Culture Breeds Growth

The climate and culture at our school genuinely exists on an unwavering foundation of trust, respect, growth-mindedness, transparency, and passion.   There is no better manifestation of these components of our community than our approach to professional development.  First, it is important to note that we are truly a community of learners as exemplified by the universal thirst for knowledge among our faculty.  Within the last 14 months, large groups of  faculty and staff have attended MICON (Martin Institute for Excellence in Teaching), ISTE, GISA, AATEC (which we hosted), GISL (which we also hosted), GAETC, ASCD, and multiple EdCamps.  Further, in addition to our powerful presence as attendees, many of our professionals have also been leaders at these professional learning conferences as presenters.   (9 member of our community presented at MICON15). In addition, our community has a strong Twitter presence in the education realm of that social media universe.  Many of our teachers participate in multiple weekly educational twitter chats and once again, we are leaders in that realm as well, as many of our educators serve as moderators for some of biggest education chats in the world, including #TLAP, #COLChat, and #ENGChat.

Second, our approach to professional development during the school year is unique in that all offerings, which are GADOE approved PLU courses, are developed and led by our own faculty and staff.  Last year, we offered 8 strands that provided fresh, immediately applicable, relevant strategies for our teachers to continue to grow and improve the school experience for everyone in our Kehilla in real time.  Because the courses are developed and led by people who know and are invested deeply in our community, the relevance piece is never forced or ambiguous.   The courses are created with our school foremost in our minds.

Finally, our approach to whole group professional development reflects the first two approaches.   Our faculty meetings follow the model of professional education conference sessions both in practice and in content.  Since our faculty members choose one or two of the 8 strands, we offer each facilitator an opportunity to present to the whole faculty once a year so that everyone can get a taste of the course.   These presentations reflect good pedagogy in their delivery, often with some dissemination of information, followed by activities, discussion, creation, and collaboration.   We have these PD strand focus meetings every other session where the whole faculty is together.  For the sessions that are not PD strand focused, we develop programming that is fresh, relevant and once again Davis-focused.   Our first half-day of PD on October 31st, we held our first #Edcamp Davis.  Following the Edcamp model, our teachers posted and facilitated conversations about topics that were important to them.  We learned together and from each other.  Later in the year.  we had our “Things that Suck” meeting.  No meeting has exemplified the trust, respect, and transparency that exists here better than this meeting.   Members of our faculty had the opportunity to speak openly and candidly about some polarizing topics without any fear of reprimand.  This candor once again allowed all of us to learn from each other, for us as an administration to get some important “straight talk” from our faculty, and for everyone to once again model the respect for and embracing of different opinions. With our re-accreditation year coming up, we also use these meeting times to get our people in small groups to talk about topics relevant to our re-accreditation, and to gather from them meaningful feedback about our school.  Other meetings included an intro to Design Thinking and our annual Ted Talk afternoon when faculty and staff get to choose from a collection of relevant and meaningful Ted talks that had been selected by a small group of colleagues to share with the whole. Discussions followed each viewing.

Finally, an informal piece that is quite powerful is the steady flow of sharing that exists throughout the year.   Articles, videos, technology tools, etc- we are always sharing, receiving, discussing, and envisioning through a sharing process that keeps us connected, learning, and growing.

Ultimately, the vibrancy of our learning community rests on these pillars of trust, respect, passion, transparency, and growth-mindedness.  As such, our professional development philosophy and practices directly reflect these values.

Serendipitous Learning on the Farm

When we made the choice to knowingly buy a farm a long commute from school, we did so with a vision of the type of life – enriching experience we would be providing for our children (and for ourselves). 

Learning about different animals, how to care for them, breed them, have them provide for and/or work for us coupled with the agricultural endeavor to build an organic garden that would provide for us and friends represents an incredible learning experience for all of us.  Likewise a highly ambitious set of goals- a learning experience unto itself to turn a vision into such a reality. 
While we are in the neophyte stages of our process, there have been a few powerful moments that have been happily coincidental opportunities for us to teach our children not about farm life, but about important human values.  
Our first productive garden provided us with far more than we could consume ourselves.   The opportunity to teach our children neighborliness through the sharing of our plenty was powerful.  House to house we walked with containers of produce and herbs to offer to our neighbors.   To this day, my children always offer to share when they have plenty- we feel blessed that they so instinctively know to offer to give some of theirs to others. 

Shortly after moving to the farm last May, we expanded our chicken flock by bringing some different breeds into the family.  We currently have 5 laying hens (6 more that will be laying by mid summer). Of the 5 layers, we have 4 different breed- each laying eggs of different colors from their sisters. 

