Sunday, August 30, 2020

Being the "Rogue Employee Who Thought It Was A Good Idea"

Our school is kind of a neighborhood school that is on a fairly busy street in our township. We don't have a sign board out front or any way to share announcements in the front of our school but we do a have a fence that runs along the front of our building in one area. Last year, I saw a cool way to use the fence to put up messages using cups pushed through the fence. I've done this throughout the year and sharing messages for fun, inspiration, thanks, and kindness. I've received numerous messages from the community that they enjoyed the signs and some, who don't even have children in our schools reached out to say how much they appreciated the messages as they run, drive or walk by. BTW - #BFRocks is our hashtag for our school, the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. 

After the pandemic hit and students didn't return, I changed the signs much less often. When the summer came, I took down the cups, which had been the same ones that had survived the entire year. After a few weeks of an empty fence, I heard from some people in the community that they missed our signs, so I went to the grocery store and picked-up some new cups and put a sign up for the summer months. Obviously, much has changed since last September when I began putting up the messages so I thought that I'd put up a message that was, again, what I considered to be inspirational and unequivocally shows what we stand for in our school. I felt it was particularly important to share the #BLM because it is important that our Black and Brown families understand that we are with them at all times, but especially now with this nationwide reckoning with race. Perhaps I am a little naive, but I didn't think any of this to be controversial. 

My latest message has been up for about a month in front of the school and apparently it has caused some controversy. Earlier in the week, my superintendent let me know that someone had complained about it. I told him I'd be glad to discuss it with anyone who wanted to talk about it but I wasn't going to take it down. He supported me and responded that way to the community member. Then, the other night I began getting emails and messages from a variety of community members, some who have children in our school, and some who I've never met and don't know at all. These messages were thanking me for putting up the sign in front of the school and that they stood behind me and appreciate me. Someone messaged me that there was some people on FaceBook complaining about my "cups."  Again, I didn't think much of it until I came in on Friday and began getting copied on emails to the superintendent, the school board, and the Lawrence Township Manager. 

"I am sure by now you are aware of the "BLM" that is outlined in plastic cups along the fence in front of the Ben Franklin School.  I do not believe that the Lawrence Townsahip Public Schools should have any reference to "BLM" represented at their schools.  This is public school system and any reference to a very contaversial activist group is not in the best interest of our schools.  The Schools should stay out of this.

I am VERY disappointed in our schools.  Not sure if this is something that was voted on by the school board, supported by the school board or if it is a rouge employee who thought it was a good idea. "

This particular person, upon being told that I wasn't taking the sign down,  then wrote an email to our Township Chief of Police saying she thought that my "cups" were a "slap in the face to the police department" and although the "school district may not appreciate" the police, there are many that do. 

I also received another email during this same day, stating that they found "it very surprising that the public school have any reference to the extremely controversial group in light of everything happening." 

My response: 

Dear Mr. ______

Thanks for reaching out. The cups reference a belief that Black Lives Matter to our school and community. Although I put the cups on the fence, I believe the district also believes that the lives of our Black and Brown children and their families matter to all of us. 

Jay Billy, Principal 

I know, there is a lot to unpack here.

First of all, I am proud of our district for the work we are doing on equity and anti-racist understanding. There is a long way to go but if we continue to look at our work through the lens of equity, we will make our schools and our very diverse township a place where all people feel welcomed and included. 

Next, we, as a district, and I have a very good working relationship with our Township Police Department and I resent this woman trying to start problems where there are none. I am thankful everyday for the township police and am proud to call many of them friends.  

I want to thank all in our community that have reached out to support me and our school. We only want to do what is right. People who know me, know that I will always try to do what is right for our kids, regardless of what some people might think. I continue to learn on my journey to be an anti-racist educator and I am thankful to all who have helped me in my learning. and most of all, in this case, I'm proud to be a "Rogue employee who thought it was a good idea." I hope to have more good ideas real soon. 

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Front Door

As someone who is on a journey to better understand equity, bias, race, discrimination and all forms of trauma, our new (and possibly temporary) normal in education has really brought the inequity that surrounds schools to the forefront. We know that the kids who come to our schools come from a wide variety of homes and cultures and that many of them have faced discrimination and trauma, either societal or systemic. From this, we know that no two kids in our classrooms are the same, nor do they come with the same experiences and values and therefore providing them an equitable education is part of our duty as public school educators.

Over the last 9 weeks I've seen incredible educators in my district and throughout the country work to provide an educational experience for students and families who are in quarantine. This was done with little time to prepare and no understanding of what we were about to get ourselves into. Students who didn't have access to technology were given chrome books and hot spots so they could connect. Student who may not have food, were given meals that helped to sustain them. Families and their homes became the educational setting for a school that wasn't meant to be. Teachers continue to do their best to support this setting and give our students the academic and social emotional supports that all kids need. 

