always be reminders of the impact that we can have on the thousands of kids we work with everyday. For me, becoming a connected educator reminded me of this. It centered me. It humbled me. It still challenges me everyday. And if I can reflect on anything I have learned as a connected educator in the past year, its this:

1. In any profession, connections matter.

I know I am preaching to the choir on this one. Connections probably matter more in the corporate or political world, but in education, I believe connections mean everything. The connections I have made through twitter and through my blog have been foundational in my growth as an educator. It's helped tighten my vision of leadership while widening my exposure to different ideas. If the old phrase, "The smartest person in the the room," is true, then look at how big our rooms truly are. The connections we are making together are building better leadership and instruction in schools everywhere. Isn't that powerful?

2. Our work is far from done.

If we are the marching army of connected educators, we have yet to take the battlefield. A friend of mine told me last month, "Man, you sure tweet a lot. I can't believe how much time you spend on that thing." It is easy to push twitter because we believe in it. I think its harder to push the connections and the resources because those take some time, and many of us struggle with time. But our connectedness has power, agency, and authenticity, and we have to continue to promote all of that, albeit gently, so that others can feel it too.

3. Every drain can become a fountain.

In my infant stages of being connected, I was the drain and my mentors were the fountains. I was constantly asking Jason Markey if my blogs made sense. I tweeted George Couros and Jimmy Casas with hash tags that probably didn't exist. They knew I was just getting started, and I relied on those fountains to help me grow. I'm thankful for their encouragement and direction. The best way I can honor that mentor/mentee interaction is to continue to be a fountain for others as they begin their journey. Great leadership is recursive and evident in the leaders we create. When our web expands and our trees grow another branch, we are creating the exact power of connectedness that hooked us in the first place.

Friday, December 20, 2013

The PLN Blogging Challenge

I am excited to be a part of a PLN blogging challenge that is sure to connect educators from all over. Today's blog will depart from the "3 Things I Know Are True" and focus on the challenge given to me by East Leyden Principal, Jason Markey. Jason has been a huge part of my growth as an educator. We first met on May 2, 2007, the day I signed my first contract to become a teacher. Since then, I have admired Jason's growth and passion as a school leader and am proud to say he, and a Bears loss to the Packers in the freezing cold are the reasons why I have become a connected educator.

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.  They should be bloggers you believe deserve a little recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they’ve been nominated.  (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

1. I attended Marquette University
2. I was educated in the Catholic schools from kindergarten through college
3. My sister was an NFL cheerleader
4. I have coached golf, baseball, and basketball
5. My wife Lizzie is from Green Bay, which makes Sunday's tough
6. I make my own thin crust and deep dish pizza
7. I have never had a cup of coffee in my life
8. My Dad was a teacher and my Mom was a social worker, and both my sister and I followed in those professions respectively
9. My wife and I had 3 permanent addresses in 2012
10. My professional sports hero is Bo Jackson.
11. U2 and Coldplay are my favorite bands. 

Ok, now here comes the hard part. I have to answer 11 question's that my blog nominator has posed. Here we go...

1.  How has blogging and being “connected” impacted your practice?
I am sharing ideas and being inspired by people from all over the world. I now receive self-directed professional development everyday and am in a constant state of learning. It has been a game changer.

2.  What is a blog post you have read recently that you would like to share with others?
This is one of the most passionate blogs I've ever read from my mentor Tony Sinanis.

3.  What is your favorite food/restaurant? Tough one, maybe- "Smoque" BBQ in Chicago.

4.  Why did you choose to be a high school, middle school, or elementary educator?
High School is an incredible time in your life. I wanted to continue to be a part of the journey for and with my students.

5.  What is your favorite movie, book, and song?
Movie- Shawshank Redemption Book- To Kill a Mockingbird Song- U2- City of Blinding Lights

6.  What is your favorite vacation destination? 
Hawaii- more specifically Maui

7.  Where do you want to travel most that you haven’t been to yet?
I could probably spend some time in Australia!

8.  What are you most proud of in your career?
Its probably not anything you can quantitatively measure. I think the success and happiness of my students after they leave high school makes me the most proud.

9.  iPhone or Android?
Apple. Think Differently.

10.  If you had a superpower what would it be?
I'm flying for sure!

11. If you could change one thing in education what would it be?
The way politicians, the public, and state measure what truly makes a school successful.

Below are 11 educators/bloggers that I am challenging to answer my questions. I respect all of them for making me a better educator and inspiring me to do great things.

Here are 11 questions I have for my blogging friends:
1. What is your favorite quote about education?
2. What are you most passionate about in life?
3. If you were having students work in groups, how many should the group have to be most effective?
4. What is your favorite Sunday activity?
5. Which twitter chat is your favorite?
6. Who inspires you the most?
7. What advice would you give to someone interviewing for a job?
8. What will classrooms look like in 20 years?
9. Most significant historical event/sporting moment you've seen "live" in person?
10. What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
11. Best concert you have ever been to?

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Raised by the Old, Inspired by the New

I think the gap between the old and the young in education is as wide as ever. Anyone who is reading this can probably identify as one end of the extreme; and if honesty prevails- could probably stereotype the other end of the spectrum too.

Technology has rapidly changed the way we educate and inspire. Its hands have reached into the way we raise children and how we acquire higher levels of education. But technology has likely been responsible for the largest gap in teaching styles, leadership methods, and educational philosophy this profession has ever seen.

I would like to think of myself as a hybrid of the two, if that's possible. My father taught for 38 years, mostly during the "chalk" ages. Even though he retired just two years ago, I doubt he could elaborate on digital citizenship, online learning management systems, or standards based grading. At the urging of my Dad, I clung on to veteran teachers when I first started. I loved hearing stories about the "old days," long before I arrived. I was honored and humbled to be included in their conversations.

