Be More Than a Brand

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Social media has offered the opportunity for every individual to create their own brand in a much larger world.  Rather than having a community identity, we have the opportunity to have a global one.  I have read about, talked about, and seen the importance of branding.  Creating a brand is something I have done myself, I had worked on creating for my school, and I continue to do through my various social media platforms.  Branding has its benefits in both the school community and in the larger world, but what is the cost of our branding?

At this point each of us who actively participate in Social media networks are taking part in creating our brand.  We do so wittingly or not.  Everything we say, post, like, or share says a little about how we are and what we value.  Our brand is carved in the echoes of messages, 140 characters at a time.  What we present to the world is how we are judged.  It is important to be conscious of this fact.  It is important not only to understand it, but to leverage it when we can.  The more conscious we are, however, of our facade, the more likely we are to start disengaging from what made social media a meaningful outlet for many of us, personal connections.  At the end of the day, social media was built with the premise of creating social experiences for a wider world.  As more people grow ever conscious of their branding through the use of social media, I am starting to see less personal connections being made.  Many people would rather protect their image, protect their brand, than have a meaningful discussion.

I know my social media is seen.  I know it reflects on who people think I am.  That is why I maintain a constant.  In using social media, I am myself.  Each post, tweet, or share represents a little piece of who I really am.  If you were to meet me in person, those posts are similar to the person you get.  I am happy to share, open to discussing, frequently ask questions, make mistakes, have a love/hate relationship with auto-correct, make jokes, do lots of different things, and love to help other people.  I can be very silly, but always eager to tackle serious conversations.  I am curious and tend to ask questions.  If you read through my feeds, this is what you will hopefully see.  I don’t tend to worry much about my social media brand, because I am myself.  Yes I am mindful of what I put out into the world, but I am also honest.  You will not see a false mask, but the whole human being.  While many people will gloss over themselves to present the perfect image, I honestly feel that does all of us a disservice.  Greatness doesn’t come from being a perfect brand, it comes from being much more.

As the concept of branding continues to spread, and rightly so, keep in mind your purpose.  My purpose is to develop great personal connections to people around the world.  I seek an opportunity to learn from them, to find mentors, to be a mentor, and ultimately be more. You can do social media, do branding and still be something so much more than a brand.  You can be yourself.

 

Learning in a Virtual World

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Over the past few weeks I have both introduced my students to, and spent a significant amount of time working with my students in Virtual Reality using CoSpaces. CoSpaces has allowed me and my students to learn together in a new way.  Creating in three dimensions presents its own challenges.  Seeing, imagining, and creating a  virtual world in three dimensions enabled me to rethink what our students can do to demonstrate their learning.

Part of this came from my longtime desire to create a VR Breakout Edu game.  While I did create one (Who Moved EdCampNJ) I am still not quite at my goal of making the game independent of anything other than the virtual reality format.  While working to create this, and testing some other fun creations out with my students using CoSpaces I had some amazing experiences.  I gave my classes some basic instructions on how to create using the program and how the block coding work.  Then with some very simple guidelines (ie: demonstrate figurative language, create a chain reaction like a Rube Goldberg machine to launch a rocket) they made the concepts their own.  Not only did I get some incredible responeses, their creativity and story telling ability shined.  During this time my classes inspired me with their ability to use the VR platform and some basic block code to create a story  I was also impressed with the suggestions they were making to improve the program.  On the other side, I was incredibly impressed with how CoSpaces has made those adjustments.  Within weeks and sometimes days of suggestions that either came from me, or my students, the company had created some new variations that made the program even better.

I wanted to post some of their incredible creations for others to see, but I didn’t want to post students’ full names on Twitter.  I can however, leave the links here without having their names posted. So I am going to link a few fantastic creations.  When my students realized they were able to create in a real, virtual reality environment, many were extremely excited.  Some of them even went on to create other things to share with me beyond their assignments.  I am loving the way they have taken to creating within the program and I am excited to see how they share their knowledge with others through creating in VR.

Here are a few great CoSpaces creations from 7th and 8th grade students.  Keep in mind the 7th graders had about 20 minutes to learn and create.  The 8th grade had a little over an hour.  This took plenty of trial and error, learning, and creativity from these students.  They not only learned a new tool, but also demonstrated a new concept with a new way to create.  There were plenty of failures, but very few who actually surrendered to it.  In the end I am extremely proud of the great things they did.  There are many more, but here are some samples of their creations.

