Monday, October 29, 2012

Defying Gravity- Wicked

Katy Smith...this one is for you!  Time for a change of music and attitude. Time to defy gravity!
Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I'm through with playing by the rules
Of someone else's game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep.
It's time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes: and leap!
It's time to try
Defying gravity
I think I'll try
Defying gravity
And you can't pull me down!

The Educational Forum of NJ

       Here in NJ, the NJ State Teacher of the Year (NJSTOY) attends and speaks at many events throughout their reign, but one of the most rewarding for me has been the Educational Forum of NJ. Once tasked with this event, my historian training kicked in and I wanted to find out why and how this event came to be, so I started digging.  Begun by NJSTOY Katherine Bassett in 2000 along with a group of County Teachers of the Year (CTOYs), the event was organized for teachers, by teachers, in order to recognize our honored educators and give them the time to come together to discuss, learn, and creatively problem solve around some of educations most topical issues.  It has emerged as the capstone program for the Teacher of the Year and is sponsored by ETS, the NJDOE and NJEA.  Think about that; business, government and the union coming together for a day run for teachers, by teachers.  In NJ that is about as rare as Haley's Comet. 
        Anyone who knows me knows that I have a lot of big ideas, but for me the devil is in the details, and there were a lot of details associated with the organizing and running of this Forum. I have to say I called in major favors to get things done, and despite the obstacles and stress, it was a most amazing day. 
       Two people I could not have survived without were Dani Kovach and Katherine Bassett.  Dani helped me put the party favors together and actually came down a day early to help me set up for the Forum.  We were in the Barn at 10:00 on Thurs night stuffing folders and hanging posters.  Having run the Forum last year, she kept me sane and was a huge support throughout the event, helped organize registration, took over the dispersal of PD certificates and even got people to sign a poster for me.  Katherine, I can never say enough about.  Not only did she help me to see the vision for the Forum, she helped me focus when the stress seemed overwhelming.  By the time I came out of my 8am meeting with facilitators on Friday, she was already manning the registration table.  On top of registration and facilitating, she also managed a beautiful introduction of Charlotte Danielson.  
      After returning from several of the big events I attended this year, people kept asking me how they went.  I remember telling people over and over that the awards were nice, but I wished that other educators could feel as honored, respected, and heard as I did, even if it was only for a day. There are so many teachers who are amazing at what they do and never get recognition.  My goal  for the Forum was to make these educators feel like the rock stars they are and give them the opportunity to meet other amazing educators and share ideas, thereby widening their perspective. Meeting other passionate and innovative educators was one of the best things about my journey this year.  Hearing what was going  on across my state and across the country opened my eyes, widened my perspective, and made me dream of what could be.  My hopes were that by promoting each other, we can begin to help elevate the profession by reaching out and pulling each other up.  We are stronger and work better when we work together. 
       I used the Singapore model of educators as gems to illustrate the theme for the day.  Tough, brilliant, multi-faceted, an inner heat and value beyond price, these were the ideas I wanted to get across.   I didn't have the money to bestow lavish gifts on everyone or have the ability to introduce them to the President, but I could allow them to network, be heard, valued, and gain a perspective wider than the four walls of their classroom. 
       So many PD days are spent simply lecturing teachers, and I didn't want that to be the case.  We began the day with an idea that I called evaluation speed dating.  The idea came from Peggy Stewart and so an idea turned into a vision and with a little help from NJEA in making the posters, came to fruition.  The idea was this, have people gather around 1 of 15 pictures of geographic features such as a beach.  The posters say, Evaluation is like a beach because.....  People gather around a poster, introduce themselves, exchange business cards and then brainstorm for three minutes about the poster.  After 4 minutes they switch to another picture that captures their eye and start all over again.  This was done three times.  It was refreshing, at 9:30 in the morning, to see everyone up and enthusiastically discussing the topic.  There was a palpable vibe of positive energy in the room.  The ground rules were simply this, positive gripes but no sour grapes.  It worked!


     We managed to get Charlotte Danielson to be the keynote speaker for the Forum, which was nothing short of miraculous.  She was simply wonderful, and had the group hooked with her humor and stories of when she was a teacher.  At the end, people lined up like groupies (me included) to get a picture.  Then it was off to the break out sessions.
NJSTOYs with Charlotte, L-R Jeanne Muzi 2009, Jeanne DelColle 2012, Charlotte Danielson, Bob Goodman 2006 Diane Cummins 2004
      So the one thing I neglected to say was that this Forum had about 140 people in attendance.  It was award winning or honored educators who were invited to bring a guest, preferably an administrator. With 140 people, that made 14 groups of 10 people each, but we only had enough room for 12 groups.  Details, details.... I needed some help from my friends.
        I called on all of the veteran CTOYs who would be attending, a few NJSTOYs and a committee member to be my facilitators.  I knew they were good, most of them had been facilitating forums with NJCTY for the last year, and I trusted them with not only my reputation, but the reputation of the Forum.  I was not disappointed.  More importantly, I needed their help.  In the past, training for the new CTOYs took place the day before the Forum and so the new CTOYs would facilitate.  It is important to give people a chance to lead, particularly outside of their own districts, where it can often be difficult.  I wanted to include them too.  So, I created a buddy system, a veteran facilitator with a new CTOY.  I designed the pairs as having something in common, but they were not from the same county.  The point was to get people talking to people they didn't already know.  Step outside their comfort zones.  In true teacher style, we did modeling.  The veteran ran the first session, the CTOY took notes.  In the second session, both the veteran and CTOY shared.  In the third session, the CTOY ran the session, the veteran provided guidance.  Each breakout session was 25-30 minutes.  I am telling you, I had to go around and break up the groups to get them to move on, even to lunch!  They were so involved in their discussions, I didn't want to break them up.   The breakout session were based on questions that dealt with the role of teacher leaders in shaping the evaluation process, and each hit on different domains of the Teacher Leader Model Standards so that we covered them all.  It was awesome! 

      The end of the day found us back in the room known as the Barn, for reporting out and closing.  Remember I asked a while ago what would make educators feel honored?  Most of you said having something from the kids.  Well, I couldn't make that happen, but it gave me a brainstorm.  I asked all the award winning educators to send me a picture of themselves either with their students or winning their award.  Most of them did.  I made a video which first had their name, school, award and year, followed by the picture they sent.  Throughout the whole video was an Olympic fanfare followed by Josh Grobin's You Raise Me Up.  There were applause at the end of the Forum. often does that happen at the end of a day of PD, on a Friday?  Not only did we leave everyone with some valuable PD, but a little memento from the day.  A little bag of mints with a gem inside.  On the tag, it said, Thanks for you commit"mint". You are a gem. 
     I also managed to get my first NJDOE initiative approved for roll out.  NJ will be setting up three regional Teacher Advisory Panels to discuss policy issues just like we did at the Forum.  Topics will change every month, but the fact that teachers will have an open dialogue with the NJDOE delights me more than I can say.  Anyone who is interested in an application should contact me at      
      I have had nothing but positive feedback from the Forum and several people have told me that they cant wait to get back to school to start these conversations with their own people. 
2011-2012 CTOYs My friends and some of the best facilitators EVER!
       The evening was followed by a dinner for the newest group of CTOYs and you could see that their confidence has already grown.  There were smiles for days and many friendships cemented.  I couldn't have asked for anything more.  I am honored to know and be able to work with such an amazing group of educators. 
CTOYs and STOYs old and new.  Quite a family!

 A weekend of success, because of the teamwork of some amazing educators and friends.  This is only the beginning, it is time to defy gravity.


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