What became apparent right away was that, for most of our students and their families, school is more than just reading, writing, and math. While school is what our kids do and where they go while their caretakers make a living, it has never been about baby-sitting. But, the fact of the situation is, school in it's current construct does provide daycare for families while they can earn a living and supply their families with a home and put food on the table. School provides our kids with some of their basic social learning and understanding. Students learn how to collaborate, get along, and follow societal structures that will help them out in the real world. 

One big thing that this pandemic has shown me is that the best chance for all of our kids to receive an equitable and substantive education in all areas is get them to walk through the front door of our school on a daily basis. It's just a fact!  Our world does not yet provide equitable opportunities for all. We can send home chrome books and hot spots so that our kids can connect. We can feed them so they have the proper nutrition. We can even provide them with opportunities to learn. What we can't do, in our current remote learning situation, is see the looks on their faces when a concept is mastered. Or, provide that instantaneous feedback where the real learning occurs. It's difficult to see the pain and stress that our students are feeling while we try to present new material in a virtual manner. We can try, but by getting the students to walk through the front doors, education becomes a more equitable experience. Students come closer to getting their individual learning and social emotional needs met when they have a teacher standing in front of them. We can stop a lesson and provide deeper understanding or go back and re-teach, because we see in their eyes that they aren't there yet. These types of things are hard in the virtual space we occupy presently. The ability to give every child what they need specifically, is best done in a setting with the students seated in front of us. 

Until it is safe to return, we will continue to do our best and provide for our students, but...I, for one, can not wait until the day that our school opens and our staff and students can walk through that front door. This will be a day of celebration. Teaching and learning, by nature, is a social endeavor and therefore, best done with people. I can't wait to be knee deep in kids again. Getting our students to walk through the front door will be our best chance of providing equitable learning opportunities for all. This is the real purpose of our public schools!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

In These Unsettling Times...

I have a lot I want to say and share and I could go on and on but maybe I'll write again later or another day this week. This post may be all over the place because there are so many facets to what is happening with our schools and our students, so please forgive the lack of focus.

First of all, I've been preaching to everyone that we need to give grace to all during this "temporary new normal," so some of what I'm about to write may seem judgmental and somewhat harsh. Those that know me also know that I have strong opinions but I'm always willing to listen in order to become better and reflect, so here we go...

We have been doing "remote/distance/home learning," for three weeks. This isn't home instruction, distance learning or e-learning. As A.J Juliani stated in his blog and via his webinar, this is "emergency remote learning and teaching," with emphasis on the "emergency."  You can call it whatever you want but distance learning, e-learning, etc. are the usual choices. But, in theses "usual" types of remote learnining, students and their families choose to take a class online and then set themselves up to take that course. Teachers choose to teach an online course or some type of blended learning and then prepare accordingly. None of us chose this, therefore it is "emergency remote teaching and learning."

And then this happened. The other night, our district had it's monthly Board of Education meeting. The meeting was held virtually to adhere to social distancing guidelines. After a few brief, "business items" were discussed, they went to the part of the meeting where there is time for community comment.  This is where people from the community get a chance to comment on things happening in our schools. Since it was done virtually, I was really surprised that there were a few people there that wanted to talk. Some of the comments had to do with what other districts were doing and why we chose to just "maintain without pushing out new content." But this set of comments really disturbed me:

"Why does it take over a month to deliver structured learning virtually with all of the technology that is out there?" And then this parent went on to say, "There is no reason that you can't deliver a structured learning environment that is the same as what they have in the classroom setting." "I am really challenged at the lack of understanding and guidance that the administrators are delivering to the teachers to deliver to our students. It's frustrating!"

Basically, in the above sentences this person shows a belief that teaching is easy and that we can just switch all of what is done in the classroom to an online platform. No problem. Everything is the same, just online. Really?

Except we've never done it this way. We are working on it and we will get better at it, but it's not going to be perfect. We had very little time to to address that schools were going to be closed and we had to begin to figure out a plan. For so many reasons, it seemed like the right choice to start with maintaining skills instead of moving forward with instruction.

This is where I will show understanding and grace instead of judgement.  It is clear that there is a lack of respect for educators and all that it takes to put lessons and curriculum together. Also, there is obviously some frustration because this is all new and we are navigating a different world. I caution families, students and teachers to watch out for FOMO (fear of missing out.)  Don't watch what others are doing, just take joy in what you can do and the connections you are keeping and the people you are supporting.  Families, be careful of the mindset, "In other districts..." or "I saw on Facebook..." As my friend Jeanne Muzi reminded me the other day of  the Teddy Roosevelt quote, "Comparison is the thief of joy!"