These 5 hens, from different breeds, that look different from one another, varying in size and even mannerisms in some instances all live together in the same coop, look after each other, protect each other and even share food together (they peck at each other, too, but heck,  they ARE family).

What an opportunity this provided when my son saw his first blue-green egg from our Americauna “Big Mama” and asked if it would taste different because of the different color.  Instead of answering what I knew to be true, I offered an experiment.  I suggested a taste test.  

When served a brown egg and the blue-green egg, my little guy exclaimed “they’re both yummy!”

We continued the conversation by talking about how people come in different colors, from different backgrounds, with unique qualities,  but really we are all made of the same materials and we all offer the world our own “flavors”. That we should never judge an egg by the color of its shell.  This opportunity to share a lesson on respect and tolerance was a serendipitous nugget of life on the farm. 

I look forward to each new day and the opportunities to learn, teach, and grow on the farm. 

The Walk-Ons

I always respect with great appreciation that I have had the tremendous good fortune to teach and coach great kids who have taught me more than I ever taught them.

With the success of Ohio State football and Virginia basketball, I can’t help but think about two student athletes who I have had the privilege of knowing and sharing both classroom and field/court with in the past 20 years.

Both athletes had a vision to attend their chosen school at a very young age, and both due to a family connection being so strong because someone each loved and respected had attended the school.

According to modern metrics, neither had any business playing at their “dream” school.   Speed and sizr being those which separate the D1 kid from the rest of the pack, also represent the areas where both found themselves most disadvantaged.

But never in my life have I found more of an elite composite of intangibles of human character than in Tara McKnight and Michael Cibene.

There are those who make excuses,  and then there is Tara McKnight.   Never have I seen someone work as hard, with as much humility, for her team, for her family, and with genuine love of the process than T- dog…and always with a smile on her face and genuity in her gait. She loved the process.  She was a state champion a few times, and an All-Stater. Many schools wanted her- the Ivy’s were sure she would join them.  Her pedigree in the classroom made that path even more obvious.

But she had a family full of Cavaliers at home.  An example in her father of persistence and beating the odds to play professional golf.  She wanted to be a Cav. So she went to UVA, walked on as a frosh, and didn’t make it.  So she did what most people wouldn’t do- she kept at it. Worked harder, lifted more, played the best competition.  But all the while, she worked hard in class, enjoyed college, and continued to be the kind of person you prayed your child would find ànd befriend.

Sophomore year rolled around and despite the fact that she hadn’t grown, gotten faster, or suddenly evolved her game in an unforseen way, she walked on again and made the team.  2 years later, she was named captain.  In fact, she became a bit of a celebrity.  Truth be told, it was not her basketball skills that brought her the affection of so many, rather her character, her joy, her genuity, and the way she endears herself to everyone she meets have led to her to be so loved.

So as I moved on, I truly believed Tara was a once in a lifetime kid.  And she was.  But I was blessed again by having the opportunity to work with Michael Cibene.  While Tara was quite accomplished as a basketball player, Michael was still finding himself when I first worked with him. In fact, he played golf instead of football in 7th grade.  And in 8th grade, he didn’t take the world by storm as a 130 lb center. But he had a love of the game, and again possessed that similar set of intangibles that endeared him to his coaches and peers, alike.

Over the next 4 years, his work ethic continued to develop, his passion for the game continued to percolate, and his leadership acumen grew to a high level.  He led by example, and with his enthusiasm for playing, for his teammates, and through his unwavering faith.

What always struck me as unique in Michael was how obvious it was to everyone that his growth, resilience, and passions evolved from his faith.   This strength of conviction has been integral in many a peer, and even a few teachers and coaches, reflecting on and more firmly embracing their own faith.

Michael’s grandfather, who is also his best friend, is a passionate Ohio State Buckeye.  From a young age, Michael has followed suit in sharing this passion for his grandfather’s alma mater.  He always wanted to go there- and as an athlete, he obviously wanted to play there.  But everyone knew that at 6’0 170lbs with a 40 yard dash time somewhere around the high 4’s at best, that his opportunity to participate in OSU football would come as a spectator.

Everyone except for Michael.   As the time to graduate high school moved closer, so did Michael’s efforts in this direction increase- rapidly.   A strong senior year as a defensive end, followed by making the state championships in weight lifting certainly put playing football at a DIII school in the discussion.  But OSU? The Big Ten? No way- the best player to come out of his school in many years was playing at Northwestern.  We knew what a Big Ten player looks like- and Michael didn’t fit the bill.

Then something happened.   He got to Columbus, walked on, and made the team.  It happened so naturally, as if this is what was supposed to happen.

