Friday, October 31, 2014

Making Connections

As “Connected Educator Month” draws to a close,  I’m thankful for friends and colleagues with whom I’ve connected, at school, through Twitter chats, Google Hangouts, Voxer conversations, webinars, and face-to-face, in professional conferences and workshops. These experiences have continuously nourished my hunger for professional growth and have provided a sense of indescribable camaraderie. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined this was possible, and I continue to become a better learner and a better leader, through the generosity of other connected educators.
But if I had to choose one event that has defined my "connectedness" this month, I’d have it say it occurred over a four-day stint that was spent…in “the Valley”. More specifically, Frost Valley YMCA, in the heart of the Catskills Mountains, in upstate New York.

My relationship with my daughter has always been fulfilling. She’s an “old soul”; selfless, unassuming, coachable, and diligent. I can say with great humility, that if I’ve gotten one thing right in my life, the kind of person she’s becoming tells me she’s evidence of that.

Then she turned 13.

We all hear the "horror stories" of what happens when children become teenagers. They become moody. They stop talking to you. They become introverted and isolate themselves. This fear of losing this special father-daughter relationship was something I dreaded. With each passing day in middle school, I awaited that fateful day, when she’d cease communicating with me, only to resume normalcy sometime in her 20's (as legend would have it).

And then along came her school’s 8th grade class trip. I was chosen to accompany her and her classmates, as a chaperone. And she wanted me to go.
Was I dreaming?

“The Frost Valley Trip” is one that has received local status, as the trip of all trips. Central to the experience are elements of adventure, environmental education, nature, and fun. The tasks on this trip are known to test one's ability to work as a team member, to persevere through unfamiliar and complex challenges, and perhaps most challenging, to abandon the comforts of home. No home-cooked meals, no warm bed, no family time. No use of technological devices.

That's right - no modern technology - for four straight days.

No cell phone. No tablet. No lap top. No desktop. No television. No. Technology.

This was perplexing, troubling, and borderline unfathomable. While “kids today” use technology as a tool for communication, socialization, and learning, I’ve recently started to question how I might “get by” without a device in-hand. I rely on an iPhone that functions as a watch, calendar, and camera. I use it to send and receive email, to tweet, as well as the more tradition application of placing and receive calls. And if I ever have a question about anything I’ve ever wondered, all I have to do is “ask” my device. The iPad has become something that can also do these things, as well as serve as a tool for teacher observations. The more sedentary option, the desktop, is where countless hours are spent, running and reading reports, drafting presentations, and researching and compiling a collection of best practices.

You call this, “Connected Educator Month”?


As our bus climbed, weaved, and traversed the unfamiliar Catskills Mountains, our service connection dwindled, dissipated, and then altogether vanished. We were left with an unfamiliar feeling of being dis-connected. After collecting our bags, marching uphill to our cabins, and unpacking, we were ready for our four day (tech-free) challenge.
Upon arrival to the site, we were divided into pre-assigned groups of children and adults. Every day, we got messy. We took arduous hikes and participated in a series of strategic teambuilding activities. We picked apples and made cider. We gathered in a circle around a fire pit and shared a read-aloud about how apples of varying colors, shapes, and sizes, when mixed together into a cider, blend well. We studied pond-life, canoed, toured a local historical mansion and estate, and accepted a physical challenge to climb a rock wall with one of three levels of difficulty.  And we reunited three times a day to break bread (where I officially and informally was able to check in with my daughter). Nightly, over 200 students, chaperones, and staff returned to cabins for a good night’s sleep only to start over the following day.

So what does any of this have to do with being connected?

For most of my adult life, I’ve allowed my professional pathway to define my personal identity – as an administrator and a teacher. These labels have been and continue to be a source of pride for me. I am an educator, a leader, and a learner. And I am proud of it.

However, this month, on this trip, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, re-connecting with old familiar labels - dad, teacher, student, (inner) child. It happened quite unintentionally, and it never felt so good.