Figurative Language (7th Grade)

https://cospac.es/4EPP

https://cospac.es/hlfV

8th Grade: Chain Reaction to Launch a Rocket

https://cospac.es/5wUS

https://cospac.es/AhGJ

https://cospac.es/39sW

https://cospac.es/9n4Y

https://cospac.es/4pHv

https://cospac.es/CytB

Moving a Mountain

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Earlier this year I wrote about my shift from my previous district, a very small, K-8 district to one almost 50 times the size.  While I had worked in my previous district for eight years, I had seen lots of positive movement over that time.  Some of it was even brought about by me.  I was hoping that, upon arriving in my new district I would find it significantly ahead of my previous one in many ways.  Instead I found a large mix.  There are people who span the spectrum of development in effective tech use and integration.  No matter where individuals or districts my sit on the spectrum, it has always been my drive to move them in a positive direction. This has been no different since I have arrived in my new district and school.

On Friday the district held a PD Innovation Summit.   The day started off brilliantly with the students from our High School giving us a sneak peak of their upcoming musical, Hair Spray.  They were fantastic and kicked off our day with positive message of acceptance and love.  It was then followed by a fantastic keynote by Rich Kiker.  If you have never heard Rich speak, it is worth your time.  More importantly, it was exactly what our district needed to kick off a day of learning.  Rich shared an incredibly positive message while challenging thinking, asking us all to be better, and pressing our understanding of what teaching is and will be in the future.  I heard many teachers afterward talking about his engaging style, but even more talking about his inspiring message.

I then spent the next 3 hours sharing and teaching about Tourbuilder.  The sessions were my first as an “official” Google Certified Trainer and between my personal feeling and the verbal feedback (still awaiting survey feedback) they were extremely well received.  I had a large variety of people from the district in my sessions so I had to get creative with purpose and application.  A conversation about “these types of days” with another teacher before the event started gave me a strong perspective on how to structure my session.  Unlike so many of the sessions I had given before, these people were forced to be there.  They didn’t necessarily care about building digital tours. It was my job to find a way to provide value for everyone in the room, not just the people who wanted to use it with kids.

The most intriguing reflection however, came from the final session. A small group of teachers that were interested in pushing technology and teaching practices forward in the district.  We spent almost two hours talking about where the district had been, how it had progressed, and the challenges of making progress in a place so big.  We aren’t talking about pushing a car up a mountain, we are talking about pushing the mountain.  Understanding the spectrum was important.  Some teachers were using technology and engaging teaching practices fluently.  Others were writing on the chalkboard around a Smartboard out of fear of breaking it.  This conversation led me to a few simple conclusions about moving the mountain.

  1. Those of us at the bottom can’t push too hard on our own.  Even teacher leaders must be mindful of the way in which we push our peers.  If we don’t push, they won’t move at all.  If we push too hard, they will resist with all they have in them.  We need to provide a constant, gentle nudge in the direction of progress for the majority of people.
  2. Widespread changes will only really take a stronghold in a district when administration is fully bought into the change.  If the district leadership is still content to function in the “old way” without embracing changes, many teachers won’t invest.  While the teacher leaders can make a difference, without those above them, it becomes an incredibly difficult task.
  3. Moving the mountain takes a lot of help.  You need to develop a team of others who share your vision for progress.  Unlike in a small district where one person can move the needle quite a bit, and a small group can make meaningful differences, a large district requires many leaders, all providing their gentle nudge, with a common vision.

The Summit left we with many things to ponder.  The messages that started the day, the new perspective I gained on presenting, and the remarkable open discussion that took place about moving the district forward in the future, all left me a better teacher than before the day began.  That, I can say definitively, was the most useful district PD day that I have been a part of in my career.  While there were minor things I would have changed, I have left with hope.  Not just because I was able to get better, but because I once again believe it is possible to move the mountain.