Can we be better? Sure, everyone can. Each day, we get better at this "emergency remote learning and teaching."

Our district chose to do what we call maintenance until it became more clear that we will be out for a longer time. We are on spring break this week and will begin our "new" instruction when we return. There were many reasons why we chose to close down our grading portal and just provide resources and support during the last couple of weeks. Some of the reasons were that we chose to support the social-emotional side of our students first without overwhelming them or their families. Second, there are many equity issues that are being confronted because of this pandemic that have been pushed aside, access to technology being a big one. We had to confront that first.  Next, the stress on families, teachers and our students is immense and we chose to support the social-emotional side first and take care of our kids, by trying to connect and check on our families. As we move forward with instruction, we will keep an eye on our students, staff and families to make sure they are maintaining an emotional health and we'll support them as best we can.

Let's all be careful of exposing our privilege by sharing our own expectations. Not everyone has the supports, the means, and the family structures that will allow exceptional learning in this environment.  Households are being disrupted and people are worried and stressed. We have to be okay with that and support all families in what they need right now in this time of crisis.  Providing equitable access to learning for all is one thing that public schooling is supposed to do but there is so much more to it. We no longer have the luxury of having the children in front of us for 7 hours so that makes the inequities show even greater. So show empathy and grace to all. This is a tough time... and even tougher for many of our families that were already struggling on a day to day basis. Be kind. Show empathy. Help others.

                                                                                                                       source unknown

Finally, a shout out to all of you amazing educators out there and to our kids and families who are resilient and making this work. Take the opportunity to make positive memories that you'll be talking about for a lifetime. Educators, you have to take care of your families too. Family first!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

What I've Learned

Over the last few weeks, I've learned a lot about myself and those that I work with and even people all over the world. I've often heard about people talking about their "Why."  "Remember your why,"  is a common statement when you hear of those getting discouraged about education or those feeling overwhelmed or slightly burned out. I've never really had this problem. I know my "Why."  Sure, I get discouraged and frustrated sometimes, but I really feel that I'm lucky to be able to do what I do every single day. Of course I don't like every part of every day, but isn't that life. You can choose to dwell on the negative or celebrate the positive. I choose positive!

This thing called COVID-19 or the coronavirus happened. And it was a big thing. We have closed school for at least a month. Here are a few things I have learned (many I already knew) over the last couple of weeks because of this unexpected time away from my school family.

  • I can't wait to get back to school.  Although I have been in education for 37 years, I am no where near ready to retire. On the very first day of being told to go home and don't come in for a while, I was lost. I still am lost. I joke a lot about #SocialDistancing being "my thing" because I'm an introvert, but I hate being away from our students and staff. I need to wake up everyday with a purpose. We talk about the kids needing a routine, then I'm the biggest kid. I'm best when I'm "knee-deep in kids," so you all are stuck with me for a long time. 
  • Teachers teach...and love teaching. One of our youngest teachers stopped by to pick up some things from her classroom and you could see it before she said it, "I found out that I really love teaching and I miss my kids."  Time away from our passions reminds us of their worth to us. 
  • School family is not an overused misnomer. The entire school community has come together for the good of all. It has been inspiring.
  • Old dogs can learn new tricks. With very little time, districts and teachers have put together remote learning/distance learning/home schooling for millions and millions of students using technology that many had never before utilized. I've seen so many teachers step out of their comfort zones in order to connect and teach their kids and it has been truly amazing. I've learned so much myself and I'm one of the oldest dogs. 
  • Relationships really do matter. From day one, you could tell that our teachers were missing their kids and the kids were missing their teachers. Check out the social media posts. I've been lucky enough to be involved in numerous e-meetings and you can feel the love and the joy these adults and kids have when they finally get to really "see" each other face to face. 
  • There are heroes everywhere. Those that are working in hospitals, doctors offices, and essential services are out there providing care and necessities while risking their own health. Wow! But there are so many others who have gone above and beyond to make sure our kids are connected, have food, and are having their social and emotional needs met. I'm not sure that the general public had a realization of  all of the things that the school provides their children beside just the academic needs. I'm pretty sure people are starting realize it now.
  • The education community is a family. I have learned from so many of you. Thank you for all the ideas, sites, and tools you have shared. Thank you for the funny jokes and memes. Thank you for continuing to inspire me and keeping me learning.
As we continue to navigate our "new normal" in education, let's take the obstacles that are being thrown at us and use them as opportunities to change how we do school and how we look at every one of our educational practices. We need to use this time to re-imagine our classrooms and our schools. Let's learn new things from each other and re-think the curriculum as we know it. 

