Periods of Reflection

Just random musings from an elementary perspective. Views are my own.

Month: March, 2015

Administrators as Lead Learners


I’ve been teaching for eleven years, but involved in education for the last fourteen including substitute experience, interning, and student teaching.  I have encountered many administrators along the way.  For the spirit of honesty, most of them have been supportive, open to new ideas, good listeners, and understanding.  However, there have been some that are quite the opposite of the above adjectives.

Over the past few years my administrators have been some of the best.  I recently moved from a fourth grade position to a fifth grade position in our local middle school due to overcrowding in some district elementary schools.   I took this leap of faith for many reasons.  I was looking for a new challenge and to grow as an educator.  My colleague and I had a very unique opportunity to design our own curriculum and bring our creative energy into our daily lessons. Sure, we have a district pacing guide, but it’s just that, a guide.  Having a knowledge of the standards we are required to teach can be overwhelming, but when you have administrators who TRUST your instructional decisions creates an ecosystem where we can thrive and inspire.  They consistently push us to engage students in new ways, utilizing purposeful technology integration as a tool.

I have a learner first mentality that I try to carry with me daily.  Part of the allure of this new position was that I was going to work WITH, yes WITH, an administration team that is highly respected in my district. There is no us against them mentality that I’ve seen in the past.  Each one brings a really great energy to the building. And no, this is not a post about brown nosing.  I believe praise should be given to all when a job well done is accomplished.  This got me thinking.

When you work with a team of administrators who respect and trust your decisions, it makes you want to rise to the occasion even more and become an even better educator, right?  It’s a great feeling when an administrator pops into your classroom unannounced and stays to watch kids collaborating, creating, problem solving, and engaging in learning.  Is this common practice in schools? If not, it should be.  Administrators are lead learners.  Administrators should have a present face in their teacher’s classroom to push them, challenge them, acknowledge their hard work, provide constructive feedback, and work and interact with kids. Isn’t that why we do what we do?  I know the amount of bureaucracy and emails can become overwhelming, but students needs to see their presence.  We all should be continual learners on this educational journey.

I’m all for constructive feedback.  How could you not be if it will improve your practice? What I am against, vehemently, are administrators who constantly question instructional decision and are quick to criticize without offering up feedback or an alternative plan.  This is not acceptable. This same statement goes for teachers as well. That type of culture in a building will have an adverse effect on teacher growth and has no place in a building.  Does everyone have bad days? Of course.  Have we all said something we regret? Obviously.  But when nothing constructive is said, that takes a mental toll and does nothing but take the sails out of teacher’s excitement.

We are teaching in a very transparent age of education.  Teachers are harnessing the power of social media and engaging students and parents in ways that were never possible before.  As someone who may travel down that path because I am a certified administrator, I plan to lead by example.

I plan to celebrate teachers who are taking chances in the classroom.  I plan to acknowledge teachers who are thinking outside the box. I plan to come into classrooms and make myself visible and not just a voice over the loudspeaker.  I plan to bring my love of literacy and read to students and recommend books.  I plan to challenge my staff to be creative and to take risks. I plan to celebrate students’ and teachers’ work through social media.  I plan to be a lead learner and model ways to engage students and staff at staff meetings by using tech they can utilize in your class tomorrow! I plan to instill a growth mindset in my staff by always encouraging them to challenge the status quo.  I plan to laugh, a lot.  I plan to have fun by having staff participate in great team building and culture activities.  I plan to show staff that I am human, make mistakes, and admit when I am wrong.  I plan to be transparent. I plan to challenge my staff to reach their fullest potential, while providing constructive feedback to make them stronger in the name of student achievement. Are they lofty goals? Sure.  It’s the small steps that can be taken that can go a long way to establishing a positive culture in a building.  Ignite a passion in your staff that models what collaborative learning can look like.  Lead.  By.  Example.

For great examples educators using social media to celebrate staff and student work, I highly recommend following Tony Sinasis, Frank Rodriguez, Jason Martin, Mike Rinaldi, Eric Sheninger, and Todd Nesloney.  In what ways are you a lead learner?

I am a passionate teacher in Stamford, CT.  I teach fifth grade ELA/Social Studies.  I am proud to be an active member of the Twitter educational community.  I am an organizer for #EdCampSWCT and a believer in a high tech/high touch blended learning approach to teaching.  I am a certified administrator.  I believe in taking risks and working collaboratively to augment student achievement.  I love children’s literature and strive to become better everyday.  I am a husband and father.  Follow me on Twitter @mrsapia_teach


What Will be Your Legacy?

