Monday, March 26, 2018

Of Robots, Rubik's Cubes, and Responsibility

On Saturday, March 24, it was my privilege to attend the Long Island Connected Educators' Summit hosted at W.E. Howitt Middle School, in Farmingdale, New York. Otherwise known as CELI, this event (the fifth annual), is led by Dr. Bill Brennan and a team of dynamic, passionate, and dedicated teachers, administrators, and students from the Farmingdale School District. This team inspires, both professionally and personally. Make some time to visit the Twitter hashtag #CELI18 and you'll know what I mean. This was a memorable day for us all.

This year, CELI resonated differently for me. Catching up with friends and colleagues greeted one another with handshakes and hugs. Talk turned quickly to what makes us proud and what challenges us. Standing with my cup of coffee, I partook in conversations about "the new job", how different schools prepare for, respond to, and prevent crises, and how we can better address issues involving equity in education. Amazing, when you think how this was free, on a Saturday, and we were among of hundreds of educators, eager to connect and learn together, while we sipped a second (or third) cup of coffee.

As part of Learning Leadership, this month I'd planned to write about experiences of late that have been nudging me to see school differently, and to challenge myself to help and to support others to see it a differently as well. Before Saturday, these thoughts involved robots, the Rubik's Cube, and current societal events that are directly impacting our students and school communities.

The quote below, captured beautifully by Bonnie McClelland, has me thinking.

I had the good fortune to be in the room when these words were spoken, and I've found myself repeating them even since I first heard them spoken during the opening CELI panel discussion. The dynamic young adolescent who expressed it, spoke it proudly in her opening introduction, where  said her name and she told us, "I love robots!" It was at that moment, she captured everyone's hearts and everyone's full attention. It was then that all in the room knew this day would be different. This was only the beginning, our first chance to learn from the wisdom of children, of adolescents, of young adults, and of one another.

The entire day was filled with student voice and educator voice. Thematically, attendees seemed to be reminded that, above all else, we've got a lot to learn, but also that we've got a lot to be thankful for, because there are others around us who are willing to learn with us, and to teach us. I won't attempt to share all of that here, but I do feel it important to express gratitude to Bill Brennan and his planning team. Thank you for knowing your impact, sharing your wisdom, and modeling the way schools can and should work...for all learners.

The tweet above from Eric Sheninger recently caught my eye, tying conveniently to my current line of thinking and the themes of CELI. 

First, I started seeing things differently in my own life.

A 13 year-old who I know well has been involved in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) since his start in middle school. You may know an adolescent like this. He's at-times, a self-assured leader, and in most cases, he'd otherwise prefer to blend into his surroundings. This year, in addition to programming and designing a robot for competition, his team also presented on how to solve a real-world problem: to use what we know about hydrodynamics to research and recommend how to purify contaminated water that comes as a result of natural disasters. Going to his competitions, you wouldn't know this. There's a deejay, an emcee, referees on rollerblades, concessions. There's a noisy, crowded, organized gymnasium, with hundreds of students and dozens of schools, competing with one and rooting for one another.

A visit to the FIRST website clearly shows what matters most: core values of gracious professionalism and "coopertition" (a combination of cooperation and competition). And these values, they shine through.

"FIRST is more than robots. The robots are a vehicle for students to learn important life skills. Kids often come in not knowing what to expect - of the program nor of themselves. They leave, even after the first season, with a vision, with confidence, and with a sense that they can create their own future." 

- Dean Kamen, FIRST Founder     

With "robotics season" now behind us, I've been thinking, how can we make "school", for students and teachers, more like robotics?

A pre-adolescent I know well has long solved puzzles, played board games, designs and builds anything imaginable. He's gotten into constructing fidget spinners, watching YouTube videos, and then watching YouTube videos about how to design a better fidget spinner. Along comes the return of the Rubik's Cube, and he's moved onto algorithms. The kid teaches himself how to do things and is unafraid of trial and error, designing prototypes, iterations, and of failure. Because he knows, failure is nothing more than a "first attempt in learning". 