So when he stood on the field a few weeks ago embracing his best friend and grandfather after his team won the National Championship, he exemplified, much like Tara did, all the intangibles, character, passion, and love that go into pursuing and achieving a seemingly unattainable goal.

Tara’s father once said in an interview (see the piece on Tara here) that we must love the process and working hard towards a goal.  Because just because we work hard doesn’t mean that we are going to get where we want to go, but it makes the experience more enjoyable on the way.

Many thanks to Tara and Michael for what they have given me, their peers, and all who know them: an archetypal example of what we are capable of in this world.

Falling on my Butt

Yesterday, for the first time since moving to the farm in May, I literally fell on my butt.  Nobody was around to laugh or feel bad, so I did the right thing.  I laughed at myself.  Then I got up and rather than worrying about wiping the Georgia red clay off my bum, I smiled rather admiringly at the mess I had made of myself.  

As I continued with my morning chores that the winter break affords me the opportunity to attend to more often, I thought about the last year.  I thought about how many times in life we fall on our butt, sometimes with people around us to help, laugh, support.  Som Continue reading

Coloring Within the Lines

The other day I was in a conversation with two writing teachers.   Those of you who know me know that a) I love to talk about teaching writing b) I use to be a five-paragraph essay fascist and c) in recent years I have become an advocate for many different methods of writing instruction.

So this conversation-one that I thoroughly enjoyed- was accentuated by the high level of respect I hold for the others in the conversation.   We were talking about teaching organization through highly structured formulaic strategies.  One colleague enjoys the structured formula of the 5 paragraph essay for nearly all formal academic writing, while the other teacher prefers to afford students more freedom in applying the concept of organization how they seem fit, feeling that the practice and process will ultimately lead every writer to have a sense of his or her own organizational style.

I was asked what I thought, and I used the metaphor of younger kids learning how to color within the lines of a coloring book before they can create the outlines and thus, produce original art.   I believe in the value of providing young artists with opportunities to color within the lines in order for them to see models of well-structured forms incorporated with their own interpretation of what colors go inside.  There is still tremendous skill and creativity involved in coloring within the lines.   Further, the experience will help the young creator have a better understanding of what the outline form should look like, and as mastery and creative verve develop, the artist can start to branch out on his/her own to create without the outlines.

Writers need to learn how to organize their thoughts by “coloring within the lines” until they have that sense of how to create their own structural form.  So teaching formulaic structured writing strategies is integral to helping young writers develop methods of organization.   Once they have shown creativity and adherence to the form within the parameters that teachers provide, they have proven themselves ready to not only fill in the form with their individual “colors”, but to also be masterful creators of the forms themselves.


#Blogamonth Give Thanks

That which is bitter to endure can be sweet to remember…

So as I read the topic for this month’s #blogamonth, all the obvious thoughts flooded my mind- I am so thankful for my children, my wife, my family, my friends, my colleagues, etc.   But as I thought about the topic some more, it occurred to me that there are some things that I am thankful for now, that at the time I was enduring them, I was not so able understand that I was struggling through a challenge, or perhaps I was unable to see the value in overcoming the challenge.

So as to organize chronologically thoughts in a linear manner, I will share some of these experiences for which I am thankful that I have had to endure.

As I have shared very openly, I struggled mightily as a child with what would now be diagnosed as ADHD, and there is high likelihood that I would also have been medicated for my hellacious temper.  My Montessori Principal at Children’s House in Levittown was named Ms. Cannon. She had a big green chair in her office, and a very cool canon right next to the chair.   I remember this because I spent a great deal of time with her in her office.   I don’t remember that time being horrible, or that I was enduring such a hardship; in fact, I have fond memories of those times.  But I can’t tell you the name of any other teacher I had there.  I am thankful for Ms. Cannon, because despite the fact that I spent enough time with her that she is the one I remember from those years, I remember those years fondly.  She obviously never made me feel like a bad kid, even though I was causing trouble.

I also remember Ms. S.  She is the one who sent me home from school in second grade.  I don’t remember what I did, but I do remember always feeling like she never forgave me for it.  Fortunately, I had the appropriately named Mrs. Tickle the next year.  She was a legend at my elementary school.  My sister had her, too.  I am thankful that she made me feel good about myself.  Also, her class is the earliest for which I have very specific vivid memories of lessons and activities.

My first year in junior high, I still had that crazy temper, and the ADHD was in full effect.   Crammed into a public school classroom with 40 kids in a room, I was doomed to fail.  Couple that with my short fuse and a feeling that I wasn’t going to back down from any bullying, I found myself failing all my classes and getting into fights nearly every day.   I also found myself in a very unique situation.  They kicked me out of school.   At the time, it didn’t feel like this would be something that in retrospect would evoke good feelings, but it was a life-changing experience. It gave me the amazing gift of empathy for struggling adolescents. So I am thankful that the two guidance counselors told my parents to put me in military school.   I am also thankful that my parents didn’t listen to them. 