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I’ve been thinking about this recently.  What do I want my legacy to be as an educator? Am I not deep enough into my career to think about it? How will the lessons I instill in my students carry over to them to be productive members of society?  Will they remember me because I spoke to them quietly in the hallway, or will they remember the time I lost my patience and raised my voice? Will they transfer the memories of the teachable moments and life lessons we share?  Will they remember me for providing opportunities to connect globally with others students using technology purposefully? These questions are often drifting in and out of my head.

My hope is that my students will remember me as someone who is passionate, caring, hard working, creative, supportive, and trustworthy. I want my students to know I value their voice and presence.  I often wake up with a drive knowing today can be the day I can make a difference in a child’s life.  Think about how powerful of a statement that is. Our responsibility as educators is to get to know our students, trust our students, provide an environment for them to thrive and grow academically and socially.  The powerful aspect of our job is that we get to start fresh everyday with a clean slate.  How many careers get to say that?  Day in and day out, our journey as educators can exhibit blissful moments of powerful learning or moments of utter frustration when you crash and burn.

Take to the time to learn from your students.  Take the time to talk to your students.  Allow a few minutes each class period to ask them how THEY are doing or what THEY are involved in.  This goes a long way to build a positive community in your classroom.  We are inundated with pacing guides, curriculum to cover, state assessments to administer, and performance tasks to give.  Granted a small handful of students will remember these moments, but I’m willing to bank on the fact these will not be the reasons students come back to visit.

They will come back to tell you thank you for listening to them.  They will come back to tell you thank you for sitting with them at lunch one day.  They will come back and tell you about a lame joke you told.  They will come back to say thanks for recommending a great book to them. They will come back and talk about a book you read aloud.  They will come back and tell you how good you made them feel by praising them for their hard work and perseverance.  They will come back to say thanks for complimenting them on their outfit.  They will come back with memories of parent/student kick ball games. Chances are you may not remember these small moments, but our students will. This will define your legacy.  This is what education is all about.  What will be your legacy as an educator?

I am a passionate teacher in Stamford, CT.  I teach fifth grade ELA/Social Studies.  I am proud to be an active member of the Twitter educational community.  I am an organizer for #EdCampSWCT and a believer in a high tech/high touch blended learning approach to teaching.  I am a certified administrator.  I believe in taking risks and working collaboratively to augment student achievement.  I love children’s literature and strive to become better everyday.  I am a husband and father.  Follow me on Twitter @mrsapia_teach

EdcampSWCT, Music, and Ego

Collective Energy

Collective Energy

Yesterday was the inaugural EdCampSWCT.  I was very fortunate to organize this event with a tremendous group of educators.  Those educators were Rob Pennington, Amy Traggianese, Sharon Plante, Joel Pardalis, Sean Hutchinson Frank Rodriguez, and me.  Sharon wrote a great reflection of the day here.

I have a passion for music.  It drives me.  It is my muse.  Depending on any given situation, I can find a song to accompany the respective mood.  Leaving Brian McMahon High School yesterday filled with jubilation, I decide to listen to Phish.  They are my favorite band and one I’ve seen 80 times.  Love them or hate them, you can’t argue with their level of musicianship and talent.  I listened to a show I attended in Raleigh, NC from 12-16-99.  This show features a standout version of their classic tune “Tweezer.” This version is all about collective energy, raw emotion, and most importantly,  listening.  As I reached the 10 minute mark the band slowed down the jam and began a collective peak that would climax around the 19 minute mark.  During this time, it was all about listening to each other intently.  Everyone in the band was working together to construct a monumental wall of sound.  This got me thinking about how it relates perfectly to the EdCamp model of collaboration and ego.

Have we all been guilty of having an ego from time to time? Let’s be honest, the answer is most likely yes.  Ego is a blocker.  Ego stands in the way of greatness.  Ego can stand in the way of growth.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s ok to celebrate your achievement, goals, and accomplishments.  In fact, I encourage that. For those of you who know me, know I am a confident person.  If you set a goal and reach it or get acknowledged for outstanding work, by all means, celebrate that.  The chances are good you deserved that recognition.  But the second ego enters the picture, it can skew your mindset and block potential opportunities for growth.

After experiencing all that is right with education through the Edcamp movement on numerous occasions, it feels like an ego-less energy.  Educators come to Edcamps, usually on weekends and drive numerous hours, just to be a part of something bigger than them and their classroom.  It’s inspiring to watch interactions happen during a session, in the hallway, or just sitting around prior to the event beginning. Educators are “volunteering” their time to learn new ideas, challenge and push themselves, listen to others, lead sessions, ask questions and connect with people they have met via Twitter, or form new friendships, all in the name of our greatest stakeholders, our students!