Each of these kids I describe shows signs of being a "systems thinker". Each is a problem-solver. Both are cooks and bakers, musicians, mad scientists, and when the mood strikes them, athletes. They are tactile learners and kinesthetic learners. They are readers, but more so when they're able to apply what they read to be meaningfully engaged in learning something new. And, these boys...they're my sons.

As an educator-dad, I've been pleased with my kids'  education since our first Kindergarten experience with our oldest child, over a decade ago. Fortunately, for my kids - like so many other teachers' kids - they're good students because they know how school "works". They're courteous and respectful. They're organized and can manage their time. And most importantly, they're good people, helpful, empathetic, and caring towards others. And, they're also "typical kids". When asked what they did at school, the first response is often, "Nothing". When asked what the best part of the day was, the answer is either, "lunch" or "when the school day was over". This often reminds me, it's my job, as the adult to ask better questions, to delve deeper, and to be patient awaiting a response. After all, I have to remain hopeful that, despite what they may tell me. I have to believe that they did something. Right? 

These kids come from a good home, where learning and hard work are valued. They are well-fed, well-clothed, and have opportunities that they're grateful for being afforded. I'm thankful for them, and am proud of them every day. And at school, they are known and they know they are known. That matters, and it makes all the difference, keeping a balanced message between home and school. 

My intent here is not to brag about my kids. It's to illustrate that, while these are two kids who I know, I am reminded that there are kids out there who are not quite as fortunate, to be known and to know they are known. Some are dealing with more than anyone should be expected to handle, and they do it with grace, with perseverance, and with hope, that someone will make an effort to know them. 

This brings me back to this weekend in Farmingdale. Attendees (myself included) were welcomed with enthusiasm and enthralled by stories of innovation, there were a number of other important takeaways. Embrace change and celebrate mistakes. Approach a challenge, prepared to accept failure (likely numerous times). Think, "We're not there YET, but we will get there, together." This attitude was pervasive among the adults. But possibly more impressive (and adults with a growth mindset are always impressive), were THE KIDS. Having the opportunity to listen to words of encouragement, to learn about robots and makerspaces, and to listen to them close the event by PRAISING the adults is what made this so memorable an experience. Thinking back to the tag line on the FIRST website, serves to remind us all what it's about: "More than robots."


Upon my return home from CELI, I couldn't help but watch the #MarchForOurLives coverage across all news channels. This included the six minutes and 20 seconds of solemnity by Emma Gonzales, one of the students who attends Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. As I watched, listened, and waited intently for Ms. Gonzales to teach us. It was then that I realized that all of our students have something to teach us, and we have an obligation to listen. If we allow ourselves, we may just learn something from what they are willing to share with us.

Whether a student with a Rubik's Cube, with a passion for robots, or some with a life experience that will change the world for the better, we as educators have a responsibility. A responsibility to listen. A responsibility to honestly ask and answer tough questions. And a responsibility to ensure what our students are learning is relevant, so they are equipped with the skills to succeed in the world they're inheriting. If our students' are willing to fail, to try again, and to learn, shouldn't we adults make that same commitment to learning?

Looking for the next opportunity to continue to learn with others across Long Island, New York, and the globe? 

Looking forward to learning together!

26 Days of Learning Leadership

Day 1:   Accountability
Day 2:   BRAVO
Day 3:   Collective Wisdom
Day 5:   Evolve

Day 6:   Feedback

Thursday, February 22, 2018


"Dad, I want to quit."

I am embarrassed to admit it, but three weeks ago, this was the basis for this blog post. This statement, uttered by my nine-year-old son, was upsetting to me. After five years of playing baseball, he decided he was done.

He had his reasons:

"Baseball is boring."

"I am afraid to get hit by a pitch."

"I'd rather play basketball...and soccer...and ride my bike...and swim...and play outside with my friends." (All good reasons, that reminded me of what a pre-adolescent considers motivating.)

Selfishly, for me, after 12 years of coaching youth sports throughout each season, in my mind, last spring was not to be my final season, because I was not done coaching, and enjoying all that comes with it. Stepping back, I realize now, had I written about this, I would have made this about me.

But this is not about me. So I didn't write this post.