At the same time, I struggled to lecture for 45 minutes like they did. I was bored re-using the same lesson I used the year before. I had to start putting my instructional plans online. I wanted  my students in the computer lab to create and explore.  I couldn't teach the old way. That's not to sound holier than thou- because I didn't really know where I was going as an educator- I just knew I would be running the whole time. Meeting inspired educators and leaders had a lot do with this. Tweeting and blogging contributed too.

In the end, I was raised by the old but inspired by the new. 

As perplexing as that may be, I am often reminded of how similar the two really are. The week before my Dad officially retired, he wrote an email to the faculty at Schaumburg that contained the four things he really believed about teaching:

1. You have to love your subject matter.
2. When it comes to discipline and grades, you have to be fair and consistent.
3. When problems arise, you'll never make a mistake when you err on the side of the student.
4. Most importantly, you have to love kids.

Think about that. Those four ideas are about as relevant as ever in education today. I read similar rhetoric from my PLN on a nightly basis via tweets, blogs, and edchats. Being inspired by the new also means honoring the work that has come before us. Instruction may be changing. Who we are instructing may be changing, but we cannot change our love of teaching and our love of kids- that remains the same.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Purpose of School

I was a little later than usual to school this morning. When that happens, I inevitably get stuck behind a yellow school bus that drops off 60 kids near the side entrance of our building. While today's frustration of waiting for the bus to empty wasn't new to me, the thoughts I had while it happened were. I watched each kid get off the bus in a single-file line, like cattle, and trudge into the building at 7:03 AM. I'd imagine that the school bus ride in the morning was a little quieter than in the afternoon. It's almost as if the kids had a business-like approach to them when they got off the bus, one by one, like they do, like they have for years, year, after year, after year.

Its the "mundane-ness" of school that gets us in trouble as educators. It's the status quo that bores me. One of my favorite colleagues always says, "It's how we've always done it," is an unacceptable justification for anything. So what, then, are we doing here? Why do we put kids through this? What motivates us as educators to keep reinventing ourselves or our classes? What is the purpose of school?

1. School helps kids find out who they are
I guess that's really easy for me to say since I became an educator myself, but the truth is, most people will find their passions by the time they graduate high school. Our school has an obligation to foster those passions and provide opportunities to feed them. My favorite question to ask teenagers is, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  If "I don't know," is the answer, I think we have to talk about that with our students. The schools that focus on what their students are passionate about are the best schools. During the most formative years of their lives, the school can drive their students' sense of self and purpose.

2. School remains "In Loco Parentis"
I'm not a scholar of Latin nor could I tell you what the 1960's were like, but I do know that schools have historically been tabbed, "in place of the parents." How much time do we spend in our schools working on curriculum that will never matter in our students' real lives? From an elementary or middle school standpoint, almost everything we do in schools matters in building the foundation of thinking, reading, writing, and expressing. I get that. But we argue about minutia, methods, and assessment when we could be focusing on real life skills that a parent would want their child to learn. What values are we teaching our kids through our "hidden curriculum?" How do we teach kids how to be responsible citizens? Do we teach kids how to consume media or ways they can make a difference in the world? This is what a parent does, or should do. If schools are "in place of the parents," shouldn't we put a premium on teaching these things too?

3. School isn't the real world, but shouldn't it be?
How we evaluate our students' work is really hot topic today. The truth is, we love the "real world" comparison and we use it with our students all the time. And in the real world, I don't know if I am in the 97th percentile of teachers or the 37th percentile of teachers. I do know, however, that I can perform the job. Shouldn't kids get a basic feedback from their school whether or not they can do the job? A salesmen knows if he met his quota. A stay-at-home Mom can tell you she was effective that day. Schools have to prepare kids for the real world and their system has to be reflective of real world evaluation. Beyond the curriculum and the skills, we have an obligation to make school innovative and exciting. Because each day, there are 1,800 cattle being herded into our building, and we owe it our students to make school purposeful.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Time Well Wasted

In today's fast paced and ever changing world of education, one constant in our field is the need for more time. Administrators juggle it. Students are trying to figure it out. Teachers beg for it. Me? There are some days I wish were 25 hours long, but I cannot say I think about "time" too often.

My wife and I recently completed (hopefully) a really bad stretch of funerals this year, low-lighted by losing both of her grandparents within two months. I was reminded of Grandpa's death yesterday at parent-teacher conferences when I found his funeral card in the suit I was wearing. Though few negative emotions compare the finality of death, funerals get me thinking about "time" more than I ever do.


Remember when they told you that your lesson must last from "bell to bell?" Seven years ago when I first started, this was a big point of emphasis and even today, I try to make sure that my classroom is productive from start to finish. I understand why this is a principle of best practice and classroom management.

But I have to say, I think some of the best teachers allocate their time a little differently. I've observed teachers who sing or dance in front of their class. Others teachers will spend 10 minutes every Monday asking the students about their weekends. One of my colleagues hosts "cookie Friday." There are plenty of ways to skin that cat, but none of them really fall in line with "bell to bell" teaching or something Charlotte Danielson would be proud of. Yet, by "wasting" those 10 minutes, I find that some teachers are able to make the other 35 minutes of class even more productive. Moreover, students are drawn to the classroom experience they are getting with those teachers, and feel compelled to work even harder because of the connection and relationship that teacher has forged.


When I reflect on someone's life as I've had to do several times recently, I come back to how they spent their time. How we spend time is a reflection of our priorities and a statement of who we are. Beyond our faith, our family, and our friends, I think time is our most valuable asset.  I don't mean to sound holier than thou by writing that, because I believe it.