Do All the Things

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Over my entire career, but even more so in the past several years I have continued to push myself to learn and grow.  I realized a while ago I would not be able to do everything, nor could I learn everything.  Instead, I made it a point to focus on the things I needed or that I was most passionate about learning. Doing so has lead me to some incredible experiences.  In the past few months, I have heard more than ever before, “I don’t know how you do all that you are doing!” I am by no means the busiest person I know, nor the most accomplished.

It made me think more about the “how” in what I have been doing rather than the “what” or the “why”.  I have talked on social media, at conferences, and in general discussions, about the need for kids to learn time management.  As someone who struggled with many executive functioning skills as a child (organization, time management, and more) I have repeatedly called for the scaffolding and building of these skills.  The “how” in  creating that is the subject of other posts, and possibly many other ways of sharing.

Instead, I am focussing on the “how” of getting things done as an adult, a full time educator, and a full time parent.  Getting things done comes down to two things, time management and wanting to get them done.  You cannot learn the desire, but you can learn the time management.

Being an effective manager of my time starts with a few simple things.  First I start with some questions:

  • What is the most important thing/things I need to do today?
    • This typically involves my family or my job, or both.
  • What times do these things need to happen?
    • We ask this for 2 reasons
      • 1. If it is the most important thing it is going to get done regardless of whatever else I put on my schedule.
      • 2. I don’t want to assume I will get anything else done during those times.
  • What other projects am I currently working on that I need to fit into my schedule?
    • I typically have 6-10 different projects I am working on at a time.  Some of them have long term deadlines, others have no deadlines.  Occasionally they have a short turn around.
  • What part of that project can I achieve?
    • It is good to look at how I can break a project into smaller parts.  I cannot accomplish an entire project in the short periods of time that I typically get to work on these “non-essential” projects.  They need to broken down into smaller tasks.
    • Accomplishing a small task gives a sense of accomplishment and moving forward in a project rather than one of procrastinating.  I am not putting a project off, I am making small but steady progress toward my goals.
  • Do I have all the things I need to complete this part of my project?
    • If yes, I have no reason to put it off.  In the one or more hours I can devote to ancillary projects during a given day, I make sure that I work on that task for some amount of time.

This is just a simple process that takes place in my head at all times.  Today, my goals included getting a new blog post up, reading some of a draft manuscript for a friend, and completing some paperwork.  The most important things on my schedule were to spend quality time with my family (which took place from the time my daughter woke up, until the time she went to bed) and to get a few items from the store to be ready for the week.  Once both of those were accomplished I was able to write a blog post, read a few chapters of the manuscript, and even enjoyed time for some relaxation (watching a movie.)  I found I was unable to complete the paperwork because the site required it be completed before I was able to start.  That changed what I could accomplish and thus I now adjust where that goes during my week.

All of this seems simple, but really working to manage time is difficult.  I still sometimes fail to successfully juggle all the things.  Setbacks don’t mean I stop picking up the balls and tossing them.  I do not claim to be an expert on time management, and I marvel at people doing far more than myself.  Having multiple people comment on how I do “so much” simply made me reflect and take a closer look at a process that I have internalized.  Perhaps it will cause others to reflect on what they do to make sure they can “do all the things?”

Standing in the Margins

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My job as an educator is to help kids become good human beings.  Part of that involves living the things you teach.  In doing so, I have had to speak for those whose voices are least heard.  I have had to stand between those that hate and those who are hated.  This is part of my job, not for some students, but for all of them.

Several years ago teaching first grade, I met a student that changed my perspective on many things.  She joined my class in January.  Immediately it was difficult to fit in, but over time she slowly started feeling more comfortable.  Even so, I noticed she tried hard not to be noticed.  In a class of sixteen, it is hard to blend in.  While she was starting to make friends and growth, I had worries about the future and I was concerned..  

During my time with her, we developed trust, both with one another, and with the her family.  Fast forward two years and I found out she was about to make a public transition to her true gender identity in our school.  As a third grader, she was about to become herself in public for the first time.  

One of the things that struck me was that we had such a good relationship, the classroom had been such a welcoming place for her, yet she and her parents were not ready.  Our community embraced her transition as well as I could have hoped.  She has known great friendship, caring teachers, and a generally safe school.  Even in a supportive community she faces serious discrimination.

I share all of this because I have seen firsthand the benefit of this girl being able to express her true self.  While she had become part of the culture of the school, she had yet to thrive until she could be herself.

