Monday, November 23, 2015

That Moment

Being Marginalized Today...

I recently wrote a post about the impact that ignorance had on my family when a derogatory comment was hurled our way. Although my son wasn't around to hear it, it definitely forced me to pause and reflect on our world and how we needed to go about navigating it to ensure that we all remained safe. You see, before coming to terms with my sexuality and living life as an openly gay man, I never had to worry about my safety because I generally felt safe in my world. I never had to think twice about how I would live my life because it was never an issue in my eyes. Call it white privilege. Call it being a straight man. Call it being cocky. Call it being educated. Call it whatever you want but I never thought twice about how I walked down the street; or whose hand I wanted to hold in public; or how I introduced my significant other. I never had to think about those things but suddenly my world has changed and I do think about them... and sometimes even overthink and analyze them. Trust me, living life that way isn't easy or comfortable. 

Unfortunately, I think this is the world we live in where if you are not a straight white man, there are a whole host of things you need to consider every time you are in public; every time you walk into a restaurant; every time you walk down a dark street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. If you are not a straight white man, you have to think about everything you do and how it looks to those around you - at least, that has been my experience as a gay man over the last couple of years - my experience as a member of a marginalized group. You see, I wonder how people will react if I am holding my partner's hand in public or give him a kiss on the cheek. I wonder what people think when they see my son, my partner and I in a restaurant together - I imagine they are trying to figure out how we are connected. I wonder about a lot of things when we are out in public, which something I never did in the past.

That Moment...

These thoughts and concerns have also made their way into my professional world. As an elementary school principal, I am always engaged in conversations with our students and I love these exchanges. Whether we are discussing the things we did over the weekend, the plans we have for an upcoming vacation or our favorite TV shows and movies, we love to share and chat! Of course, invariably those conversations also end up involving our families and the special people in our lives and that is when I start getting that uneasy feeling inside. I start to stress and worry and think about how our children might react if I mention my partner. Will they understand? Will they care? Will they be confused? The questions and concerns within my mind are endless.

For example, last week I was in a first grade classroom and a little girl ran up to me to show me a drawing she had made on her little whiteboard. When I asked her who was in the picture, she said, "It is you and your girlfriend!" Of course I smiled and complimented her art but I didn't really know how to respond or react. Do I mention that I don't have a girlfriend? Do I explain that I have a partner who is a man? Do I say nothing and just move on? Ugh... that moment was an incredibly stressful one for me even though this little girl only had the best intention. In the end, I said nothing because I figured it would just get too complicated and I didn't know how this little girl would feel or how I would feel afterwards. Unfortunately, these moments are not necessarily isolated and how I react and what I say is something that I think about... a LOT! As comfortable as I am in my sexuality and in my relationship with my partner, I am not sure how the rest of the world would react and so I often think twice... or three times... or more.  


Fortunately, I think there is hope... a LOT of hope because of the progress over the last ten years. For example, I recently attended the 5th Annual #LGBTeach Forum hosted at SUNY Old Westbury. This event started with Elisa Waters five years ago. It began as a small gathering (about 4 sessions) at Jericho MS and has evolved into a daylong conference with dozens of learning opportunities for educators who are looking to change the way schools navigate LGBT related issues. This is how we start to impact sustainable change within our schools. Coming together to discuss the issues that are affecting not only our students but our educators as well! Clearly, being gay doesn't carry the same stigma it used to carry and as a culture, we are more accepting of different lifestyles. But, being accepting might not be enough... we want to promote understanding and empathy - not just tolerance and acceptance. The time has come for us to be more intentional about the work we are doing to educate our children. The time has come for us to be more thoughtful about the conversations we are having in our classrooms, especially when it comes to the different types of families that exist in the world - traditional ones with a mom and dad; ones with two moms; ones with two dads; ones with one parent... and the list goes on. We must start these conversations at the elementary level so we can build on the children's naturally kind and accepting disposition and give them the knowledge, information and awareness they need so they can navigate life in an empathetic, understanding and empowered way.  

I am hopeful that we can impact change now so that down the road, people like me don't have to experience "that moment" where we are uncomfortable to be who we are and be true to ourselves and our loved ones... regardless of their gender, race or religion.      

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Heart of a Keynote

Over the last year I have had the opportunity to travel around the country and attend several conferences, workshops and EdCamps. Most of the travel has involved some speaking and presenting opportunities. In fact, I have even had the opportunity to keynote a few times with my coauthor (and brother from another mother) Joe Sanfelippo and the experience has been AWESOME! Unfortunately, the one downside to being the keynote or speaking at a conference is that I don't actually get to attend too many other sessions or actually hear someone else speak or present because I am consumed with my own work. That means that I don't always have a chance to learn from other speakers and presenters to enhance my craft moving forward. Well, that all changed for me when I recently attended Miami Device and had a chance to hear several awesome keynotes that forced me to pause and think about the things that I would do differently as a speaker moving forward. 