Most importantly, let's take the experiences we are having now and learn from them.  We've learned that our schools still have a lot of work to do when it comes to equity.  As we move forward, let's keep this in the forefront of our initiatives and try to solve some of these issues so that all students in the future have access and can learn at the highest levels... Even in these difficult times. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

Maybe There Is Something to These Superstitions and the Coronavirus Hits NJ

I am not really a superstitious person so when the week started with a time change, then the full moon and finally, Friday the 13th, I wasn't really all that spooked. I believe that things are going to happen whether you walk under a ladder or a black cat crosses in front of you. Things just happen.

This past week may have changed my mind.

I have been watching the concern, and in some cases, the hysteria regarding the Coronavirus with some trepidation. In January, I started seeing stories about this COVID-19 and at first I was skeptical, like listening to weather reports for the next ten days.  But each day, as I listened and watched what was happening I just knew that "something" was going to happen.

Then came the time change.  Sunday morning at 2 AM the time changed to 3 AM. This always seems to throw adults as well as kids off and it made Monday morning rough. Monday was a day full of students with a variety of struggles and behaviors.  But we got through it.  By the way, I'm still wondering why the time can't change sometime around 4 PM on a Monday or Tuesday. Imagine that, it's 4 o'clock... er... ah... now it's 5 o'clock and it's time to go home.  Just an idea!  On a side note, which man decided that Sunday be International Women's Day and thereby giving women the only day of the year with 23 hours instead of 24. Shortchanged again.  C'mon men, let's just pick another day... or better yet, make every day National Women's Day.

Then on Monday, it's a full moon. Teachers at school dread full moons because they are notorious for having negative effects on human behavior.  Now I do give some credence to full moons having an effect on behavior.  I mean, if the moon can affect tides, why wouldn't it affect people, who are over 70% water.  Actually, Monday was kind of calm and the students and staff were pretty much on target. Still, if you watched the news about the Coronavirus, you could see things starting to speed up. Maybe there is something to these superstitions.

On Tuesday and Wednesday you could tell people were starting to get worried. This Coronavirus thing is real.  Meetings, discussions, and emails happened over and over with thoughts and ideas about what to do. Everyone started talking. You could see the storm clouds on social media.  The NCAA decided to hold championships without fans.  The NBA has a player test positive and cancels for at least a month.  Maybe there is something to these superstitions.

Thursday brought us emergency meetings and more emails, discussions and phone conferences. All around us we hear about closings. Heightened anxiety can be felt by the teachers. They know something is up. We decide to have early dismissal on Friday so that teachers can plan... just in case.  The NCAA cancels all championships and spring sports. WHAT?   All other major sports go on hiatus for now.  WHAT?  I guess we don't need ESPN or WFAN any more... but those are the only channels I watch or listen to. Maybe we can talk about somebody kicking a rock or let's talk more about the Astros scandal.  Maybe there is something to these superstitions. 

FRIDAY the 13th.  A feeling of uneasiness. Everyone is a little on edge. We start the day with a fun assembly where kids and adults are supporting St. Baldrick's Foundation, a charity for helping children with cancer, by shaving their heads. I already do that so one of our kids gets to paint mine. The kids are pumped but the teachers are anxious. Then the message comes... Our district is closing for a few weeks. We need to take our plan and put it into action. We need to make sure that our students have positive learning experiences at home... without us. How can that be?  So we say goodbye to our kids without expecting it. We send them home on a Friday, knowing we won't see them for quite some time. Our staff plans and implements and gets ready to "socially distance" themselves for a few weeks. Maybe there is something to these superstitions.
So the Coronavirus hits New Jersey at the same time as the time changes, we have a full moon, and Friday the 13th happens. Maybe it was just the perfect storm of all three of these events happening in one week. Can it be just coincidence or is there really something to these superstitions? Hmmmm.  We'll have to pay attention next time all three happen at once. Maybe the Zombie Apocalypse.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Teaching Integrity and Character: Standing Up For What Is Right

Today it is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I realize that Dr. King's work is far from done. This is what I'm thinking about today.

Try to follow me on this one...

I'm a huge NY Yankees fan, baseball fan and really enjoy all sports, in general. If you haven't been following the baseball news recently, then let me give you a quick update.