Instead they put me in a small school where I could get the attention I needed, the positive peer-pressure to motivate me, and the challenge to help me reach my academic potential.  While I was at that Hebrew day school in Bucks County, I was not aware of how negatively some people treated me- nor was I remotely aware of being what many have said was a tortured adolescent. Actually, I was very happy in those days.   I had a feeling of belonging that helped me grow and learn. I am thankful for the adolescent blinders that I had on in those days that kept me from seeing the negativity of the adults around me at school.

One of the most difficult times in my life was my junior year of high school.  In a 9 month span, we lost my mom, my aunt, and my grandmother.   The effects on my family are still lingering.   But at that time, I found myself incredibly fortunate to be in a school that was very much a family.  My teachers, friends, and even people I didn’t know were there to support me through this incredibly difficult time.  I am thankful that I was in that type of school environment.  It certainly represented for me a key element I have always sought in schools where I wanted to work, and in the last few years, in the schools where we send our children.

During my college years, I certainly had some ups and downs.  During one such down time, my actions led to a rift between me and my family.   This rift was accompanied by a new challenge- I had to pay for the rest of my schooling.  This was a monumental obstacle for me.  But I am thankful that I knew at a young age that I wanted to teach and coach.  That aspiration allowed me to see the light at the end of that very dark tunnel.  Once I emerged at the end, I was very thankful that my father had made me work for that degree.  It made such a profound difference in my life- although I wasn’t feeling so warm and fuzzy about it at the time.

In the years since, I have always been cognizant of and openly gracious for people in my life who have supported, guided, and even tough-loved me.  Mentors like Pat Lukacs, Joe Merluzzi, and Neil Gruber at Berkeley Prep- my first teaching job, Rich Basirico at Hilton Head, Bob McGrath at Pine Crest. Good friends and colleagues like Chris Piccone, Joey Walters, Phil Consuegra and others who continue to be a part of my life.

But along the way, I reflect with thanks on those from whom I learned about the kind of professional and/or person that I do not want to be.  Whether it was negative colleagues, abusive supervisors, or those for whom the education and well-being of our students did not appear to be in their top five motives for being educators.  But I am thankful for their poor examples, as I am for their influence in my continuing to move onwards and upwards towards finding the right place for me and now for my own children.  That being said, I am a “high road” kind of guy. Regret, anger, resentment make us rot inside, and I have had too many wonderfully positive people and experiences in my life to allow that to happen, so I choose instead to thank them.

I recently wrote about my feelings about my current experience, so I will merely say that I am thankful for where I am and who I am with professionally and personally.

All of these experiences and people (and certainly countless more) have shaped me, and I am thankful to have the kind of mindset that has allowed me to grow at each step of the way.  It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been a great ride so far.  More to come.

No Surprises Here

Yesterday, we held our first #edcampdavis at the middle school for our half day of professional development.  It is no surprise that the 3 and a half hour event was massive success.  That is not to say that the edcamp style program would work everywhere to the same powerful level. I don’t believe it would. 

So that begs the question: What is it about us that had this very simple process be so remarkably impactful for our community?

There are a number of catalysts for this success. First, we walk the walk of being a community of learners who exemplify the growth mindset.  Our approach to yearly professional development programming manifests this attitude.  Entirely created, developed, and executed by members of our faculty and staff, teachers have 8 PD strands to choose from for areas of study during the course of the year. 

This element also reveals another key trait that had yesterday be so meaningful for our group- so many of our people are accustomed to raising compelling topics, and facilitating meaningful conversations on those topics.  

Further, we are a culture that easily finds comfort in a room of colleagues having candid discussions on even the most sensitive topics (having difficult conversations with parents was one session yesterday,  for instance). 

Finally, a significant contributor to the positive climate we felt in the building yesterday is the wide-spread experience with this model that many of our people have had prior to executing our day of learning.   Many of us have participated in edcamps, so there was leadership and guidance even in the process of building the board while we ate.

As a culture that walks the Dweckian walk, we benefit from opportunities to share our collective knowledge,  creativity, and passions as educators. 
The edcamp model works for us because it provides a forum that allows us to play to these strengths with great ruach (spirit) while also making our kehilla (community) stronger in the process as we build kavod (respect) for each other and deepen our chochma (wisdom).

At a time when so many schools are looking to outside sources for PD, we choose to tap into the incredible wealth of talent within our walls that lends itself to the fluid, organic collaborative model that edcamp provides.