Even though all the keynotes were impressive (thank you Adam, Derek, George and Angela) for different reasons, one of them really resonated with me and left me thinking for days. The thing about George Couros' keynote that forced me to pause was that during that one hour keynote I experienced every emotion possible. I cried, I laughed, I danced, I smiled, I shook my head in agreement, I tweeted out nuggets of brilliance to remember moving forward and in the end, I was impacted on both a personal and professional level. That was the game changer for me... George's keynote touched my heart and mind and because of that, the message resonated deeply and kept me thinking way beyond the end of the keynote.

Don't get me wrong - there were parts of George's keynote that were similar to many others I have seen in the past. There were awesome videos, powerful images, thought provoking quotes and everything in between. The keynote had an overarching theme, in this case the Innovator's Mindset, which George hit home consistently and thoughtfully. George made us think about our own mindset, practices and beliefs. George challenged us to reflect on our daily work as educators and pushed us to consider how we could do differently moving forward to embrace an innovator's mindset, especially for the purposes of doing what is best for children. I have seen other keynotes, with a different focal point, that achieved similar accomplishments but for most other keynotes, when the speaker was done, the message was done too. This was not the case with George - the end of his keynote was just the beginning.

You see, at no point did George tell us that what we were doing was wrong. At no point did George tell us that we had to go back to our schools the next day and do things his way. At no point did George make us feel badly about our current practices. What George did, for me at least, was connect with my heart and mind. He gave me an entry point - both on an emotional level and intellectual level - so that I could see that his message mattered to me - Tony the person; Tony the dad; and Tony the educator. In the end, the message resonated with me on a personal level first and then on a professional level, which is why I think it impacted me so much after it was over. What I know from my own dissertation research is that any type of development, in order for it to be truly sustainable, must impact a person on both a personal and professional level. We can no longer just refer to professional development when we use the acronym PD - we must think about personal development too! If an idea is going to go beyond a conference or workshop, it has to be valuable to the participant; it has to mean something; and it has to leave a mark on the person's heart and soul so they see the value in pushing forward. 

That is what George's keynote did for me. I left his keynote wanting to make schools better for Paul. I left his keynote feeling good about the direction we have taken at #Cantiague. I left his keynote thinking about what I wanted to do next. I left his keynote thinking about what we haven't done YET! The truth is, I left his keynote in a happy place - trust me, I cried several times but they were all good tears - because I left with hope, anticipation and enthusiasm. I was excited about embracing the Innovator's Mindset even more in my daily personal and professional work. I left there understanding that innovation is about an opportunity to make things better, even if they make people uncomfortable sometimes. I left that keynote even prouder to be an educator and excited about the possibilities of the future.

In the end, I thought a lot about the heart at the center of George's keynote and I understood why it impacted me so much and on so many levels. Now, my only goal is to ensure that people walk out of any keynote, presentation or workshop I facilitate feeling the same way - ready to change the world and make it better for kids! 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

#MiamiDevice: A Learning Event

Now that it's over and I have had some time to decompress (it happened fast thanks to the freezing temps here in NYC), I can confidently say that Miami Device was the best education conference I have ever attended. Yes, the sunny weather, palm trees scattered throughout, warm temps each day and pool most definitely impacted the experience but it was about so much than the backdrop. Miami Device was about the people; Miami Device was about the variety of sessions; Miami Device was about a collective enthusiasm and passion that permeated the space; Miami Device was about the opportunity to connect with other educators thanks to the built in "social" experiences; Miami Device was a learning event different than any other I have ever experienced; Miami Device was so much more than a typical conference or professional development experience because of the work Felix Jacomino put into it to engineer an almost flawless learning event!

From the opening keynote on Thursday morning to the closing keynote on Friday afternoon, those two days were jam packed with learning opportunities with people who were excited to be there, willing to share and looking to learn. Those are such a rare things within the current landscape of education, which is part of the problem plaguing our profession. Many educators don't invest in their own learning! Many educators don't direct their own learning! Many educators wait for professional development to happen to them and then don't use it when they are done! These statements are based on recent experiences when I have attended conferences with other educators who only come because they have to be there or because they are presenting or because someone else directed them to attend. Yes, I have been in situations like that too and I have also been to conferences where there was no investment on my part and in the end, there was no learning either. That was not the case with Miami Device.

So, what made Miami Device different? Here are just some of the things that stood out to me...