We have 45 minutes in a class period to model skills, teach content, facilitate discussion, encourage innovation, foster creativity, and do everything else our teaching rubrics tell us to do. But we also have 45 minutes to encourage our students' passions, to invest in their talents, and be the best part of their day. We are the guardians of the future generation and we bear the responsibility for the academic and non-academic futures of our kids. Do we use that time well? Or do we 'waste" that time well? Either way, it reinforces what an asset time truly is.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Buzzwords: Modeling

I think I am at my best as an educator when I am in the trenches learning with my students.

I feel funny sitting in a desk with a scantron in front of me. Picture, "Buddy the Elf" sitting in a midget sized desk. That's me. Even the students in the class took awhile to get used to it. But there was a method to the madness I suppose, and I feel like I was contributing to one of the biggest and baddest buzzwords in education today.


I made the decision three years ago to be a student with my students. Once I established order in my classes early (I hope) in the school year, I start to weave my way into group work, singling out a partner who needs my help. I take all of our tests with my students and point out my mistakes, too. I never grade papers alone. I read my students work with them, side by side after school, and agree with them on a grade. All of these activities afford me the chance to model best practices in reading, writing, and thinking.

As a teacher, I think its easy to see the benefits of modeling academic and non-academic behaviors for our students. We cannot expect our students to reach certain objectives without seeing examples of what it looks like. But as an administrator, I think modeling becomes paramount in creating the culture and work environment that we envision.

1. Modeling work habits will help you pass the "eye-test."

Show up early. Stay late. Dress professional. Be on time for meetings. Work diligently in all that you do.  For those faculty and staff who do not interact with you on a daily basis, this is what they will see. At the very least, you will pass the "eye-test." Moreover, this gives a school leader the opportunity to model basic work habits we expect from everyone.

2. Stand with your staff, not in front of them.

Modeling is the driving force behind any school initiative. So when a strong idea is making its way through the school, a great leader doesn't push, they pull. At our school, our administration has really encouraged our staff to become connected educators through Twitter and personal blogs. It hasn't really been dictated to us, but it has been modeled. When someone is doing great work with a tool that I am not using, I want to use that same tool. In this case, modeling the initiative became a motivating factor for me to begin. Great leaders do not constantly remind me that they are in charge but great leaders do remind me that we are in this together.

3. Administrators can model their decision making, too. 

No decisions are made in a vacuum and school leaders should make sure their staff knows this. We ask our teachers to make curricular decisions as a a team. We ask our head coaches to collaborate with the staff of their program. We even ask our students to run their clubs and activities together. So as school leaders, shouldn't we model decision making as a democratic process? Its a fine line between, "being in charge, and empowering others," and I understand that. But I think there is true power in allowing others to hold a stake in important decisions for the school community. If we model, others will create, initiate, and collaborate. And in that moment - we find our vision unfolding exactly as we modeled it.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tough Decisions: Sticking to Your Guns

We work in a profession with many shades of gray. Wait, that didn't come out right?! As much as we write policy, print student handbooks, and post rules in our classroom, the reality is, the sound judgement of the professionals in the building usually will prevail. We can always fall back on what's written, sure, but we know all too well that eventually, the tough calls require human discretion.

It's probably best administrative practice to approach most decisions as a team. That is to say, no decisions are made in a vacuum without the support and collaboration of an army of administrations, faculty, and staff. But what happens when like-minded professionals, who've worked together for a long time, who may have hired each other to be a part of the team, approach the toughest decisions together? And worse, you are a part of that team and you, gasp, have a different opinion or solution?

I think there are 3 situations where you fight for your minority opinion and challenge the majority:

1. Stick to your guns when you are ethically and morally right.

What if, as a coach, your best player blew off practice, was failing 4 classes, or egregiously insulted his teacher in class? Your star player broke a team rule, and now you have a dilemma. That player may be the difference between winning and losing tonight's game. The coaches on staff all tell you that he has paid his price. Even his teammates want him out there. His parents are down your throat. "Coach, just let him play, c'mon!" While I'll agree some fights aren't worth fighting, standing up for whats ethically and morally right is always worth it. 

2. Stick to your guns if you have done your homework.

Big Lebowski fans know what I am taking about. But the rest of us would probably agree that informed decisions are the easiest ones to make. Having the minority opinion requires a lot of courage and it helps if you do your homework. This may involve parent phone calls, conversations with teachers, emails, transcript searches, legal precedent, etc. Putting all those pieces together to complete the puzzle gives us a leg to stand on as the minority.

3. Stick to your guns when your gut won't let you do otherwise. 

One of the best student essay's I've ever read  started off like this: "The Civil War wasn't very civil." Well, technically, I guess he was right. In the same spirit, I'd say, "gut decisions are pretty gutsy." Leading a school, classroom, or team on gut decisions alone is a dangerous proposition. For your passion to grow, you need structure. But for your structure to grow, you need passion. Decision making does involve a delicate balance of passion within structure. So when do you stick to your guns and listen to what your gut tells you?
A. When you can justify your decision as morally correct.
B. When you have done enough homework to make an informed decision.
C. When your intuition is repeatedly challenged and turns out to be right.
D. When you are hungry and your gut is telling you its time to eat.
E. All of the above

Sunday, September 8, 2013

In Memory of Bri

At the beginning of the school year, I look for kids that I am used to seeing in the hallway. It's weird-but they aren't there. They've graduated now and are out in the real world carving their own path. I miss them, selfishly, but realize my students are moving on to bigger and better things.

A honest teacher will admit to having favorite students. We don't "play" favorites or give any of our students an unfair advantage, but some kids are just different than others. Those are the kids I really miss seeing in the hallway and in my room after school.

Bri Resto was one of those kids.

