Friday, August 25, 2017

Making Gatsby Great Again

I am a Gatsby purist. I’ve read and reread the book countless times, getting lost in the pages and passages. That iconic blue cover calls to me, like the green light at the end of Gatsby’s dock. I can feel the bleakness of the Valley of the Ashes and hear the music emanating from Gatsby’s mansion.

I’m not sure if it was the actual story or my introduction to it (if I could have had a high school schedule filled with English classes, I would have), but it is safe to say, The Great Gatsby was probably the deciding factor to pursue a career as an English teacher. My dream was to teach AP English- engaging in endless discussions of color symbolism- white, yellow and green (Gatsby test- what color does Daisy wear throughout the novel?). My students would be just as captivated by the worlds of East and West Egg as I had been.... 24 years later, I’ve come to realize that was my own version of Gatsby’s dream.

Now when I say purist- I mean I’ve never even considered seeing the remake. While this is not an intellectual debate over whether the 1974 film was an accurate portrayal of the book (and I will ALWAYS choose the book over a movie), I’m perfectly content with the ethereal and hazy look of it (in contrast to the flamboyant, Moulin Rouge-ish, cartoonish, Jay-Z soundtrack of the 2013 version).  

When I first heard about a remake, I immediately turned up my nose and scoffed- HARUMPH! While Leonardo DiCaprio is definitely one of my favorite actors- he’s not Robert Redford- and even if he could pull off a modern day Gatsby, there’s no way he could ever compare to the Gatsby I knew and loved.

(Will the real Jay Gatsby please stand up?)

This summer, I had a change of heart.

This summer I was so incredibly fortunate to present at ISTE,  The International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Antonio, Texas. Sure- I’ve presented at conferences, but ISTE is the pinnacle of conferences. ISTE boasts close to 20,000 attendees from around the world —administrators, technology coordinators, teachers, library media specialists, software developers, marketers, and yes, even Technology Learning Coaches.

With a team of inspiring colleagues from Massapequa, we were scheduled to present on Using Digital Tools to Amplify Voice in a School Culture- how we were working to change the culture and provide everyone (students, staff and parents) with an opportunity to become part of the conversation.  Want to check out a copy of the presentation? Take a look!

Oh right- Gatsby…

I sat on the flight from New York to Dallas, iPhone in hand, ready to binge watch the original Twin Peaks series. After a pretty choppy takeoff, I desperately awaited the “ding” (thank you Lloyd Dobler), signaling cruising altitude, safety and the availability of wifi.

DING!  Gogo Inflight Wifi available...Streaming videos- DENIED!

I was left with no choice but to see what movies American Airlines had available. I scrolled and scrolled- not finding anything that I wanted to watch. I was exhausted (after waking at 3:00 am), and I had no attention span for anything too deep or involved. On the 3rd round of scrolling through my options, I stopped at the G’s.

“Meh-” I thought to myself. “Maybe I should just try to get some sleep.” But there it was- the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg looming in the background- and then came my AHA! moment… I’ve spent the last 2 ½ years working to motivate teachers to move from traditional teaching and adapt their lessons to a digital platform, but I can’t imagine Gatsby any other way? Here I was, flying to ISTE, a conference predicated on innovation and the “use [of] technology to solve tough problems in education,” but I won’t watch a movie?

I grabbed my earbuds and pressed play.

Now, I’m not going to say that I loved it, or that I am now a fan of the remake, but I will say that it was fine. Ok- it was better than fine (not to mention the juxtaposition of Jay-Z’s “$100 Bill” and a speakeasy was surprisingly fitting).

I never got to teach The Great Gatsby, and I’m still a Gatsby purist at heart, but I now know that a newly defined, and highly creative version can exist alongside with the original. Does it really matter which version captures the hearts of its viewers?

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blogging Challenge A-Z Fighting Back

This week, my family suffered a devastating loss to addiction. On January 24th our beloved Jonathan became another grim statistic- one of the 52,000 people who die from an opiate overdose each year.