1) Most of the keynote presenters were in attendance for the whole conference and not only did they facilitate individual sessions on top of the keynote, but they also attended other people's sessions to offer their insight, participate and learn. For example, right after his opening keynote, Adam Bellow facilitated a bunch of sessions but also attended some; in fact, George Couros (another keynote) attended one of Adam's sessions and offered some powerful perspectives to consider... such as the difference between professional development and professional learning. That was awesome to watch and I have been to dozens of conferences over the last couple of years and have rarely, if ever, seen the keynotes be so actively engaged in the learning throughout the conference!

2) There was a great variety of sessions. Although many of the sessions had a tech focus or theme (it is Miami Device after all), there were also sessions that addressed broader pedagogical techniques and approaches. For example, I attended an amazing session on assessment with John Spencer that had almost nothing to do with technology but helped me think about how we can diversify the way we assess children at #Cantiague. I was also fortunate enough to co-facilitate a conversation on Telling Your School Story and Culture with my friend Todd Nesloney

3) The tech sessions were awesome and somewhat differentiated! So, if you were a tech expert of sorts, you could attend Adam Bellow's session on hacking the keynote experience where he went step by step on how to do some impressive things within Keynote. Or, if you were less techy, like me, there were also a bunch of amazing tech themed sessions that were a little easier to access like the one by Kyle Pace where we digged deeper into Google Drive and I learned about tools such as Pixlr Photo Editor and or the session with Tony Vincent where I learned about different tech resources to enhance the centers experience (i.e. - Shadow Puppet EDU app, EdPuzzle and Blendspace). Bottom line... the sessions were awesome!

4) There was lots of time for socializing throughout the learning event and guess what?? It wasn't all about taking selfies with people (even though a lot of that happened too)! Whether walking together from one learning space to another or sitting together for lunch or breakfast in the outdoor courtyard, the opportunities to socialize never stopped. This may seem like a byproduct of the physical setup of the conference but I know it was intentionally engineered that way by Felix so that the conversations and learning could continue beyond a session or keynote. What we know from research is that some of the most powerful learning happens through social interactions - people learn when they talk to other people. What was amazing to me at Miami Device was everyone's willingness to engage and share... it was like a pop-up community of practice where people easily fluctuated between expert and novice based on interest and experience. It was AWESOME! The best part was that I left that space with new life-long friends who will not only shape my professional learning but also my personal learning. That is a WIN/WIN in my book! 

5) The food at Miami Device was AMAZING! Yes, I like to eat so the food is important too and most times, food at conferences is blah, at best. Well, whether it was the paella on day two or the buffet on day one, the food was AWESOME at Miami Device (thank you Felix)! Of course, we also had time to explore Coconut Grove and Miami Beach at night and thanks to the recommendation of a friend (thank you Ross) my colleagues and I had the best pizza EVER at Lucali - a must stop if you are ever visiting Miami!

6) Every person I met was excited to be there and wanted to be there! Whether it was Tanya, Rebecca, Carl, George, Paige, Tracy, Rich, Katrina or Rodney, EVERYONE wanted to be there! Aside from EdCamps, this is something that is usually missing from education conferences and I can say that it was a game changer here. Yes, people had fun and there was plenty of eating, dancing and even some delicious beverages but almost every exchange was rooted in learning so that we could enhance our craft and be better for our students. From my vantage point, that was the most awesome part of the experience!

So, now that I am home and have had some time away from the Miami Device experience, there is one thing I am certain of... if it's possible, I will be going back to Miami Device in 2017! With that being said, this blog post is intended to inspire others because I think what Felix accomplished at Miami Device can be replicated by other educational organizations (just reach out to Felix). If we can replicate the Miami Device experience throughout the country, then something amazing might happen... we will put learning at the center of our profession and take control of our own professional development. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015


"...and the two faggots next door..." screamed our next door neighbor while on the phone with someone. At that moment she was explaining why none of her neighbors could help her with a problem she was having at home. Unfortunately, instead of referring to us as her neighbors she resorted to this pejorative term to express her disgust about our sexual orientation and more importantly, to amplify her ignorance. Fortunately Paul and I weren't home to hear her but my partner was there and he heard the words loudly and clearly and we realized that we live next door to a bigot... at least the one bigot we are aware of because of her outspoken nature.