Bri passed away yesterday after a head-on collision with a drunk driver. Just 30 hours ago, she was hanging with her friends after another taxing week of balancing work and school. She had lofty goals and her life in the present reflected the determination she had to achieve them. The last time I saw Bri, she was standing in the pouri
ng rain waiting for a bus that would bring her to school. Nothing could stop her. The last time we texted, my phone's screen was filled with exclamation points of her excitement when she found out my wife and I were pregnant. She was that kind of kid. Bri was selfless-she cared for others more than she cared for herself. I'm so prou
d of who she was and what she had accomplished, but moreover, what she had overcome.

Its a story that will send chills through your body and shake your soul to its core. How can we possibly have enough faith to understand why this happened?

Faith can be maddening. A friend of mine described faith as "something that comes from your own quiet time, from conversations with friends and loved ones, from your own observations of how life unfolds and what you perceive when you look beyond the externals of life and penetrate to the depths of love, and friendship--the beauty of nature, the marvels of human ingenuity, the magnificence of a simple daisy and the faces of the homeless guys who hit you up for a buck in downtown Chicago."

As Bri's teacher, I know and have faith that my lessons with her are over. Not because shes gone now, but because now, Bri is teaching me. She never knew it, but she has been teaching me for a long time.

I will see you in the halls and I will see you in your desk. I will see you in your friends, who are better people because of you. I will see you on the basketball floor and at the bus stop in the pouring rain. But most of all, I will see you in the faces of students who need my help, and in the students, who like you, taught me more than I could ever teach you…

Monday, September 2, 2013

Establishing Trust

I sat motionless at my computer when I started this blog entry. I read a few good thoughts on establishing trust in the workplace from my PLN. I've encountered colleagues of mine in my career that I can truly trust. I've taken steps to establish trust with others who do not know me well. But how could I quantify trust in an educational setting?

I'll be the first to admit that building trust in the workplace is a difficult thing. At the end of the day, everyone who works at the school is accountable to their family. But during the day, we are accountable to our students and to our colleagues which makes for a very interesting dynamic.

So at Utopia High School, (not an actual school!), as Principal, (not my actual position!), here are three keys I would focus on to build trust.

1. Trust the professionals in the building to do their job.
The reality is- jobs in education are hard to come by. We've all been at the job fairs enough to see how many people are ready and eager to enter the classroom. Teachers are respected professionals who each took unique paths to reach their position, but did so with an abundance of education, hard work, and passion for their craft. As principal, I'll trust that teachers will do their job as professionals. That's not to say we won't hold each other accountable for our work. But we shouldn't work in a, "got ya," environment. We should inspire and motivate, not supervise and dictate.

2. Model your trust in others. 
Personally, I struggled writing this, so I emailed my #SAVMP mentor Tony Sinanis for some advice. You know, the Principal in New Jersey who I've never met, just started tweeting with, and generally know little about. He only emailed me back a novel of advice, gave me his cell phone number, and shared some heartfelt anecdotes from his life. I trusted Tony from my very limited interaction with him through twitter. He trusted me using the same criteria. He told me to write as if I were the Principal of an ideal school, and finally my fingers started typing.

Somehow, I think interactions like these serve as a model to others that trust happens from the beginning, and is solidified in future interactions. If we show our staff how much we trust them, and we place our trust in others as a model, I think we build a culture that breeds faith in each other.

3. If this is empty, this doesn't matter.
If the video won't play- find it here:

Obviously the first "this" is your heart, and the second "this" is your head. It's embarrassingly awesome that I reached back to the movie, Jerry Maguire, for that one. I will build the trust I want people to have in me by leading with my heart. I will earn the trust of the community by showing compassion for our students and our staff. I will lead with the best intentions for everyone in our school community. An ideal team builds trust together with a shared passion and desire that comes from the heart, not always the head.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Buzzword: Relationships

Buzzwords: Those key phrases or concepts that trend in and out of education. It's the "here today" and perhaps, "gone tomorrow" nature of our profession and likely other professions, too, that dictate our conversation and our efforts in the classroom. Yet, one buzzword that's experienced a huge renaissance, not because it ever went away, but because of its relevance and importance to the changing landscape of education is relationships. Strangely, I think our technology craze is actually driving relationships back to the forefront of the "buzzwords you need to pay attention to" list. As our own Director of Technology Bryan Weinert says:

The best "device" has always been and will always be the teacher #iledchat

We are the best devices. And the best thing a teacher can do to facilitate buy-in is to invest in who their students are. We hear this a lot on Twitter and in education circles. "Get to know your students and learn about their interests," etc. But unlocking the code to the most successful student/teacher relationships goes a bit deeper than that in my opinion. 

1. Let the kids know YOU work for THEM. 
We all work for someone and often times, many different people. But teachers who solidify relationships with their kids work for their kids. They stay after school to help a student. They answer emails late at night to clarify any questions. They write personalized letters of recommendation. They are attentive to any student needs even in the (gasp) summer. Our students should know we work for their successful outcomes and in turn, they are empowered knowing that someone is laying it out on the line for them. It makes them want to work that much harder for you.

2. Err on the side of the student and you can rarely go wrong.
We've all been there. No one likes to talk about it, but everyone can relate to it. 

The bus arrives back at school from the road game around 11pm at night. The last kid waiting for their parents admits he doesn't have a ride. After I ask a bunch of questions, the kid says, "It's no big deal, I will just walk home."

Its 7 degrees outside. There is a foot of snow on the ground. We all know where this is going.

We never seek out situations like this. In fact, we should take any and every measure to prevent them from happening. Whether that be parent meetings, phone calls, or constant reminders to kids about communicating with their parents, its our obligation to protect ourselves professionally. 