It’s the phone call we always expected- lurking in the shadows of our minds, but happily suppressed with rays of hope- in each conversation, text message or Facebook post, assuring the silly, kind hearted and outrageous person we loved had lived to fight another day. We were heartened when we saw him working (at a local supermarket), listened to him talk about plans to learn a trade, and finally get a commercial drivers license, so he could get his job back as a sanitation worker (the only time I ever saw him truly happy- but lost the job when he had relapsed a few years back). We celebrated each and every colorful keychain he earned- 30 days, 60 days, 90 days; and celebrated again and again, with the same fervor, each time he completed a stay at rehab. And each time, he emerged with a positive outlook and affirmations that this was going to be the last relapse. But the somber reality was always there. Knowing the sickening relapse rate of heroin addiction (as high as 90% in the first three months of detox) doesn’t make it easier; it only summons the what if’s and why didn’t we- What if we had made long standing plans every Friday night would he not have relapsed? Why didn’t we check in on him more? Why didn’t we find the time to attend one more meeting with him? Why didn’t we come out and ask if he was struggling to remain clean?

But this isn’t a post about my own feelings of guilt. This is about missed opportunities.
Everyday we read stories of honor students and athletes and celebrities- people who seemingly had everything, yet become victims of substance abuse- communities shocked because there were no signs along the way.  Jonathan was not one of these kids- his adolescence was filled with signs.  

Jonathan was not an athlete, nor in chorus. He wasn't an honor student or an artist. Jonathan was the kid in the dean’s office. He was the boy with multiple suspensions. He was the one that nobody knew how to deal with- not his teachers, the school or his family.

I think about my own training as an educator. I took classes on lesson planning and assessment, child development, teaching grammar, the art of writing; but never once did I receive meaningful professional development on working with difficult students; how to work to change disruptive behavior instead of punishing it, or conflict resolution. And I wonder- how many “Jonathans” have I had sitting in front of me, needing something more important than a symbolism lesson? Hurting in ways I could never understand?

I've attended staff development on looking for the signs of drug use and even opportunities for Narcan training, but by then it's too late.  Maybe a Narcan kit would've given Jonathan one more day, one more week, or one more trip to rehab, but the only way to really beat this is to do everything we can to stop it from starting in the first place. Eggs in frying pans, catch phrases or a declared war on drug will never stop this from continuing.

Yes- we need more funding for in-patient treatment facilities.
Yes- we need more officers on the street to stop dealers from selling.
Yes- we need changes to laws that restrict accessibility to prescription opiates.
Yes- we need community awareness to know what signs to look for.

But what we need absolutely the most- is to stop it before it starts. More awareness for mental health, more programs that teach young people how to cope with pain and pathways for students to leave school with a skill for the future.  

Could any or all of these things have made a difference for Jonathan and the millions of others whose lives have been ravaged by addiction? Maybe, maybe not. But isn’t it pretty to think so.

In loving memory of Jonathan Mammolito

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Blogging Challenge A-Z Everyone Gets a Trophy

Flag football Sundays are an autumnal tradition in my town.

My 3rd grader was a little late to start flag football. While a majority of the other players started in kindergarten, Owen began playing last year. It wasn’t a lack of interest or unwillingness, I just didn’t realize there was a team or that it was a rite of passage in my neighborhood. Due to the later start, my son was a little behind the 8 ball when it came to understanding the game and requirements of each position (heck-it took all last season for him to keep the mouth guard in without gagging or dropping it on the ground), but this season has been a good one for him.

Flag is a bit different from other sports in that team composition is driven by grade level and not a birthday cut off. Children born on December 2nd (and therefore missing kindergarten registration by 24 hours) play with kids who just made that cut off- born by December 1st, of the following year! Theoretically, teammates can be almost a year apart in age. In the world of 3rd grade, even a few months seniority can mean a great difference in height and weight (and let’s not forget maturity!) Don’t think ages matter? I recently learned of a trend called “red shirting” where parents purposely hold children back a year to give them an advantage in school.

It took some time for Owen to find a position he excels at. He can throw a pretty impressive spiral- if his feet are firmly planted (not at all ideal for a quarterback), and has not yet developed the “zig-zag intuition” necessary to avoid losing a flag whilst running down the field (a necessary skill for most offensive positions). I’m happy to say he found his niche as a rusher. It’s a great position for him; listen for “HIKE!” and run towards the quarterback. He did so well in this position, he was named permanent rusher for the duration of the season, sacking so many players, they started to complain that he was too rough (I know- it’s flag- no tackling allowed- but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a wee bit proud 😃)

A few weeks ago was the final game of the season. For older students, there was Super Bowl (playoff games the week before), but for the younger kids, there were no playoffs- just a final game. At the end of each game, the teams headed to the show mobile to receive “participation prizes,” a lunch tote. I was stoked (last year they gave out hats), but Owen seemed disappointed.

“Where’s my trophy?” he asked (he had received a medal last year and a trophy at the end of baseball).