Knowing her, seeing how her life has changed since she was able to transition, is what draws me to this cause.  Knowing her makes this real.  She isn’t a trans girl, or a trans person. She is a girl, she is a person.  Her rights ought to be the same as any other person.  Her rights are important, and so are the rights of every other trans person.  Here is why:

Being around trans children exposes children to diversity that will help them learn to understand people who are different than themselves.

Perhaps the most frequent argument against policies in place to protect the rights of Transgender youth expresses that being exposed to trans kids will somehow corrupt or damage their children’s sense of morality and virtue.  It is easy to be moral and virtuous in a bubble.  What makes a person truly virtuous is the ability to treat people well when their views or norms do not conform to their own.  Our children will be faced with a world full of incredible diversity outside this bubble.  If we continue to insulate our children to “protect them” we do them an incredible disservice.  Trans youth are not invaders of morality and virtue, they are children; children that deserve the same right to feel safe as any other person.  

There is should be no argument from a religious standpoint for two reasons.  First, we are talking about rights in public places in our country, our state, and our schools.  Religious values are not the law, but there are a number of laws already in place that defend our students from discrimination.  The issue is that these laws are reactionary.  In this case a trans student must have been harmed in order to invoke the laws.  Are we saying that some people only get protection after they have been injured?  The second is from a religious angle itself.  The strongest opposition to Trans rights comes from Christians.  Let that settle in.  Christ was a man who washed the feet of sinners, who accepted the least desirable social groups of the time in the same way he did anyone else, and who loved everyone.  If he felt people were sinners he prayed for them.  I won’t try and dissuade anyone of their beliefs, but if you believe in the teachings of Christianity, then you should love all people.  Discriminating against Trans youth and Trans people is a form of hate, and goes against the very values Christ sought to teach.

Trans children are at the greatest risk of suicide and self harm of any group.

At this point nobody should be surprised by this statistic and yet it needs to be part of EVERY discussion of Trans rights.  According to a 2009 study by GLSEN 82% of Trans students felt unsafe at school.  Nearly 50% of them had reported skipping classes or days of school because they felt unsafe.  Nearly 90% of Trans students reported having been verbally harassed at school, and 44% reported being physically assaulted in the past year.  There are dozens more equally horrifying numbers associated with Trans youth from this study.

You may argue that the study is 8 years old, so things are better now, right? Wrong.

In a 2015 study from the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital they reported 30% of Trans youth (aka CHILDREN) have attempted suicide.  That number is nearly seven times higher than the 4.5% of average youth in America.  It also stated that a staggering 42% of Trans youth had attempted some form of self injury.  According to Trans rights activists, these numbers are low.  Even so, they point to an alarmingly important conclusion: Trans youth are the most marginalized, unprotected group in American schools, and it is literally killing them.

Trans  children are still children.

This is all there is to say.  These are children, struggling to make sense of a world that has not embraced them.  At the same time they want what every child wants, and they deserve the same right to a free and appropriate public education.  Unfortunately it will not be free of discrimination no matter what policies are passed, but it is our job as educators and schools to make them feel as safe as possible and enable them to learn.

But…

Here are the arguments being used to negate trans rights.

What about my child? Exposing them to this will corrupt them? (Go back and read above)  Exposing your child to people other than themselves provides them with an opportunity to learn.  If we hope for our children to be successful, moral, and virtuous people, they will need to learn to exercise such virtues in diverse situations.  Being a good person means being a good person to everyone, even those with whom you disagree. (Despite my feeling that disagreeing with a person who is attempting to be themselves is wrong, the value judgement is insignificant.  Either way, being a good person involves treating others with the respect and dignity they deserve simply because they are another human being.)

This is a state’s rights issue.

“If it isn’t in the Constitution then it is a state’s rights issue”  This argument is what I am referring to with kids when I explain the value of learning history.  We, as a country, have tried many times to make civil rights a state’s rights issue.  Each time we have seen the interests of the strong in a number of places trample upon the civil rights of the few.  Civil rights, human rights, are not an issue for the states to decide.  If we, as a nation, cannot uphold Civil rights for our citizens, what kind of nation have we become?  If you are arguing state’s rights outweigh Civil rights, you will find yourself on the wrong side of history again and again.  Trans people are human beings, they are citizens of this country and as such, legally deserve to have the same rights as anyone else.  (Notice again, your opinion on Transgender expression doesn’t matter. This is simply a case of attempting to limit the rights of a particular group of people, which isn’t legal or morally right.)