Adults in our building give money, clothes, cell phone numbers, keys and countless other things to students all the time. In doing so, they are taking a risk. Ultimately, how influential we are will always come down to positive intentions, and if we are erring on the side of the student, the reward is a relationship that may just turn their life around. 

3. Successful relationships start with listening. 
Ten years ago, my favorite college professor Rev. Steven Avella gave our class some "college style" advice when he said, "If you ever want to be the life of the party you are at, just ask people about themselves. They will be more than happy to talk to you." That can be so true. But as teachers trying to build successful relationships with our students, we listen. We allow students to talk about themselves. When a student visits my classroom after school, they usually aren't looking for advice, no matter how eager I am to give it. They're just looking for someone they can trust and who will listen. The most successful relationships with students are built on this foundation. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

What I realized about 1:1

I'll admit that when our administration asked the faculty if we were ready to go 1:1 in 2011, we weren't ready. I had a vote, albeit a small one in the landscape of the larger community, and I opted for a full year of planning and a slow roll out before taking the 1:1 plunge. As luck would have it, the district thought differently, and decided in October of 2011 to go fully 1:1 in August of 2012.

As I reflect back on the past year, I realized that Leyden made the right call and that our students are already seeing the benefits of the world at their fingertips.

Some schools will begin their tech journey out of obligation to keep up with the others. Some schools will dive into 1:1 because of the pressure from their community. Some may even find a research based study that proves the effectiveness of this 21st century initiative. But until these institutions fully commit, there are so many underlying advantages that 1:1 creates that will go unnoticed. Among these are:

1. Our students are better at communicating with us. 

Despite what some may say about "Generation Y," our students are becoming better communicators because of technology. They may not have all of the conversational skills that our parents emphasized as we were growing up, but that doesn't mean that our kids cannot communicate. Their interaction with their teachers is as strong as ever. Students can email, tweet, text, post, blog, and create their own means of communication. My classroom may be empty after school, but my inbox is always full. Kids are reaching out to us in their language, not ours, and I think that's ok. 

2. Our teachers are gaining more autonomy through this device. 

Again, that statement may be a little puzzling at first glance. I believed the 1:1 initiative would zap the personality out of my class too, but that was far from the case. Now more than ever, I am able to create authentic lessons that speak to the goals I have for my students. I am still working within the framework of a shared curriculum, but this initiative, when implemented correctly, allows teachers to branch off in whatever direction they decide. Constant reflection, data gathering, and a willingness to admit failure are key components of making a successful 1:1 teacher.  Yet, I feel empowered to still take students down "my path." Every consciousness educator has a vision for what students will accomplish in their class. Having a device in front of every kid expands that vision vertically and horizontally.

3. Our instructional methods are more relevant than they used to be.

After high school, most of our students will not be asked to summarize a primary source. They won't be required to fill out worksheets, or do vocab. They may not even have to interview or create a paper resume for the job they want. We really cannot predict these things, or pretend to know what the future of our job market holds. What we can do is make our teaching relevant. Technology allows everyone in the room to learn together. It places the student and the teacher on an equal playing field. The "millennials" that fill our classrooms today were raised in and through technology. It is our obligation to teach towards their learning style and in doing so, we are staying current with what our students deserve.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

My Educational Philosophy

Every Spring (and sometimes late Winter), my Mom would endlessly harass my sister and I until we could definitively answer the question, "Where are you working this Summer?" From 1998 until 2006, my foray into the working world included jobs as a caddie, umpire, waiter, photographer, and...wait for it..."the dude that cleaned the park district pool." In those nine years, I learned valuable lessons about my career path, namely, that I didn't want any of those jobs. Inevitably, I would get a sinking and quasi-depressed feeling the night before I had to work only to be violently juxtaposed with the elation I would feel when the shift finally ended. I promised myself to never work a job "in the real world" where I had to experience those highs, and mostly those lows.

That being said, some of my basic educational philosophies are:

1. Create a place where people want to be.
Some say that if you find a job you like, you will never work a day in your life. Since I've been a teacher, I have not had that sinking feeling the night before a school day. I want to be there and I know it's proof that I'm in the right profession.  There are few things as powerful as a positive school culture that pulls people in instead of pushing people away. Its vital that this culture includes both kids and adults who come to work in the building everyday, but also values the connection between a school and its community. It sounds like some sort of fantasy school "utopia," but in large and small ways we can make school fun.

2. Cura Personalis. 
This is a Latin phrase meaning, "care for the whole person." I believe it is the school's job to create an environment that challenges every student and encourages everyone to find a better version of themselves. In engineering a diverse curriculum, affirming a wide range of interests and skills, and supporting the students' passions, a school can be the greatest influence on a child's life. What an amazing responsibility we all have in building a place grounded in academic rigor that also emboldens students to find their calling. High School is sometimes the last chance to reach them before the world reaches them. Maybe one day that kid won't have to dread his job, because he, too, found a career better than being the pool boy.

3. Leave it better than you found it. 
In my world now, this means cleaning Nanna's vacation house for hours so that it looks better than it did when we arrived. As a boy scout, its what they told us about entering and exiting the forest after a camping trip in nature. Clean up after yourself. But in education, I think it means being the difference in each others' lives- not because we want the credit for "turning that kid around" or "getting that kid into college," - but because its what we are called to do. The greatest legacy is not what we leave FOR our kids, but what we leave IN our kids. Leave them better than you found them.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Why I Lead...

It is my absolute pleasure to be a part of the Virtual Mentoring program (#savmp) and our first "assignment" this week was to write about why we lead and why we are educators.