“I don’t know sweetie. I don’t think they are giving any out this year,” I responded.

He seemed satisfied with the response, and we walked to get a snack while my kindergartner began his final game.

At the conclusion of the kindergarten game (which by the way there is nothing cuter, yet more tedious to watch), we all walked back to the show mobile to watch my little guy receive his lunch bag. As Ryder happily skipped across the stage, he was handed a lunch bag and.a.medal.

The mood darkened.

Owen’s lip started quivering; his breathing hastened; his eyes welled up. “That’s not fair,” he stammered. “I didn’t get one!”

Wow. Could this really be happening? Is this where Generation Snowflake starts?

My first reaction was to comfort him- and explain now that he is older, they don’t give out medals.

He continued to cry.
My next response was a little less soothing, a little more firm, as I pointed out that no other third grader received a medal OR was crying.

He continued to cry, burying his face into my stomach.

My last response was very matter of fact. “Owen, you can’t always get a trophy. It was nice enough that they gave you a lunch bag. If you are going to continue to cry, I can’t talk to you about this.” I took his hand and walked towards the car.

I don’t know if it was the right response- or if I should have handled it differently, but he stopped crying by the time we got to the car.  

So here I am, 3 weeks later, and I’m still wondering if I handled it the right way. I’ve read the infamous “Precious Snowflake” speech, and hear it referenced daily in the media, but here’s the thing- he’s MY precious snowflake- beautiful, unique, complex and delicate all at the same time. How do we- as parents and educators, nurture and support- make all children feel safe and special, believing they can do anything they want- all while teaching them the very difficult lesson that they won’t always get what they want? How do we help them become sturdier snowflakes?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Blogging Challenge A-Z: Dangerous Territory

Social media groups are nothing to trifle with.

Image result for facebook group iconI have a Facebook account, and I am a member of a few groups (goldendoodle owners, tax grievances, PTA, local community postings).  These groups are the great sources of much needed information (trip slip confirmations or finding out the dates of the ever popular brunch for lunch). There are other groups I peruse to learn about local issues and garner others' points of view. But what happens when posted information is inaccurate, inflammatory or outright dishonest? Is there an obligation to set the record straight?

I found myself in this situation when a group I follow posted a picture of Chromebooks and a caption suggesting the devices are a waste of taxpayer money, contributing to an increase in screen time. The comments which followed lamented the use of devices in schools. There was even a technology opt-out letter being circulated. I rarely engage in any debate over social media, having a strict no trolling or inciting virtual riots policy. For starters,  I don’t think it’s a fair fight, and the likelihood of swaying opinions is slim. However, this situation was different.  I felt conflicted. As an educator I have witnessed the countless benefits of the purposeful use of technology and the tremendous impact it can have on learning. The parent in me understood the comments were (hopefully?!?) motivated by wanting what is best for children.  And of course my snarky side basked in the irony that these comments were taking place on social media… courtesy of, technology.

Surely the people commenting were mistaken. If they only knew the opportunities afforded to all children through technology: students with IEP’s no longer singled out and handed materials formatted differently than everybody else’s; learners reading below grade level given digital texts, perfectly matched to their readiness; children staying organized, never again worrying about losing notes or homework; students performing above grade level provided with challenging materials,  and all students having a voice- even those uncomfortable speaking in class. Surely, if they knew all that, they’d feel differently- right?

I clicked comment,  carefully, crafting my response. I thought for a moment. Was it my responsibility to set the record straight?  The last time I contributed to a group post, I posed a question regarding long term effects and unintended consequences of the opt-out movement, only to spend the next several days deleting notifications for all responding to my inquiry (all pointing out why I was incorrect to worry about such things). Even though I am an ardent supporter of education, engaging in philosophical battles about 21st century pedagogy and the damaging effects of technology on our youth, is not on my to-do list. When I’m on the football field, baseball practice or at the bus stop, I find opportunities to verbalize my support for district initiatives. Trying to accomplish the same goal via online comments is a difficult feat. Limiting your response to a few sentences,  can be unclear, and writing more than a few lines of text becomes an angry diatribe.

I had a reasonable response for each point:
  • Technology is making our kids antisocial -  There is nothing more antisocial than quietly sitting in rows, raising your hand and waiting while one student gets to answer a question.
  • Technology is causing ADHD rates to rise - Is it causing a rise or are we more aware of signs, allowing for earlier diagnosis?
  • Chromebooks in school means more screen time - Well if the screen time at school is purposeful, perhaps cutting back on screen time at home would be the logical solution.