The Houston Astros were cheating during the 2017 season. They were stealing signs from the opposing catcher using technology and then signaling to their batters what type of pitch was coming. There is probably an intricate system that was developed and many players and even management were involved. One of their coaches then moved to be the manager of the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox were cheating in 2018, it's alleged doing much the same thing. By the way, the Astro's won the World Series in 2017 and the Red Sox won the World Series in 2018. Then the NY Mets name their new manager this fall. He is implicated in the entire scheme because he was with the Astros during the time they were cheating.

Are you following?

All of the above team's managers and some front office staff have been dismissed, suspended or both. This whole story came out because one player, who used to be with the Astros but was traded to the Oakland A's, decided to make the scheme public.  He stood up for his for his fellow pitchers and professionals and for the rules of the game.

Baseball------------------------------------>MLK, Jr. Day------------------------------>Education/Life

So what has me thinking about this today on Martin Luther King, Jr Day is... Why didn't more players stand up for what is right? Players get traded all of the time and didn't they think that someone would come out and say it? Is there an unwritten code that says it's okay as long as you get away with it?  I know there is fame and money involved but even the pitchers on the teams, who don't usually have to hit, knew it was wrong and didn't say a word. Their cheating is affecting the livelihood of many known and unknown people. Why didn't someone stop this? When did these players decide it was acceptable to break the rules or, at the very least, stay silent about others who were doing this?  Did we fail to instill the proper character to these grown up when they we still young and in school?

It comes down to integrity and character. These are things we hope to instill in our students. As the John Wooden quote goes, "The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching." But we also have to give our students voice and the courage to speak up when things are wrong. If our students see someone being treated wrongly or unfairly, will they speak up? Will they stand for what is right?  Or will they be like the major league baseball players and watch it happen?

It is our job as educators to give them the skills, the words and the confidence to stand up and be heard. We must teach the principals of Dr. King and value his words. Student must feel confident that we, as the adults, will stand up with them and do what is right, no matter the consequence. If you read Dr. Kings Letter From Birmingham Jail , you will see his stance on doing what is right and just. Let's help our students grow into good, kind, citizens who value all humans and accept the differences of their colleagues and classmates. We must help them stand up for integrity and justice.

This, I believe, is one of the biggest tasks we have as educators. Teach it every day. Model this type of character and let your children see you standing up for what we know is right.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Starting To Write Again - This is not a New Year's Resolution!

Warning!  This is not a New Years Resolution!  I don't believe in making New Year's resolutions because I'm the type of person who believes that if you want to do something, you just do it. Why wait for the New Year, or any special day. If I want to change something, I just decide to do it and then get started. When I was younger (much younger), I had always thought about running a marathon but I dreaded the idea of training for it. So, one night after being out with friends, they reminded me that some of them were running the Marine Corp Marathon the next day. I asked them what time they were meeting and I met up with them ran with them, without registering or getting a number. No training (other than I was already in decent shape from working out with my team that I coached), no build up, no stress. Just run until you can't run any more. Problem solved. Goal met. Why wait.

The same thing goes for Skydiving. I always wanted to try it but I just didn't make time for it. About 15 years ago I was talking to a friend and he said he also wanted to try it. We decided to go the very next day. We met up and drove to the place. He was so nervous, especially when they show you the video and make you sign the paper saying "you could die."  I, however, was so excited. I just decided that I wanted to go so we made it happen. It was awesome and I recommend it to anyone who likes the thrills and pure bliss of jumping out of an airplane from 14,000 feet and just soaring above the beautiful country. I enjoyed it so much that I took my oldest son as part of his graduation present a few years later.

It's been almost seven months since I've written in this blog. Since I'm not a daily, weekly, or monthly blogger, I'm sure no one has missed me. Usually something happens that gets me pumped up and I feel the need to put it out there in a larger form than just a tweet or Facebook post, so I write in this form. I just haven't been able to make that happen. I don't know why.

It's not like nothing good or bad has happened. Numerous times I've been inspired to write and then I just get caught up in the day-to-day 'stuff'  and the enthusiasm passes or more important things need to be handled. Today, I write because I realize that I need to get back up on the horse and get started again... and I have the time. No more excuses. I have tons of ideas in my head and so much that I really want to talk about and share. I've visited so many awesome places over the past 6 months and gone to so many amazing conferences and met so many very special people. Educators in this day and age are very lucky to have the available resources on-line to continue learning on a daily basis but really, there is nothing better than getting to learn with and from someone you respect and appreciate for their work.

So today, I write to inspire others to not wait until the New Year or the next semester or until the next time someone reminds you. If there is something you want to do, then do it. If there is something you need to say, say it. Don't wait until you find the time, make the time!  It's time to do what you want to do. Try something new. Don't wait. Let your passion guide you and then share with the world.