Two weeks ago, after engaging in a challenging parent meeting, I thought I knew the direction of this post. During a heated and emotional conversation, the parent explained to me, through tears and personal anguish, that his son was suffering. Yes, he has great grades. Yes, his attendance is better than it's ever been. And no, he does not have any blemishes on his school discipline record after all these years. He joins clubs and plays sports. He's viewed as an energetic leader-type who does not take "no" for an answer when it comes to defending something he believes in as being "right". And he is suffering miserably with depression, unbeknownst to anyone at school who thinks he or she knows him. He's seen personal tragedy, and he's seen death, up close, too close for any child or any adult. And all these years later, he struggles, with nightmares, with fear of loneliness and isolation, and with an emotional paralysis, that prevents him from feeling heard, from feeling a sense of self-worth.

This meeting got me thinking about the issues that challenge our students every day, and how, the students who struggle the most may also be adept at hiding their struggles, burying them deep. How many students, outside of school, are facing challenges they didn't create or invite, struggles beyond their control? How many of our students have family members who are battling addiction, domestic violence, and are navigating the complexities of making ends meet for their family? Amazing to consider, kids' resiliency and courage.

And how many of our students depend on school to be a safe and secure place, one which has predictable routines and people who care for their personal well-being. How many of our students rely on school to be the place where they can “check their problems at the door” so they might spend if even just a few hours, focusing on dreaming and working towards a dream of a better life and a better future? So many students, so many stories. We have to ask, how many of these stories do we really know? And how many of these students do we really support? And how many of these students do we truly know and how many know that we know them?

How many do we miss?

How many of our students quit?

And how many adults stand by and let them, without doing what is needed to prevent it from happening? How many adults stand by, and let them quit?


Nearly a week ago, I realized my reason for writing this post.

By now, we learned details about the latest school shooting, this one at Stone Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, that has left 17 people dead and 23 injured. We are hearing students and families from this and previous school shootings, speaking out and demanding action. And we hear a refrain of typical responses: mental illness, the protection of Second Amendment rights, and the proposal of increased legislation that will theoretically reduce access to assault weapons, being referred to by some victims' family members as “weapons of war” in the hands of everyday people.

Questions of, “What could’ve been done to prevent this?” and, “What can be done, so that it never happens again?” have made their return, as people grieve and struggle to make sense of another countless school tragedy at the hands of a student.

This reminds me of what has plagued education, and perhaps, society, for far too long. We see a problem that we have seen before and we “admire” the problem. We make excuses and we get distracted by less important priorities. We wait for a student to fail - we watch for these "symptoms" in the form of academic, behavioral, social, or emotional changes. Then, we watch them fail. And then we react, often times, with a high degree of emotion. We perpetuate the problems. And we normalize the response and the outcome.

We do this in education all the time. And when we see it happening outside of education, we accept it, often without acknowledging that it is occurring, and move onto the next headline. When are we going to challenge our thinking on this? When are we going to push back on what may be "human nature"?

This is where we need to shift our focus: from a reactive one to a more proactive one.

Recently, as part of a strategic master schedule planning initiative that is underway in the school where I lead, I read Making Big Schools Feel Small by Paul S. George and John H. Lounsbury. There are several salient points of emphasis. Important to note, this book was published in the year 2000 - nearly two decades ago. And yet, the words may be more relevant than ever.

In a nutshell, the book is about fostering a sense of “smallness” at school. It’s about building and sustaining high-quality and trusted relationships between adolescents and the adults who serve them. It’s about students being known, and knowing they are known. And it’s steeped in research, and includes the opinions of 105 educators, 586 parents, and 1,100 students from 33 schools.

A few key points from the authors:

  • “Small units that nurture long-term teacher-student relationships and counter feelings of anonymity or alienation may be a key factor in preventing school-related acts of violence” (5).

  • “Schools that provide small, close-knit communities have, many believe, the best chance to prevent suicides and the kind of tragic violence witnessed in schools in recent years. Juvenile delinquents almost universally lack a bond with the school or with a teacher” (9).

  • “The social-emotional tone of a school affects whether or not students attend school, how they choose to behave while present” (13).

  • “Young adolescents quite typically feel a sense of alienation, but long-term relationships can counter that by helping students feel that they are an important part of an important group” (14).