What if men just decide to start using the women’s bathroom?

What if cafeteria workers just decided to start putting fingernails in the food? We could play this game all day because it is simply absurd.  But, for the sake of those who don’t realize this, I will indulge.

There simply aren’t cases of Transgender people assaulting others in restrooms.  In the 18 states that have laws protecting trans people’s right to use the facility of the gender they live every day, none have seen an increase in sexual assault in restrooms.  What there are however, are statistics that support the opposite.  In a 2009 survey done by UCLA’s WIlliams Institute, nearly 70% of transgender participants report having been denied entrance to or verbally abused when attempting to use the restroom.  9% reported being physically attacked.  I cannot imagine being physically attacked for needing to use the restroom, but for trans people the fear is a reality.

So let’s return to those men who want to use the women’s bathroom.  A man who would intentionally violate another person’s privacy while they use the restroom has a name: sex offender.  Someone who would perform a heinous act like this is not going to be saved from their depraved actions because of legality.  When we start legislating against other people’s rights because we assume Americans are so morally reprehensible, we have a problem.  Not only would this defense of a criminal activity not suffice, it should not be the basis for endangering the health and well being of American citizens, and American children.

We have an opportunity. Here and now, we have the opportunity to speak for those who have no voice.  We have the opportunity to stand in opposition of hatred.  We have the opportunity to demonstrate our moral virtue to others in the world.  If we don’t have the courage to protect the most vulnerable of our kids, we do not deserve the schools we claim to love.  Our job is to help create good, well rounded human beings by providing all kids with education in a safe and nurturing environment. Don’t talk about doing what is best for kids if you are not willing to stand for those kids most in danger and provide them with some hope of a safe learning environment.  Take this opportunity now and start living the messages and values we try to instill in our children by standing for these children who have been pushed into the margins.

 

*several articles and studies have been referenced in this post:

Borello, Stevie.  (April 22, 2016) Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Organizations Debunk ‘Bathroom Predator Myth”, ABCNews.  Retrieved from: www.abcnews.go.com/US/sexual-assault-domestic-violence-organizations-debunk-bathroom-predator/story?id=38604019

Brady, Jeff. (May 15, 2016). When a Transgender Person Uses a Public Bathroom, Who is at Risk?, National Public Radio. Retrieved from:  www.npr.org/2016/05/15/477954537/when-a-transgender-person-uses-a-public-bathroom-who-is-at-risk

Graytek, Emily A., Kosciw PhD, Joseph G., Diaz, Elizabeth M. (2009).  Harsh Realities-The Experience of Transgender Youth in our Nation’s Schools, GLSEN, Retrieved from: www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/Harsh%20Realities.pdf
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “High rates of suicide and self-harm among transgender youth.” ScienceDaily. Retrieved from: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/08/160831110833.htm

Building With Imagination

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I have been making a lot of games lately.  Over the past few weeks I have been pushing the depths of my own creativity togame-amker build games for various purposes using simple, easy to reproduce tools.  Between choose your own path (adventure seems like the wrong word when trying to survive the Great Depression) and Digital BreakoutEDU games I have been consumed by game making so much so, I often feel like the head game maker for the Hunger Games (only I am pretty sure  no one dies.)

If you are familiar with frequency illusion or the Baader-Meinhof phenomena you will understand what I am currently experiencing.  Everything I am seeing is being translated into riddles, clues, alternate paths, and puzzles.  I am finding ways to repurpose simple things to make mind bending challenges.  I believe these to be enjoyable, meaningful learning experiences for my students.  I also worry that in my excitement as I travel deeper down this rabbit hole, I will become too dependent upon something simply because I enjoy it.

I am enjoying this process because I get to push the boundaries of new technologies and their applications.  I have always had an active mind.  This is a way to engage that mind and challenge myself to learn more.  While I am conscious of potential to overuse these tools as experiences for my students, I am also eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to create, the chance to gain feedback, and create something better.  I love doing this, and I love when others enjoy or are inspired by my creations.  So, please feel free to try some of them.