In 2009, a colleague of mine was doing a doctoral study on how kids consumed different types of text. He used my students as a part of his research as well as many other students at our school. When he completed his observations of all of our students and gathered data, he came up with many conclusions including one he shared with me:

"Andrew, your students were doing things that none of the other students could do. The skills and content they learned in your class were just at a different level."

I knew then that I could impact people in a way that made a difference. While every teacher plays an important role in shaping the skills and content that kids absorb, we only teach what we know. But we produce who we are. Since that time, I have used my platform as a teacher to try to make a difference, however large or small, in the lives of my students. "Be the Difference," will one day be an answer to the question, "Why I lead..."

Until then, I am soaking in every lesson that this profession affords me and seeking out any advice and experiences I can gain in my district and through my PLN. Without that process though, I cannot progress as a leader. Processing the "process" is how we grow.

With that, I am setting three professional goals for myself this year:

1. Be consistent with my digital presence inside and outside the classroom.

After our school went 1:1 last year, each teacher tackled digital education with a different level of ferocity. Because my class was already running from a digital platform, I added a few new wrinkles but did not fully commit to every digital tool when it made sense. That changes this year.
I also began a professional twitter account and began to build my digital footprint. However, as the constraints of life and my job pulled on my focus, I lost the consistency that any digital leader needs. I sometimes went weeks without tweeting, checking twitter, participating in discussions, or sharing links. That changes this year.

2. Build on a culture of success and take it another step forward.

In my two years as our Advanced Placement US History teacher, we have made groundbreaking improvements on our student outcomes and test scores. 46 of my 48 students in the last two years have earned college credit because of their relentless work ethic and commitment to the class. Last year, our class average was 4.33, with 23 of our 24 students receiving a 4 or 5. We work in a profession that raises the bar year after year. This year, our goal as a class is to have every student receive a 4 or 5, virtually guaranteeing each student 6 college credits before they even choose their university. Wouldn't that be awesome?

3. Make what I am doing the most important thing in the world.

A former coach of mine used to say, "When you are at practice, practice should be the most important thing in the world to you. When you aren't at practice, it falls way down the list of things that are important in your life."

I want to apply this philosophy towards the many hats I will wear this year. When I am in the Dean's office, I want that job to be the most important thing in the world to me. I want to help kids understand how important their decisions are in life and how they impact others. When I am teaching, I want to make my students the most important thing in the world to me. I want to make myself available as much as I can to ensure their success in my class and in life. And when I am home, being a husband, son, and father (in January) will be the most important thing in the world to me. I want to focus on today and putting 100% of myself into today. Just today. And then tomorrow, I want to get up and do it all over again.

Those are my personal and professional goals for the 2013. Have a great school year everyone.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Building a Culture of Success

*Authors Note I will try to stick to my "3 Things I Know are True" format but today's topic will require a little front loading to get there. Here we go...

Today my students received their AP US History scores from the college board. Our class average was a 4.33 on the toughest exam the AP offers. Every student in my class took the test and every student is getting college credit for passing it. Finally we may have figured out what George W. Bush meant by, "No Child Left Behind..." I digress. Obviously we are excited and we are proud that our kids got the scores they truly deserved. I've been humbled by it all and refuse to accept the fact that I am a great historian or teacher because of these scores. I work around great minds and educators that intimidate me with how good they are in the classroom. So what is it then? How do you build a culture of success? I guess I am left with these 3 things...

1. Your classroom culture determines motivation- and a motivated student can do anything. 

How do you get kids to do what you want them to do? Scare 'em? You could discipline them. Maybe hold a grade over their head as motivation. Or, you could build a culture where success is the only option. Exactly how we do that is a bit puzzling to me, and articulating it also can be troublesome- all of which probably means that I will be a lousy administrator someday. But creating a positive and successful culture is not a magic potion that you can hand to a teacher or school leader and say, "drink this." Our culture we build in our classroom is just "how we roll." 

But what we can do as administrators and educators is this-  
*We can be relentless with our expectations. We work in a business that raises the bar, not lowers it. Have faith and believe that people can surpass your expectations. We aren't supposed to stack up with some of the best students in the nation. But we do, because we expect to. 

*We can be real with each other. Being honest with our coworkers and with our students makes us real. I tell my students when I'm having a bad day. They do the same. We celebrate each others' accomplishments and build a culture of understanding and compassion for each other. We are unfailing in our support for each other. Once someone knows you care about them, they just seem to care a little more about you.

*We can be consistent. If there is a trait that is more desirable in education,  I guess I haven't found it yet. Ya know, it must be nice to Yankees or Patriots fan because they are just consistently good every year. But students should expect us to be on point. They deserve our energy and our consistent effort. They begin to model those same habits in their work. Their work is a reflection of our preparation and our consistency. 

* And finally, we can run through a wall for each other. This is our class motto. I won't say no to you and you won't say no to me. I will stay after school to help you and you will stay after school to get help. You will email me your questions at 10 p.m. and I will respond. Like any good team, we trust in the guy next to us to do their job. I want the students to succeed. And they want me to be able to write this blog in July bragging about their success. 

2. Success works vertically and horizontally.

We don't teach in a vacuum.  My students are more prepared for success on these standardized tests than ever before because they are getting incredible instruction as freshmen and sophomores and building skills that they will need to be successful at our level. The more time we spend collaborating and scaffolding vertically with other teachers, the better odds for successful student outcomes. 
As the common core ascends upon us, its vital to keep working in interdisciplinary teams too. Horizontal collaboration with my fellow English colleagues has been a foundational part of our success. Kids are getting the same instruction, using the same terminology, and realizing that we have the same expectations across our classes. That could mean a little more work and a little more flexibility for us as teachers, but we are clearly realizing the benefits. The proof is in the pudding. 