  • The more informal contacts of students and advisors over time, the greater the sense of community and less the sense of alienation” (14)

It's hard to imagine that this book was written 18 years ago. It is research based, and endorsed with words and wisdom of experts in the field of middle level education, as well as testimonials from middle schools that are invested in this work of being developmentally responsive to adolescents. 

So one has to ask, why aren’t more schools investing more in this philosophy?

And where are our opportunities to create "cultures of connectedness" in our schools?

Maybe it's because we become filled with a sense of feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, by the magnitude of the responsibility.

Well, it's smaller than you think.

Recently, I penned a blog post entitled, Names and Norms, which included a few simple, yet intentional ideas for connecting with kids. While these are just a few small steps, they are indeed important steps that we can and must take, if we are going to reduce feelings of isolation and desperation among our students as well as build community.

When we invest in community-building, we can help to transform the experience of each of our students, as they go from feeling anonymous to a sense of belonging and being important members of a community. There may appear to be a lack of empirical evidence on the benefits of school connectedness. However, if we knew we could be part of building significant relationships, that, as Dr. James Comer wrote, would result in significant learning, why wouldn’t we do it? And what they have to gain, while difficult to quantify, is well worth the risk. Our students have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

This is our opportunity to live by this quote, prominently displayed in my office, that represents my personal philosophy on why we lead - to build capacity in others.

As a community of educators:

  • Don't we owe it to our students, our schools, and our profession, to act?

  • Isn’t it our profession obligation (if not a moral imperative), to act?

  • And if we don't act, what right do we have to tell our students not to quit, if we ourselves aren't willing to hold ourselves responsible for living by the same expectations?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Promise, Perspective, and Potential: It's About the People.

Lately, I find myself thinking deeply and critically about the purpose of education. I'm reflecting on K-12 education: first, my own that I experienced, second, that of my own children, and third, for the 677 students in the school where I am blessed to lead each and every day. In contemplating the complex intersection between school leadership and management, I can’t help but reflect on where leadership and management meets, and how it impacts school culture.

"Management works in the system;
leadership works on the system."

- Stephen Covey

This school year, in some (but not all) ways, I've gone "back to basics". One example of this is a commitment I've made, to write a letter. The letter I have in mind is to the future students in my school. The topic is what they can expect of the education they will receive. This is a personal-professional legacy project, a challenge issued by a leadership mentor of mine. Another example of this year's approach is in response to some unexpected life circumstances that have arisen for a number of staff members. This has created a need to be available to serve their needs, in the interest of some members of our school community, who need my support.  

It's about the long and short view, a confluence of factors revealing a tension between "Leadership" and "Management".

The need to balance between leadership and management presents opportunities, to reflect upon how a leader's decisions impact those who matter most in our work: our students. While there are times when we fall prey to what John Hattie refers to as "the politics of distraction", there is no more important time than now, to identify what we want for our students, and as a result, what will be our focus, as school leaders. Despite distractions, the best school leaders maintain their obligation to keep students' best interests at the forefront of our thoughts, our words, and our actions.

My first leadership mentor is much revered as a keen and perceptive manager of details, no matter how small they may be. Through my early formative experiences in school leadership, I gained a quick appreciation for how close scrutiny of details can serve the organization, and in turn, serve the needs of the students and school community.

During our close work together, I would often listen as my mentor would mutter quotes that stick with me, to this day. For example, when we'd run a fire drill, he'd say, "You play like you practice, and you practice how you play." In a post-drill analysis, we'd dissect where things went well and could've been more efficient. My mentor explained and modeled, breaking down these components, this worked well when practicing for a fire drill. He'd say, "Proper preparation prevents poor performance." We'd look at how much time a drill would take for people in different parts of the building, working with different populations of students. We'd bring people together to conduct our analysis and collectively reflect on what we did well and where we'd commit to doing better next time. Every second counted. Every detail mattered.

These management strategies resonate in my day-to-day management of details, to this very day. Now, when faced with a planned or even an unexpected event, the importance of planning and preparation is at the front of my mind.

However, not every decision a school leader makes can or should be treated as drill practice. Great leaders know this.

How do we message what's most important?