The spirit of Edcamp is about collaboration and growth, not a showcase of one teacher’s talents on display. It’s never about one person!  It’s about the exchange of ideas and everyone’s voices being heard that acts as a collective force to be reckoned with.  After all, if we surround ourselves with people who are better than us, don’t we want to strive for even greater excellence? We work better as teams and being open to new ideas.  This is how I feel when I attend these Edcamp professional developments.

The communal nature of these events reminds me of attending a Phish show.  It’s the interaction between band and audience that can make for an epic evening.  It’s the ideal of taking risks and not knowing what is going to happen.  Sometimes a glorious blissful moment can occur, or you can fall flat on your face.  The blissful moments can and will happen at Edcamp and so will “failures.”  So what.  We learn, we grow, we collaborate, and celebrate our mission to better ourselves by getting out of our comfort zones and letting go of “ego.”

I try to bring this ideology with me into my classroom everyday.  I have a plan for the day, but I will leave that plan if the teachable moment occurs.  I let go of my “ego” and what I had planned, to seize the moment of greatness that has the potential to inspire a group of students.  Remember to always allow for student voice.  Listen to your students.  It’s not about you.  It’s about them.  They will provide you with feedback that is honest.  Be prepared for that.  I may hurt your “ego,” but hopefully it will be an opportunity for growth.

I am a passionate teacher in Stamford, CT.  I teach fifth grade ELA/Social Studies.  I am proud to be an active member of the Twitter educational community.  I am an organizer for #EdCampSWCT and a believer in a high tech/high touch blended learning approach to teaching.  I am a certified administrator.  I believe in taking risks and working collaboratively to augment student achievement.  I love children’s literature and strive to become better everyday.  I am a husband and father.  Follow me on Twitter @mrsapia_teach

Learning Commons in the Classroom

I have a saying in my classroom: “Sorry about the laughter, volume, chaos, and mess, but we are learning here!” I am trying to harness the strengths each scholar possesses by providing them with an environment where they can thrive, using an educational philosophy that is “outside the box.”

Imagine a classroom that goes against the grain of everything you’ve learn from your upbringing in “traditional” education. Imagine a space where students have the choice to sit where they’d like.  Imagine a space where students are free to move around as they please in the name of engagement and achievement.  Imagine a classroom built on trust where students can own their learning. I can and I am currently in the middle of creating a classroom that I would like my son to attend when he begin his academic career and that I would have liked to attend growing up.  Growing up, I had a very difficult time sitting still, and it continues to be an issue, especially during one size fits all professional development.  Put yourself in the mind of a child who has to sit still all day.  Research shows that the brain develops and is more engaged when opportunities to move are present in the classroom.

Scholars learn best when given choices of how/where they can learn. Having two new stand up desks, two exercise balls, two high top tables, and a coffee table, students are able to freely move around the classroom and complete their assigned work using the materials mentioned above. Students read, complete literacy activities, as well as social studies assignments independently and in groups. Teamwork and focused collaboration is highly emphasized. Those are both very important skills to learn, in addition to academics. My students have mentioned that they focus better when standing up and working and/or sitting on exercise balls.  They have augmented on-task behavior to have no boundaries between them and their learning.  I’ve seen a significant decrease in off task behavior, not only because the lessons are engaging, but because student’s have the choice to work that will best fit their needs.

With regards to the couches, students are assigned days to sit on them, because it became an issue early in the year.  Once a schedule was established, everything flowed smoothly.  I also have a large blue carpet in the “front” of the classroom were we meet to conduct mini-lessons, reflect on new learning, and work collaboratively.  I also have a kidney table in the back of the classroom with erasable white paper for students to use during small group instruction. Additionally, I have started a “Reading Graffiti” wall using erasable black paper for students to write down book recommendations.  This idea came from Donalyn Miller from Reading in the Wild.  If you have not read this book, DO IT!

I raised the money for this project from the generous donations of parents and anonymous donors via Donor’s Choose.  I blasted out the link via my classroom website, Remind, Instagram, and Twitter.  Within five days, the project was fulfilled and the materials were on their way!  Anything is possible, so don’t be afraid to ask parents to help fulfill your classroom vision.

In what ways have you transformed your classroom?  What is your vision for a classroom redesign? Take a look around your classroom and see in what ways you can utilize your space to make it more student centered. I’d love to hear your feedback.  If you’ve made it this far, feel free to follow me on Twitter @mrsapia_teach