And so I found myself in dangerous territory- as a parent, as a community member and an employee in a neighboring district. Regardless of my response, I was bound to upset somebody.

What would you do?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Crash Dieting - Blogging Challenge A-Z

"Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast. "
                                    - William Shakespeare

I have a wait problem.

Perhaps it’s a result of being born ten days early or having four planets in Aries, but the truth is, when virtues were distributed, patience was not bestowed upon me.  This lack of patience transcends most aspects of my life (I'm eagerly awaiting the day when wormholes and tesseracts allow us to jump through space, and therefore...time), extending way beyond shaking boxes under the Christmas tree. I have been known to prod (ok... pester) family and friends for hints about what’s to come. You name it- gifts, surprises, heck- in the middle of a movie I’m trying to figure out the ending.  I know for those around me, it can be a bit...trying.

But- like all personality traits- there are positives and negatives.

Benefit to being impatient: I’m quick to initiate new projects at work.
Disadvantage to being impatient: I get easily frustrated when colleagues do not jump on board.

We all know the adages about time and change: Life's a marathon, not a sprint; or trusty old Rome wasn’t built in a day, and ironically, I find myself urging others to be patient- that good things come to those who wait, but I have tremendous difficulty following that advice myself. The reality is, if you want change- real change- lasting change, it needs to happen slowly.

Take dieting for example. It’s so tempting to find a diet with a quick fix- one that promises amazing results with very little work on the dieter’s part: prepackaged meals, drinking shakes instead of chewing calories, eradicating all carbohydrates from one’s plate, chugging insane volumes of cabbage soup, carrying color-coded containers to measure out every last morsel of food; the programs are infinite, and the results are disheartening.  Perhaps, in the short term, you will squeeze into your skinny jeans for your high school reunion, but as any veteran crash dieter will concede, it is merely a temporary change.

When I went back to school for a new certification, I had a professor who cautioned, “You have to go slow to go fast.” Are there any truer words when trying to bring about change? Motivational speakers and life coaches crow that it takes 21 days to make a new habit (based on the findings of Maxwell Maltz). As it turns out, it takes a wee bit longer. Studies show  the repetition of a behavior takes, on average, 66 days to become a new habit (the range is actually anywhere between 1 8 and 254 days!). Think about that for a second- 254 days is a long time- certainly longer than any school year I know of.  As a Technology Learning Coach, I am essentially trying to change the “instructional habits” of fellow educators, so it makes sense the tools and strategies that I am promoting would take a while to take root. If teachers are not using the tools daily, and going back to their “instructional habits” of yesterday, their new instructional habits will take longer to become, well a habit.

The last 2 years have certainly been an exercise in slowing down. I've learned to celebrate the little successes and to "look for the bright spots” (another tattoo of my professor- that guy had eyes like a Hawk when it came to bringing change). Don't get me wrong, I'm still extremely impatient, but when I reflect on where we’ve started and where we are now, 254 days is merely just a wrinkle in time.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Blogging Challenge #2 - Better Late Than Never

Over the last few weeks of school, I've listened to teachers discuss the various penalties for students not getting assignments in on time. Some are steadfast-”NO LATE WORK ACCEPTED,” resulting in a zero, while others are a little less stringent, yet still punitive- half credit, 5 points off per day, etc. I even had a colleague share a story about a rubric that only gave full credit if the assignment was submitted early- Yes- you’ve read that correctly. All of these policies created under the guise of teaching responsibility.

So here we are in week 3 of the Blogging Challenge and I am just finishing my “B-Blog” (b as in the letter of the alphabet and hopefully not meaning sub-par). I could cite all of the reasons I couldn't pull it together: not having a free moment to write, not being happy with any of the three I started, not feeling a connection with the letter B, not being able to concentrate (currently there is a metronome click-click-clicking in the background as I try to finish this). Whatever the reason was, I couldn’t pull it together.  I had every intention of posting- in the beginning of the week, I felt good knowing I had plenty of time to get to it; I read the other blogs from my group, hoping for something to spark my ideas, and before I knew it, the first week was gone. As the second week was underway, the dread began to build knowing week 3 loomed in front of me- fearful I was not going to be able to meet the deadline. I flashed back to 4th grade remembering the anxiety I felt when I was nowhere near finishing my report on Eisenhower the night before it was due. Honestly, it felt really lousy.