Every day presents a fresh start and opportunity to convey what’s most important to others, through our thoughts, our words, and our actions. These messages may be less about procedural management, are more about snapshots of our leadership vision. They reflect our intentions, our hopes and our dreams for our school community. They represent opportunities for others to see our leadership values and our learning priorities for both students and school community.

"It's about the people, people."  

I smile when I think of these words. The first time I said them aloud was at the inaugural Edcamp Long Island. During the Smackdown. I blurted this response to the question, "What is your big takeaway from our day together?" As anyone who has attended or has been part of planning an edcamp knows, there is an electricity that surges through our personal connections with those whom we've decided to learn with for the day. Often, this feeling continues, into the friendships that result and the learning that flows into our schools and into subsequent professional learning events we attend.

This is where I learned, what we do as leaders: It’s all about the people.

While it’s vital to pivot comfortably between management and leadership in a school building, it’s equally as important to keep vision focused on who we serve, and why we serve.

Looking beyond the drills:
Promise. Perspective. Potential.


Two decades ago, as a new entrant to the teaching profession, I saw an opportunity to be part of something bigger than myself. Regrettably, in retrospect, my teaching career was more about how I was to impact one group of students: "my students” and “my class". While I made a promise to be a great teacher, looking back, in all truth, it was more about me than anyone else. Today, that promise has evolved. Today, it’s my privilege to serve in a role where I can be part of making decisions that result in positive outcomes for hundreds of students, and a generation of people. While my promise has evolved for the better, my commitment  to the promise for that the future holds steady. It’s helping others to discover and fulfill the promises they make to themselves. It’s no longer about me. It’s about others. It’s about them. It’s about us.  

What promises do you make
to your students or those who are impacted by your decisions?


People's perception of a situation is their reality of that situation. Not everyone has had a positive school experience. For some, it was with a teacher or fellow students, and for others, it was a challenging subject area or extenuating circumstances outside of the school day. These mental models often inform the experiences of these people, as adults, and we've got an obligation to meet people where they are, listen to and understand their perspective, and walk with them towards our new reality, together. Conflict resolution is an unavoidable aspect of school leadership. Having the courage and tact to navigate such circumstances is an essential part of maintaining a positive school culture. Whether students have a difference of opinion or adults disagree, it's the role of the school leader to be tactful and respectful in resolving conflict, peacefully and with student dignity in mind. Active listening and maintaining an empathetic mindset not only yields better results, but it also models for others how we can all do this. Honoring what we want for the other party, for ourselves, and most importantly, our priorities for the relationship between us, that is where leadership lives and school culture thrives.

How do you place and maintain empathy,
even in the most challenging of circumstances?


When I was first afforded the chance to lead the school where I currently serve as Principal, the school was not yet two years old. The vision was set and the master schedule, built for success. Those years prior to my arrival, I would have to imagine, were most challenging - defining the school culture as it found its own level. As teachers blended practices and students shaped and defined expectations, it was then that the seeds were sown. When it became my unexpected privilege, being handed the responsibility as “master gardener”, it was was chance to take a school community to the next level. While this may sound great, as a new principal, it did not come easily at first. For starters, I didn’t quite possess the “green thumb” that was necessary to yield consistently flawlessly abundant “crops” that made up a positive school culture. Fortunately, I as a member of the school community, I, too, am a learner, among other learners. In a school, and in any school and any classroom, when we look close enough, we can see where potential lies. We can nurture it, draw it out, and make the leadership choice to celebrate it. Now, eight years in, I see reasons to celebrate every day. And, I know, the best is yet come.       

How do you grow the potential in others?

Image Credit: Lee Araoz 

“This is not a drill.”

The next time we have a fire drill, undoubtedly, I will smile and think of the words of my mentor: "You play like you practice, and you practice how you play." And as we exit and re-enter the school building, safely and soundly, settle in and get back to the learning at hand, I will remind myself: It's about the people, people. It's about promise. It's about perspective. And it's about potential.

Most importantly, leaders remember: It's about the people.

26 Days of Learning Leadership

Day 1:   Accountability
Day 2:   BRAVO
Day 3:   Collective Wisdom
Day 5:   Evolve

Day 6:   Feedback

Day 12: Learning, Leadership, and Lists