The Lesson

"How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world"
-Anne Frank

Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath touched the lives of all of us.  Locally, most of us were inconvenienced by the loss of electricity and heat, however some homes were damaged or even rendered uninhabitable. The extent of the destruction and how widespread it was reminded us of the power of nature and how easily things we take for granted can be so quickly taken away.  For most of us, it was difficult to complain as we slowly gained knowledge of what had happened along the Jersey Shore, Staten Island, lower New York City, and Long Island.

We certainly learn about ourselves and humanity when we are at our most vulnerable.  Across the region, neighbors and strangers alike rose to the challenge and lent a hand in some form or another.  In Sparta, specifically, we heard stories of whole neighborhoods organizing to clear felled trees,  and share warm homes, showers and meals.  We saw the public works department working long days and cold nights to remove the debris and make our roads passable.  We saw utility crews come from distant states to help us restore power.  We saw a police department maintain order, provide invaluable Facebook updates and manage the long gas lines.  Our own custodial team worked every day that school was cancelled, clearing trees and making our schools ready to open. Many of these people did these things while their own families and homes were equally effected by the hurricane.

As power was restored, and normalcy slowly returned we then turned our eyes toward those in the most devastated regions.  How can I help?  What do the victims and newly homeless need?  The compassion was palpable.  Our students and staff, desperate to help in some way, donated food and clothing to various support agencies.  We read in our local papers stories of people bringing supplies to the Jersey shore or thinking outside of the box and collecting boardgames and coloring supplies for children who were displaced (way to go, Michael!).

The lesson from this experience was not just that we are a resilient people, but that we will take care of each other when times are desperate.  How ironic that this was taking place as we were in the midst of a presidential election that clearly illustrated the political divide that exists in this country. Miss Sandy reminded us that we may have our differences, whether political, social or economic, but that when called to action we will rise up and unite in a common cause.  For our students  this may have been the first time they saw this in our nation.  For the adults, it is something that many in this region haven't felt since the fall of 2001.

As a result of Hurricane Sandy, we didn't have school for nearly two weeks. However, what we learned about our community, our neighborhoods, ourselves and each other through this ordeal provided the ultimate of lessons.  Lessons that will stay with us for a lifetime.

How you can still help:

Understanding the storm:

You are never too young to make a difference:
Click on the video on the right side of this blog (first video under "Great Videos")

Next post: How other natural disasters inspired members of our staff to make a difference.


The Challenge

"Sustainable energy can revitalize our economies, strengthen social equity, and catalyse a clean energy revolution that benefits all humanity.  Acting together, we can open new horizons today and help power a brighter tomorrow."
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."
President John F. Kennedy

It has been sixty years since President Kennedy made clear our nation's intentions to land an American on the moon.  To accomplish this goal, President Kennedy knew that it would require an unprecedented investment in science and math education.  I am hard pressed to think of a President, or other national leader, since that time who has issued a proclamation and call to service and duty of such magnitude.  Although the political and economic circumstances of the mid-Twentieth century are much different than they are today, there lies a similar opportunity and need to rely on our educational system to address a great challenge.  

There are over seven billion people on our planet.  According to a United Nations report the world's population will grow to nearly nine billion in 2050, a 47% increase.  How can we sustain such a population given our significant dependence on our dwindling resources?  The United States, the world's leading consumer of oil, uses nearly 20 million barrels of oil EVERY DAY.  This is not a renewable resource, and therefore we have to be prepared for the day when oil is no longer available as a resource that fuels how we travel, live, and trade.  It isn't just oil.  It is our forests, our food supply, and our water.  Developing alternative energy (Clean Energy, or Green Energy) and the overall issue of  sustainability are our next great challenges; our next race to the moon.

In 1962, when President Kennedy made it clear to the world that the United States was committed to winning the Race to the Moon, Americans were scared and worried about their future.  However, President Kennedy was able to transform this collective sense of uncertainty into opportunity.  Similarly, we can look at our current world's challenges as an opportunity to build the better tomorrow that Secretary-General Ki-moon referenced in the quote above.  

Regardless of what career path our students will soon choose, they need to understand that they can play a vital role in building a more sustainable world.  This week, 34 eighth-grade students at SMS participated in the second annual SMS Business Trip and had the opportunity to see how three very different businesses are addressing the issue of sustainability.  

At the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation students learned how seemingly simple changes in how buildings utilize light, materials, space, and heating and cooling systems can allow the building to be less dependent on non-renewable energy, more cost-efficient, and healthier for those who work there- the main goals of sustainability.  To accomplish this, the Dodge Foundation had to rely on people from many different fields: architects, engineers, horticulturalists (they have an internal plant wall and roof-top garden), electricians, flooring and HVAC installers, designers, and painters.  

