Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Power of the Written Word

After being appointed Assistant Principal of a local elementary school in the spring of 2005, one of my first purchases was the book What Great Principals Do Differently by Todd Whitaker (if you are on Twitter, Todd is a MUST follow @ToddWhitaker). Although I wasn't a principal yet, I heard this book would offer some wonderful suggestions for things I could try as an administrator. Well, I will honestly admit that I tried nothing that first year as an administrator because I was completely overwhelmed and I imagine that I generally looked like one of those images of a chicken with no head running around in all these crazy directions... nothing really prepares one for that first year as an administrator, but that's a whole other post.

As luck would have it, the principalship in that building became available the following year and I was appointed after a lengthy interview process. The first thing I did during that initial summer as a principal was re-read What Great Principals Do Differently and made a list of all the things I wanted to implement ASAP in our school. Number 1 on my list was the weekly staff newsletter, which seemed like such an easy way to spotlight all the wonderful things happening in our school (especially within the rooms of all our Superstars) and also keep the staff updated on important upcoming events, activities and deadlines. The initial incarnation of our staff newsletter was the Monday Morning Message and one side contained the newsletter portion and the other side contained a weekly schedule of events broken down by day of the week. The initial feedback I received about the newsletter was quite positive-- unfortunately, most of the positive feedback was about the schedule of the week and not so much about the content of the newsletter but at least I knew it was being read and that was an important step 1 in the process. Over the course of the school year the newsletter started to gain traction among many of the staff members and people actually started inviting me into their classrooms to see different lessons or activities in the hopes that they would be spotlighted in the Monday Morning Message. There were also those people (you know the ones who come to you and say, "A lot of people in the building are uncomfortable with..." and in the end "a lot of people" really equals somewhere between 2 - 4 people) who complained to me that the newsletter was having a negative affect on the building because people were hurt and offended for not being spotlighted. Although my intention was certainly not to hurt anyones' feelings, I was happy to know that the newsletter was being read and that people wanted to be spotlighted... the Power of the Written Word was clear and this little staff newsletter was accomplishing a lot. Not only was I able to spotlight the sound instructional techniques and approaches taking place in our building but I was also able to subtly communicate a vision for our school... that is the Power of the Written Word!

Well, here I am seven years later (in 2008 I moved districts to become the principal of Cantiague Elementary School in Jericho, NY) and the staff newsletter is still an active part of my weekly routine. Initially there were mixed reactions to the newsletter at the news school -- some were excited to be reading it each week, others never pulled it out of their mailboxes, and yet some others had concerns that maybe this newsletter was unnecessary. Fortunately, over a short period of time the staff at Cantiague became interested in the newsletter and the schedule of the week -- but more excited about the newsletter. Not only did people want to be spotlighted but the staff loved reading about the exciting things that their colleagues were accomplishing and trying in their spaces. Our profession can be such an isolating one and this newsletter broke down the walls on some levels and encouraged the development of a Professional Learning Community. People used the newsletter as a jumping off point for conversations about instruction, for an exchange of ideas and for the informal scheduling of visits to each other's spaces to see all the great things that were happening. Once again, the Power of the Written word became crystal clear!

In 2011, the Monday Morning Message was reborn as the Fast Friday Focus and just last month I officially turned the paper newsletter into a weekly blog. Below is a sample of our weekly staff newsletter, which has become much more collaborative now that it is in the form of a blog -- people are commenting, sharing and collaborating even more!

Sample Fast Friday Focus...

Curriculum Connections...
Happy Friday to everyone as we close out the first full week of the school year! It was a busy week that featured our annual Meet The Teacher Night extravaganza, which was a huge success once again. Thank you all for working so hard to not only prepare such wonderful, thorough and informative presentations but also for making our building look so beautiful for the parents on their first official visit of the year. Between the pictures, writing samples, works of art and everything else, our hallways looked better than those of a museum - BRAVO Team Blue Ribbon!!