Yes, it is 2015 in the state of New York (generally considered a liberal state) but hate, prejudice and judgement are still rampant. The sad part is that we know it's not just the adults around us who say these things - our students/children use the words "faggot" and "gay" on a regular basis to communicate disapproval or disgust towards someone or something. I have heard children use these words with my own ears and although I generally seize the opportunity to educate the child about why these words shouldn't be used in that way, these isolated incidents are symptomatic of a bigger problem. From my vantage point, the consistent use of the word "gay" as a pejorative term within our classrooms is indicative of the deep rooted hate and ignorance that not only plagues our schools but our country as a whole (yes, I think our school system generally perpetuates the marginalization of certain groups based on race, ethnicity and sexual orientation). 

Is this reality sad in 2015? I would say, yes. Is this reality "wrong?" I would argue, yes. But, acknowledging it as sad or wrong isn't enough anymore. We can no longer address isolated incidents of hate and ignorance - the time has come for us to be more intentional about the work we are doing to educate our children. The time has come for us to be more thoughtful about the conversations we are having in our classrooms, especially when it comes to the word gay because of the negative connotation it carries for most people - even if the person saying the word is "just kidding," it is still wrong. If we want to stop hearing words like faggot or gay used in a negative way (along with the dozens of other words associated with marginalized people) we must educate our children from a young age. We cannot wait until they are in middle school or high school to correct their mistakes or raise their awareness. We must start at the elementary level, and even younger ages, so we can build on the children's naturally kind and accepting disposition and give them the knowledge, information and awareness they need so they can navigate life in an empathetic, informed and empowered way. In my mind, that is the key... teaching our children to be empathetic and understanding of those around them - especially those who have been marginalized. 

Yes, this is incredibly personal to me. I don't want to be worried about holding my partner's hand in public because of something someone might say or do. Yes, this is incredibly personal for me because I don't want my son to be embarrassed or afraid of telling people that he spent time with his dad and his dad's partner. Yes, this is incredibly personal for me because I can't stand by any longer allowing words like faggot to be used without regard for those on the other end. The time has come for change through education. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Listen To Kids

Making The Time To Listen... 

Yesterday I had the opportunity to enjoy my lunch with a bunch of #Cantiague munchkins - some 2nd and 4th graders - and I can honestly say that it was the highlight of my day. Normally I don't get to eat my lunch sitting down so today was a treat for more than one reason. These kids won a raffle at Homecoming two weeks ago and the prize was lunch with me. I don't know that I would have considered lunch with my principal a "prize" when I was in elementary school but these kids sure did and they were super excited to hang out with me. So, after we all got our lunches, we got comfortable in the conference room where we ate our lunches while we chatted it up. I heard about their weekends, which included some funny Halloween stories, different family functions and collective sadness over the losses of the Mets, Jets, Giants and Islanders - clearly not a great weekend for NY sports teams.

Our Kids Have A LOT To Say... 

Although there were lots of laughs and stories exchanged, the discussion went far beyond our favorite TV shows or most annoying sibling (yup, that came up too). At some point we started talking about school and the experiences they were having as learners in the building. The insights and perspectives they shared were awesome and so informative for me as an educator in the building. I couldn't help but think, I need to do this every day - just sit and listen to kids because they know what is working and what needs to change.

Lunch Takeaways...

  • For example, they shared with me how much they love physical education, probably their favorite special, and how they appreciate that one of our physical education teachers is a little more structured while the other is not as much. They explained that they need this balance because it makes time in the gym fun but safe. WOW! 

  • They also shared with me how much they love the new library experience (new furniture and new teacher). They explained how the furniture makes them so much more comfortable while exploring the books - WOW - and that the new teacher has shifted the focus to add more technology - yes, they realized this intentional shift.
  • They even shared that although they loved our former librarian, the new one has taught them a lot about how to use technology, and specifically databases, to learn. WOW! 

  • The conversations went on and I learned a lot about what we could be doing better, what we are doing well and what the students love most! I was also reminded about the importance of accessing student voice, on a regular basis, and how this must become the norm, not the exception... even at the elementary level! With that being said, listening to our students is not enough - we must act on their ideas and empower them so they understand that they have a say in what happens within our school. 

Student Voice: Should Be Heard & Acted Upon...

In the end, what I know from my experience is that the educators in a building literally make thousands of decisions a day that we believe are in the best interest of our children. I think that for the most part we are successful with these decisions and we work hard to give our students what they need regardless of readiness levels. With that being said, we cannot forget the importance of including student voices in the decisions we make, especially in the ones that will have a direct impact on them and their learning (read this piece from Johns Hopkins about giving students voice or this research from the Gates foundation about listening to students). 

Our students have important insights and valuable perspectives and from my vantage point, they are our most important "clients" so listening to our kids (and acting on their ideas) should be a priority for us as educators. So, we may have to get comfortable with relinquishing some of the control but the end result will be amplifying student voice and empowering students to have a say in the future of their school and their learning.