3. Professional Development works

School districts and teachers have to support and engage in professional development. Before I started teaching this class, I engaged in the following professional development activities:
1. Two year Literacy Liaison training
2. Two year Technology Liaison training
3. OAH, NCSS, AHA, and AP conferences around the country
4. 1 on 1 course work and countless phone calls with my mentor who had taught the class before
5. American Dreams History Grant
6. Bureau of Education Seminars
7. George Couros' Connected Educator Seminar
8. Google Training

If school districts want successful programs, they have to provide professional development opportunities for their staff. I've improved at my craft because of the opportunities I've been afforded by my district and my boss. There has to be trickle down affect to my students, because I've sort of run out of explanations for all this. I guess that is just how we roll. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Because it's 4th of July...

1. With freedom comes great sacrifice. 
April's chilling events at the Boston Marathon reminded all of us of the consequences to the freedoms we enjoy in this great country. Tomorrow is the 4th of July and we will celebrate our nations 237th birthday. America was founded on principles of freedom, opportunity, and eventually, equality for all persons. The suspects in the Boston Bombing were allowed to enter this country and had the opportunity to build decent lives for themselves. They were aided by over $100,000 of government assistance through public housing and food stamps. They used internet, cell phones and email. They traveled, went to school, and hung out with friends. These daily tasks involve basic liberties that we take for granted. And while it may have been these very liberties that allowed the Tsarnaev brothers to plan and execute the bombing, we cannot overlook how sacred our freedoms truly are. 4th of July is an opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are to have these freedoms.

2. Our political bias probably doesn't belong in the classroom.

Recently, I participated in the American Dreams Project that pulled together 15 educators from seven different suburban schools. For three weeks, we read new scholarly works in history, debated their uses in the classroom, and created ready-made lessons to share and implement next school year. We discussed how different authors speak with a bias and how we present this information to students. Most teachers agree that they tend to leave their own political thoughts aside when presenting history. Yet, we all make difficult decisions on text sets and primary sources to present the content. Unfortunately, some teachers inject their own political agendas on their very impressionable students. I think as professionals its important that we try to avoid any bias in our presentation and allow our students to do their own thinking. Using sources from both sides of the political spectrum is fair to our students and helps to create an environment of inquiry. This process is and always will be more important that our "agendas."

3. Be thankful for what you do have, and you will end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never have enough. 

I think this phrase is both timely and appropriate for educators in the 21st century. Our job descriptions are constantly changing, our students are changing, our instruction is changing, and our profession is changing. I think its easy to want more out of our profession. New teachers want to teach better classes. Veteran teachers want a better schedule. All teachers want the best students and parents. Aspiring administrators want that big job promotion. Administrators want more faculty buy-in. This profession has seen its share of perks taken away at national, state, and district levels- which naturally leaves us all wanting more. But if our focus is always on wanting something we don't have or lamenting what we used to have, we will all be living unfulfilled careers. If we shift our focus to the positive- if we stop to think about the alternatives- if we truly believe we are exactly in the right place, eventually, we will end up having more. That's preachy, but I think it gives us purpose.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cheeky Grins

1. The gap between high school curriculum and post-secondary education is as wide as ever.

Well, according to Dartmouth University among other high institutions of learning. You know that I’m still fired up about this if I am talking about a story that made its waves in January. But the truth is, “Dartmouth’s Last Stand” against the College Board and AP tests is just the tip of the iceberg in this story. 

Dartmouth’s policy of no longer accepting AP scores as credit for college courses beginning in 2014 is beyond dumbfounding. Dartmouth statistics show that just 10% of students who pass these tests could pass the school’s placement exams. So that must mean Dartmouth’s curriculum is just that more comprehensive and avant-garde than what we do in high schools, right?


What most American high schools are doing to prepare kids for college and the real world is way more progressive that what our universities are doing. Work programs, co-ops, internships, and business partnerships formed by our high schools have given kids more opportunities than ever to advance their career before they are even old enough to watch an R-rated movie. Teachers that have worked within the structure of the College Board curriculum have not only given their college bound students a chance to be successful in passing these tests, but have made the curriculum relevant to their lives. So you tell me what is more progressive: A policy that suppresses student achievement  in high school in favor of collecting more tuition dollars, OR, a curriculum that is comprehensive enough to value achievement, encourage career paths, and motivate students to choose a job they will enjoy the rest of their lives…

2. No matter how spontaneous you are, structure is still important.

A while back, I wrote about how the model of classroom management established in Harry Wong’s, The First Days of School, was somewhat archaic and maybe even a regressive method for teaching a class. I am an educator who values creativity and capturing student attention because it helps my students learn more. I believe that.

But sometimes, structure is necessary, even with the smallest of things.

I am an ardent supporter of having my students stand and say the pledge of allegiance every day before 2nd period begins. From a legal perspective, I suppose they don’t have to- per their first amendment rights. But coming from a family with many veterans, I think it’s the least we can do to honor our country every day. I guess that is part of my not-so, “hidden curriculum.”

It took me 31 class days to figure it out, but today I realized my class was no longer saying the pledge. I was the only one belting it out this morning. My students were standing, half of them had their hands over their hearts, but I was literally talking to “Old Glory” by myself.

Then I realized that I never established that as a routine and a priority during the first few days of class this semester, and now I am paying the price. Harry Wong was right. The first few days of school are really, really important to your class functioning the way you want it to.

 3.       Don’t judge a book by its cover.

I’ll admit to falling prey to the occasional reality TV show my wife imposes on me. The Susan Boyle(a must watch video above) story on "Britain's Got Talent," eventually led us to watch "American Idol" and "The Voice." Although I remain steadfastly committed to anything that's on TV in the man-cave when the "Real Housewives" or "The Bachelorette" walk into my family room, I do find the signing competitions entertaining.