BASF's North American headquarters was the next stop on the trip.  The building, opened in April of 2012, was awarded the rare double-platinum status by the United States Green Building Council's LEED certification program.  The design of the building clearly reflects the company's emphasis on collaboration, teamwork, technology, health, efficiency and productivity.  For example, in order to increase the productivity and health of those who work there, the building has its own cafeteria where healthier food is discounted; a Starbucks that encourages employees to stay on campus for their morning jolt and not spend time, money and oil driving miles away; and its very own health club.  The students were also introduced to many of the products that BASF has designed that promote a more sustainable world (ex: chemicals that preserve food products and lead to less waste, chairs made of recyclable paper, concrete used to build the Freedom Tower that requires less water).  Although BASF defines itself as a chemical company it employs people from many different fields including but not limited to sales, marketing, communications, and mechanical and chemical engineering.

The final stop of the tour was Wyndham Worldwide.  Wyndham is the parent company of dozens of hotel chains and individual properties.  At this stop, the students were told about the great challenge facing the hotel industry in terms of sustainability and green energy and how Wyndham is leading the way in creating meaningful change.  The building, awarded the LEED silver award, also has its own gym, cafeteria, post office, and yes, Starbucks.  The theme once again, is creating a healthy (working out), happy (Wii Rooms), and productive (less time out of the building) climate for those that work there.

Yes, the challenges of 21st century are great.  Creating a more sustainable and green environment will require our schools to prepare our students to address these challenges.  This presents for our students a great opportunity: to work hard to develop the essential skills and understandings that will allow them to lead our world and "help power a better tomorrow".  This week, some of our students had the opportunity to see that at least three companies that are already starting to lead this change; by making a challenge an opportunity.  I am excited for this generation of students.  Before them lies a world desperate for change yet rich in possibility.  Go get it.  Me? I'm getting a Starbucks.


Three Faces

One of my favorite traditions at Sparta Middle School is that every morning during homeroom we play the National Anthem, followed immediately by the Pledge of Allegiance.  Some schools play the Star-Spangled Banner on special dates or at the beginning of sporting events, but at SMS we are committed to devoting 1 minute and 30 seconds of our day to the song of our nation.  While most students stand in silence as the music plays, some of our 8th grade homerooms have been known to sing along to the words penned by Francis Scott Key nearly two centuries ago.  In fact, there is an unofficial competition between some homerooms over which one does the best rendition.

My hope is that during these still moments, students will take the opportunity to reflect and appreciate the men or women, both past and present, famous or unknown, that have through their sacrifice or their story influenced them. For me it is three people; three faces.

The first is Pat Tillman.  Corporal Tillman was a college football star at Arizona State University before getting drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in 1998.  Following the 2001 season, Pat turned down millions of dollars to keep playing in the NFL and decided to join the U.S. Army with his brother, Kevin.  On April 22, 2004 Pat Tillman, while on a mission in Afghanistan, was accidentally killed by a member of his own platoon.  For me, he represents all the men and women who choose to serve and sacrifice.

Just recently a former student of mine joined the United States Marine Corps.  I have known him since he was thirteen years old and will never forget the pride that he felt when he completed the Marine Corps training program, Officer Candidate School.  His face is the second one that I picture when I stand for the National Anthem.  I wonder where he might be, hope that he is safe, and that wherever he is that he will be home soon.

Finally, there is Ryan.  I think of Ryan during the National Anthem not for reasons of patriotism, but as a reminder of my own commitment to the students in our school.  I first came across the name Ryan Halligan while watching an episode of Frontline.  The episode was about how the growth of the internet has influenced- revolutionized- how students learn, communicate and interact with one another.  To list what has specifically changed would be a superfluous exercise; with each passing day we are increasingly committed (not necessarily to our liking or by choice) to our devices and profiles.  However, we also are recognizing the dangers of "growing up online", to borrow the title of the episode.   Undoubtedly, the internet has altered how we communicate.  Protected by the perceived safety of distance and sometimes anonymity, we are more likely to type and post things about other people that we would not normally say to their face.

By the time John Halligan, father of Ryan, fully understood what his son was doing and what others were doing to him online and at school it was too late.  I never met Ryan but I know that he could be a student at any of the schools where I have worked...just a different name and face.  Same hurt, same pain, just somebody in need of a smile in the hallway and for people to be kind and respectful.

This week Mr. Halligan will be presenting to our parents and many of our students his son's story. The goal of his presentation it to raise awareness about teen depression, suicide prevention and the dangers of bullying (on the internet and in school).  The third face: Ryan Halligan.  You won't forget it either.