I’m not advocating that we eliminate all deadlines for assignments (that would be a logistical nightmare), but perhaps reconsider our approach when students are unable to make them. Is there something we could’ve done to make completion more attainable? Was there some external force that interfered with it getting done? If we are teaching responsibility, isn’t it better if they complete it rather than not at all? Isn’t it better late than never?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Blogging Challenge #1

** Something surfers shout when they spot a huge perfect wave, or when they are shocked or surprised. 

My son is a surfer...sort of.

We’ve tried many activities: soccer (Owen stood on the sidelines crying), tee-ball (spent more time wrestling the ball from his teammates and kicking dirt in the outfield), wrestling (tears when he was pinned down), flag football (more tears when he lost a flag), karate (still going strong with an orange belt- Ki-Ya!) and most recently surfing.

During our last stint with Little League, I watched as kids the same age strolled to home plate with aplomb, hit the ball over the heads of the other team and dived to make perfect catches. Now that Owen is starting 3rd grade, the physical divide between kids that I refer to as "intuitively athletic," (effortlessly adapting to any position on the field), and those still trying to learn the fundamentals of the sport, is growing exponentially. One can not dismiss the physical, social and psychological benefits of sports, therefore, there's a rule in my house- you must be involved in a physical activity (and no- Wii Sports does not qualify).


Surfing and Karate… How is it these two unconnected activities have become my son’s favorites? This summer, I pondered this very paradox, watching Owen fall off a surfboard again and again, but get back on with alacrity, or struggling with a kata, but continuing to practice- without exasperation. It would be easy to say that he just has an aptitude for each- or chalk it off as what he's interested in- but thoughts like that are dangerous and pave way for excuses when students struggle in other areas (I speak from experience having gone through life just not being good or interested in math).


In karate, each class follows the same routine.  There are no surprises- no gotchas (code for no pop-quizzes). The students know what to expect from each class (and don’t seem too bothered by a full 60 seconds of burpees!!!).

  • When students enter the dojo, they are greeted by the staff. The sempeis say each child’s name the occasional fist bump is exchanged.  
    • This small gesture makes students feel welcome and part of the community.
  • Class starts with attendance and each student is told how many more classes are needed to earn a stripe.
    • Students are continually informed about their progress and are given small, tangible rewards to acknowledge their work.
  • After stripes are given out, students acknowledge the achievement of their classmates.
    • Again- building a sense of community.
  • The warm up begins and is followed by the skill of the day. All students practice the skill together, then each child performs the skill for the sensei.
    • Students are given immediate feedback so they can improve.
  • Throughout class, Sensei uses language like “When you ARE a black belt…”
    • Creating a vision of future success...
  • The last few minutes are spent playing a game and end with the recitation of the dojo kun.  
    • A reminder of the type of behavior that is expected outside the dojo as well.
  • As kids leave, they are all given a high five and bow to the sensei.
    • Once again a small gesture, but an acknowledgement of effort.

Looking back at my career, I don’t know if I was ever able to execute this much in a single class period. Does Sensei have some sort of magic bullet for success? Nope. He has mastered ways to make students feel welcome and provide structure for achievement. No wonder my son feels accomplished when he leaves the dojo.

So why surfing?  Owen certainly took way more hits, spills and mouthfuls of ocean water, than he made it to the shore whilst still on the board. And yet- he ran back into the crashing waves, eager to do it again. Surfing seemingly couldn’t be any more opposite of karate- there is no structure or predictability when it comes to waves. But there was- and it was the way the instructors interacted with the surfers. Every time one of the students attempted to catch a wave- whether they stayed on the board or wiped out, the first thing the instructor said was positive- “Great job!” or “Wow! That was better!” and followed up with a specific suggestion- “Next time- put your hands closer together…” or “Bend your knees a little more.”  Also- even when a student had a not so friendly encounter with a wave or another surfer (like a surfboard to the face- ahem- my son), the instructors remained calm- unusually calm- like- “Hey- you almost drowned- but you’re ok” calm. And that relaxed attitude transcends the fear of failing. Once the fear of failing is diminished, there’s no reason to not try again.

Pop Up!

Could it be that simple?

  • Creating an inclusive community;
  • Celebrating achievement;
  • Building a belief in oneself and a vision of future success;
  • Lot’s of encouragement;
  • Immediate and specific feedback;
  • Staying calm

My son is learning how to surf and spar, but I have learned so much more about creating determination in kids from a sensei and a surfer. AKAW!!!