Not to sound holier than thou, but the Susan Boyle story is a constant reminder of this important message. Don't judge a book by its cover. Whether its administrators questioning a staff member, teachers judging a student, or educators who just over-value first impressions...there's a lot more to Susan Boyle than that "cheeky grin."

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Greatest Force in Civilization

1. We have an obligation to teach our students about the influence of the media.
In the last 24 hours, we have been inundated with news of a bizarre and almost unbelievable story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o's apparent hoax of having a deep relationship with a woman over the internet, who tragically died of cancer, but then somehow never existed in the first place. Yes, you are reading that correctly. If you are still reading my blog, thank you, and please consult the video above for further clarification.
I asked colleagues at school what they thought about the story and if Te'o was the victim or the perpetrator of the hoax. Most agreed that Te'o was at fault. Then I thought to myself, why do I care and why are we talking about this?
I think the story raises a larger question for us as educators about how we teach the influence of media to our students. The only reason people in America knew Te'o as an incredible football player and stand-up guy was because the media built him that way. Newspaper articles, feature stories, Sports Illustrated magazine articles and internet message boards validated his character and created a perception of yet another "heroic" sports figure. On Wednesday, that all came crashing down as the talking heads of sports radio, the bottom line of ESPN, and every media source in America chased this story throughout the day and night. 
So I ask, how do we teach our students about the influence of media?
Legendary newspaper editor William Randolf Hearst once said, "the newspaper is the greatest force in civilization." In an age where the television and the internet are the greatest forces in the universe, I think we are obligated to teach our students how to consume media and judge the accuracy of all news sources.

2. We should cherish our school's graduates when they return.
If you work in a school, you know all about the feeling I am about to describe. You see a person walking through the halls and you immediately do a "double take." You've seen the kid in the hall a hundred times, but just not in awhile. You strain yourself a bit to remember who they were and then you start to think about how many years ago they graduated. They are, of course, the former students who have returned to hang out at their Alma Matter. 
From a teacher's perspective, admittedly-a selfish one, I really like having these kids back. It helps me complete the story of who these kids were, and are. One of my former students joined me for my final class of the day last week and I found it to be a rich experience for my current students. After our lesson was over, my former student fielded questions from my current students about college academics, living away from home, and financing school. In a school full of to-be first generation college attendees, our students should have access to graduates who can tell them like it is. 

3. You are what you tweet.
As I continue to meet more people from my Twitter PLN in person, I've realized that you are what you tweet. I think this is a good thing. I think the majority of our society tends to be less genuine and more emboldened with their digital personalities. Let's face it, people say and do things behind a screen that they might not say and do in person. But I think this is changing among professionals on Twitter and it is contributing to more authentic interactions between all of us, both digitally and in person. As the great Dr. Seuss once said, "Be who you are and say what you feel-because those that mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind." That applies to Twitter, too, right Dr.?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Danielson, Hard Work, and a Little Love

1. The Charlotte Danielson Model is flawed. 
Recently school districts around Illinois and around the country have turned to Charlotte Danielson's "Framework for Teaching" ( to evaluate the effectiveness of their educators. While many districts will ultimately determine how to implement and make sense of the model, the framework has many flaws. If you read all 54 pages of her dissertation, you will find many contradictions like this one below---

Under component 2C "Managing the Classroom" Danielson lays out requirements to achieve a "distinguished" rating for classroom management. She says, "A smoothly functioning classroom is a prerequisite to good instruction and high levels of student engagement. Teachers establish and monitor routines and procedures for the smooth operation of the classroom and the efficient use of time. Hallmarks of a well-managed classroom are that instructional groups are used effectively, non-instructional tasks are completed efficiently, and transitions between activities and management of materials and supplies are skillfully done in order to maintain momentum and maximize instructional time. The establishment of efficient routines, and teaching students to employ them, may be inferred from the sense that the class “runs itself.”

Yet, under component 3E, where Instruction is evaluated and responsiveness to student needs is valued, distinguished teachers:

"Seize an opportunity to enhance learning, building on a spontaneous event or student interests or successfully adjusts and differentiates instruction to address individual student misunderstandings. Teacher persists in seeking effective approaches for students who need help, using an extensive repertoire of instructional strategies and soliciting additional resources from the school or community."

So what exactly am I supposed to do as a teacher when I sense inquisition among my students? According to 2C, I should maintain a smooth functioning classroom routine that maximizes instructional time and "keep moving" through my instructional goals for the day. If I truly bought into that style of teaching, and tried to grind out every minute of 180 days of instruction, my students will be bored stiff. Moreover, this contradiction in evaluation categories pits the creative and spontaneous teacher against organized and target focused teacher. Both teaching styles have their merits and places in schools. My hope is that our Illinois school districts are able to drastically adapt the wording of this model to evaluate and reward good teaching.

2. True confidence can only come from your work. 
I often think about the qualities that separate great school leaders and teachers from others. Many times, I think about the age-old question that we ask prospective job seekers in education, "What quality separates you from others?" I think the answer, "I am a really hard worker," is corny at face value. But the more I think about it, that may be the most genuine answer someone can give if they are truly being honest.

Confidence comes from many different sources. Most notably- people gain confidence from the feedback of others, from their own personal accomplishments, and from their own sense of self-identity.

But when you really tighten the sphere of who you are as a professional-- when you block out how you are evaluated or what your colleagues think of you-- when you put your accolades and accomplishments to the side- nothing speaks louder than your work. Your personal level of commitment to your job is something only you can judge, and only you can gain confidence from.

3. We all need to stay positive and look at the world a little differently. 
A special thanks to George Couros for the inspiration and the reminder- enjoy this awesome commercial!