For more on Mr. Halligan's presentation:

Most recent article on his presentation:

NJ Youth Helpline


"I am safely on the surface of Mars. Gale Crater I Am In You!!!"

That was the twitter message ("tweet") that I received in the very early morning of August 6th from Curiosity, the Mars rover that nearly two years and 350 million miles ago was launched from Earth.  I am quite confident that these words will not be as ingrained in the American memory as Neil Armstrong's "one small step...one giant leap" spoken over forty years ago.  However,  I could not help but feel inspired, proud and encouraged by this magnificent achievement- just as millions of moon-gazing Americans did in 1969.  The biggest difference is that their chosen medium of observance was a black and white television while mine- and nearly a million others- was the twitter feed on my cell phone.  

Although I find pictures like the one above equally exciting and mysterious, I think my favorite photograph of this event was taken here on Earth- in Pasadena, California.  It was taken inside NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the division of NASA that runs the Mars project) immediately upon the team learning that the landing of the rover they had built, tested and directed was successful.  Quite obviously, the members of this team have worked tirelessly over the past few years, getting Curiosity ready for this moment.  After all, it isn't as if there was any pressure on them; just $2.5 billion dollars spent, the future of government-funded space exploration, and millions of Earthlings watching live.  Through the picture you can feel the energy, enthusiasm, relief, pride and sense of accomplishment.  

I hope that for our students the picture speaks of the values of hard work, persistence, creativity, effective collaboration and the relationship of these values to triumph and success.  I am sure this team of engineers and scientists encountered many obstacles while working on this project.  I am sure they failed many times before they succeeded.  I am sure there were moments of doubt and frustration, when it appeared every solution had been explored.  Factors that make this moment all the more authentic and meaningful.  For adults and students alike, these are lessons that are essential to our growth and success.    

Many of the men and women who made this mission a success were inspired by our nation's previous achievements in space.  Or perhaps their interest in space, astronomy, mathematics, computers, science or engineering was sparked by a teacher or class they had in school.   Bobak Ferdowsi, the JPL engineer now famous for his mohawk hairstyle, first became interested in engineering by playing with Legos as a little boy.  He simply explored something (building things) that he was passionate about, that he enjoyed doing.  So to our students, if this little thing called Curiosity has caught your attention and interest- pursue it. As President Obama hints in his congratulatory message to the JPL team, we may need another Neil Armstrong in your time:
 "this is the kind of thing that inspires kids across the country.  They're telling their moms and dads that they want to be part of a Mars mission.  Maybe even the first person to walk on Mars.  And that kind of inspiration is the by-product of the sort of work you have done." (the entire conversation between POTUS and NASA's JPL team)
Congratulations to NASA and to the team behind Curiosity.  You have opened the door of inspiration and imagination for all of our students and have made our nation proud.
Related Resources:
Click on the video below for an interview with Bobak


The Quiet Months

"What do you do all summer?"

This is a common question administrators receive from friends, family and even colleagues.  A fair question, for after all summer is synonymous with relaxation and time away.  However, a quick glimpse behind the scenes of administrative summer life may surprise a few people.

I would say that the intensity and pace of the work that we do may be different yet the focus and purpose of our tasks are as essential as they are during the school year.  Yes, the hours may be more flexible and of course it is much quieter without 900+ students around, but the summer months are when we, the administrative team at SMS, do much of our program/curriculum revision and development, evaluating of current goals and setting of new goals, data collection, philosophy building and of course building individual schedules that meet the diverse needs of our students.

During the school year, each day brings a new situation that requires an immediate, or timely, response.  That is the life of an educator; teaching, guiding, and hopefully shaping while never knowing what each day will bring.  Of course, the unpredictable nature of the school day is, well..predictable.  Although we do a considerable amount of work to accomplish many of the aforementioned tasks during the school year, it is critical that we also have a block of uninterrupted time to intensely examine where we are and where we need to be.

This brings us back to the summer.  Although
I miss the sound of the students in the hallways, the buzz that is generated by a full cafeteria, and the daily interactions with students and staff, the summer allows me to step away from the challenges and successes of a typical school day and focus on the vision of SMS.

As a leader of teachers and students I firmly believe that I need to model a passion for learning.  I believe that it is essential for all of us to reflect on our practice and grow as learners.  These quiet months allow for extra time to read various educational articles, blogs, journals, and books.  Recently, I have become a strong advocate of using Twitter to nourish my professional growth.  Twitter allows me to connect with teachers, administrators, theorists, and leaders from many fields and from all over the world.  It really is a tremendous medium for anyone interested in learning more about...well, anything.

Of course the summer does provide me with a few more hours in my day to spend with my family, and that is a gift that is truly invaluable.  But, to the next person who asks me what I do all summer- I'll suggest they pull up a chair as we may be awhile.