As the parent of an adolescent, I came to realize the vulnerability and uncertainty that comes with the role of both parent and child. I negotiated “the dance”, resisting the urge to remain by her side and allow her the space to call on me for support, if she needed it. (She did greet me each morning with a “Good morning” and a fleeting peck on the cheek.) There alongside other parents (and more specifically, other dads), we openly expressed our gratitude for being granted time away from work - to unconditionally love each of our kids there with us. As a former classroom teacher, I marveled at the boundless energy and enthusiasm exhibited by the teachers who organized and facilitated the learning activities, which made for an amazingly positive experience for the students. As a building administrator, I was impressed, with the real-time leadership of the Principal and his staff, anticipating and responding to issues as they arose, upholding the non-negotiable to treat each child as if he/she was their own. And as a “child at heart”, I appreciated hiking in the rain, playing in the dirt, climbing, running, and laughing…like a child. And I rooted for each child, as he or she pushed him/herself past their comfort zone, which, ironically, is how I’ve spent my past 18 years in education, and 13 years as a parent.

None of this would have been possible, if not for my generous Superintendent of Schools and an amazing daughter who asked me to accompany her on this trip, despite her adolescence.

So, how was this month connected, for me? I connected, with my daughter, with others with whom I could empathize, and I connected, with myself.

And I did it all, without my iPad or iPhone.


  1. So Dennis I am sensing that connecting without being connected is an amazing feeling in your eyes. I agree that we cannot lose sight of the essence of connectedness outside of technology. We hold on to the notion that being connected is tied up in Twitter, ed chats, and virtual meetings but it is a journey to find ourselves in a world of challenge and change. Having the opportunity to bond with your daughter must have been an amazing feeling, especially when she gave you a peck on the cheek in open spaces.

    Your photos show the energy of this trip and the spirit of camraderie. What more can we ask for - bonding with family, colleagues, and nature? Life can be so simple when we are technologically unconnected but in reality totally connected.

    I think there is a finding fall poem in this blog. Let the words float in air and they shall land on the page soon. You have the photos. Iike the serenity of the canoe trip. This is a wonderful post.

    1. Carol, thank you for your kind words and support. Our most fulfilling experiences always have and always will occur in person, face-to-face. The best part of a social media tool such as Twitter? It grants us access to more ours, Carol. Thank you for reading and sharing your feedback!

      - Dennis

  2. Dennis, Another great post. I am struck by your openness about the time with your daughter. It will serve as a reminder to so many of us to continue that delicate balance and not miss opportunities like these to "connect".

    1. Lisa, thanks for reading and sharing feedback on this. Reflecting on the relationships we have with others is where our greatest sense of "connectedness" lies. And with our children, this is easy to do, we just have to carve out the time to do it. That's what was so great about this trip for me - I went it expecting one thing and came out having appreciated an entirely different side. And that's "where the magic is", in our being connected.

      I appreciate our friendship and all that I continue to earn from you, Lisa. I'm so glad that we've connected, because you show me how to be better, for others.

      - Dennis

  3. Your ability to tell a story is incredible, Dennis. I was drawn in and felt as though I could really experience the trip as if I were there. I can totally relate, as I have 17-year old and 15-year old daughters. We have had different seasons where the legend has been upheld, and we have those times where we connect in only a way that mothers and daughters can.

    Connection is about people. While technology allows us to connect with more people and those we wouldn't have been able to without it, it still boils down to a personal connection.

    Thank you for sharing your experience and reminding us of the connections we can and need to make without technology.

    1. Jennifer, thank you for the kind words - they mean so much coming from you. I'm fascinated as of late that, the people with whom I've connected most with via social media are also the "type" of people who I best connect with in person. These people value relationships, support growth, and possess an awareness of what's most important in life. You continue to show me what it means to be truly "connected". Thanks for being that kind of role model for me, Jennifer.

      - Dennis

  4. Dennis, I appreciate your reflection. Well done! With the level of technology out there it is easy to forget how to "connect" with each other. Being connected is all about relationships and I can tell from your post that you have a great connection to your daughter. Thanks for writing!