Digital Breakouts:

Let the Race Begin

Cracking Enigma

Frosty’s Missing Magic Hat

Rescue El Copa Mundial

Pi Day Challenge

Choose a Path:

The Great Depression (see link above)

and my newest hybrid

The Case of the Missing Torch inspired by a childhood favorite: Where in the World is Carmen San Diego.

This list doesn’t include games I have made that are content specific for my teachers, just things that I have done for fun. Yes, I am a little crazy for doing these things for fun, but these things engage my mind.  I hope you enjoy them, and if you are ever inspired to create them, please know I am happy to help!

 

Dear Betsy: An Open Letter to Betsy Devos

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Dear Betsy,

This is not acceptable.  Please allow me to elaborate.screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-9-37-41-pm

Whether teachers agree with it or not, you are now the Secretary of Education, and we have the option of a perpetual standoff or trying to engage in meaningful discussion.  You lead the department that oversees many crucial programs to America’s public education system.  In doing so, you now have a profound connection to America’s public school teachers.  I am not looking to talk about policy yet.  I am hoping to set the tone for what could hopefully be a working relationship between you and the public education community.  How you choose to proceed is up to you.

 

I would like to introduce you to the people you are going to work with over the next several years: Educators.


We are passionate.  I don’t want to speak for other professions, but as an educator and someone who often communicates with other educators, this is incredibly important.  The vast majority of educators across this country care deeply about the young people whom they serve.  There are many issues I never personally invested in before becoming an educator and knowing a child that would be impacted.  

 

Not all of us are afraid of change.  Many of us work hard to create positive changes in our schools.  We explore, experiment, and implement a variety of things each year in order to better serve our kids.  It is part of what makes education an interesting field for me.  I love that there are always new things to learn.

 

You may have noticed a pattern.  I don’t just call them students.  They are my kids.  I don’t say I teach them; I serve them.  

Education is a service profession that provides so much more than what federal and state data attempts to quantify.  This is the cornerstone of my career, and I know I am not alone.  The parents of students I have worked with will be happy to tell you what it means.

Most of us understand the need for accountability, the desire to make education better for all of our kids, and the value of developing quality educators.  We recognize there are some teachers in our ranks, like in every profession, who are not good enough or who have lost their drive, but that is a small minority.

This is a short introduction to the people with whom you work and communicate.  For the sake of public education in America I hope you learn to communicate.  You tweet you sent at the end of your first day speaks volumes.  I am not someone who believes you need to have attended or worked in a public school to lead the Department of Education.  It wouldn’t hurt, but it isn’t a requirement.  What is required is that you attempt to understand public school teachers, parents, and students are, and the realities we face. This tweet is evidence that you do not yet.  I believe you want to work with us to make schools better.  However, it is a patronizing attempt to endear yourself as “one of us.”  Let me be clear about this, you are not.  You will likely never be one of us.  Please don’t pretend otherwise.  It is better for all Americans if we face hard truths?

What else would help all Americans?

Visit public schools.  Talk to teachers about their experiences.  I understand you have been rebuffed from school visits, accosted, and treated in a manner you surely feel is inappropriate.  Rather than run from those people, address them.  Rather than ignore their frustration, embrace it.  Teachers are passionate and dedicated professionals and passions have run high.  We should work together to create powerful, positive change in education for the good of Americans.  Please persist in  visiting public schools.  Please spend time getting to know what educators do each day.  Address the anger teachers feel by offering to listen to them, observe what they do, and the struggles they need to overcome on a daily basis.  Spend time with public school students.  Shadow students in various classrooms at various age levels.  Find out what it is like to be a child in public school.  

This is the path forward to forge a working relationship with America’s educators.  I understand the relationship has not begun well.  You were not our choice, you are not one of us, but that shouldn’t stop us from working together to help America’s children.  Please  take the time to understand us, understand what we do, and understand a different view.  A recent common saying for educators is “the smartest person in the room is the room”, meaning the best ideas are generated in a room full of intelligent people during positive discourse.  That will be hard work for you, and for us.  I, for one, am willing to do it if it means improving the future for our kids and I hope you are as well.

 

Sincerely,

Brian Costello