This last week has allowed me many wonderful opportunities to visit classrooms and different learning spaces and I cannot tell you how much fun it is to hang out in your rooms! First off, I am completely blown away by the launch of Writing Workshop in our building this year. I have seen it in almost every 3rd, 4th and 5th grade classroom and I am in awe of the work being done. First off, the kids are actually sitting and writing for extended periods of time and it is only the 12th day of school - that is unheard of! Not only is the quantity of their work impressive but the quality is awesome too. When visiting Karen's room, I could literally hear a pin drop because every kid was engrossed in their piece (check out a sample from Lindsey in Karen's class in one of the pics below). The kids had learned how to write off a picture on their notebook and the work was impressive. As if that weren't enough, Risa's kids jumped right to generating entries after her mini-lesson on special holidays and family memories - they were all so excited to share and generate entries. While visiting the third grade classrooms, I also saw some awesome stuff. The Heart Maps in the Montonelli's classroom were the most rich and impressive ones I have seen in a long time. Also, Janine had students sharing entries and she modeled how to offer positive and constructive feedback, which was so powerful. She used an entry from her own notebook and allowed the students an opportunity to share for the purposes of modeling the skill of offering feedback in appropriate ways. The importance of modeling for our kids had never been more apparent to me than what I have seen in the last couple of weeks. I have never experienced this type of Writing Workshop launch and I think this success is a credit to our collective efforts to implement the workshop in every classroom so now our kids are writers and are comfortable writing in a notebook and generating entries - it is so awesome! Thank you to all classroom teachers, Lisa D. and Team Literacy for making this happen!

This week has also provided me the opportunity to observe the launch of Shared Reading in many classrooms. I specifically spent extensive time in Rande's and Melanie's classrooms where they started the experience by introducing the Preview and Prepare process. I was so impressed with the sophisticated language used in both classrooms and with the knowledge our kids possess - they were able to identify text features, explain what they could gain from scanning the page and other such strategies and skills. The implementation of Shared Reading is such an important component to the Reading Workshop experience for many reasons but most importantly, it allows us the opportunity to "tuck" content area material into the literacy block. Use the Shared Reading experience to incorporate social studies, current events, science, non fiction, etc. because not only will it expose our kids to a bevy of genres but also helps them build schema when previewing new texts.

Finally, I saw some awesome math work happening in many of our classrooms! I spent time in Joe's room and I was so impressed with the fact that the children were able to dissect numbers and represent them in different ways. For example, they took 124 and expressed in words, expanded form, pictures, etc. I was so impressed by the strong number sense that permeated the room and the students' ability to explain their thinking and show their work - BRAVO JOE! (Check out a picture below of one of the whiteboards used during this group activity).

Please know that there are at least ten other things I could have written about here (doing Prezi with the Alites, the amazing independent reading conference I watched Tali do, the great math activity I watched in Meryl's class, the fun Spanish/English read aloud I saw Ilene do with 2nd graders, the awesome Fundations parallel activity I saw with Team Sanderly, etc.) but I don't want to overwhelm everyone with too much text...  :)

Tech Tip of the Week...
In last week's blog I spotlighted Wordle, which was being used in the Library and many of the classrooms around the building. Jeanne also uses some alternative Wordle like sites that you may want to check out (thank you Jeanne!!)...

abcya - which has a lot of resources but the Word Clouds are the Wordle-like feature; check out some of the games on this site too - really kid friendly and broken up by grade level!

tagxedo - this one costs money but worth checking out

tagul - this one allows you to create word clouds in different shapes

Schedule of the Week...

Wednesday, September 19
CST at 1:20PM

Thursday, September 20
Board of Ed. Meeting - 7:30PM at MS Library

Kids' Korner...
During recess a second grader, who was working with a bunch of other kids to construct something in the sand, came over to me and said, "Mr. Sinanis I am like the principal of this construction company." My response - "Oh yea, cool! How are you like the principal?" He says, "Because I walk around and tell people what to do!" LOL! I laughed out loud and he was totally confused why I was laughing!  :)

Pics of the Week...

               Alites graphic organizer for                              3rd Gr. whiteboard showing
              describing a character's                                     the break up of the number 124
               personality with text evidence

      Writing sample from Karen's class          Students offering feedback in Janine's room

Although the newsletter doesn't allow me an opportunity to spotlight everything I see over the course of the week, it has helped give me a platform to share, reflect and encourage... what else could I ask for as the lead learner of our building? Please feel free to use any portions of the newsletter structure (don't use any of the pics please) and feel free to contact me with any questions!    


  1. Wow, this looks great!!! I struggled with spotlighting teachers too and have actually backed off of including names of teachers (but try to personally say something to them). What I really love is seeing the ideas that I highlight in my Monday Memo spread into other classrooms!

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  3. I totally connected with your experience of people reacting to the recognition of good stuff! I like the concept of moving to a blog format to encourage the comments and feedback, that's something I might have to "borrow."