The Joy of Food in Education

When it comes to building a positive staff culture, food is an easy win.

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My last two weeks of work have been highlighted by three wonderful, encouraging, food-fuelled community events. Perhaps your school context has enjoyed similar experiences.

The first came at the end of a Friday two weeks ago. I was exhausted. It had been a long day, a long week, and a long reporting period. With weeks of marking, reporting, and written comments in the rearview mirror, I was ready for a break.

Thank God it’s Friday.

Then came the call to head to our multipurpose room. Obediently, I headed over, not sure if we had a staff meeting on the schedule and definitely not expecting what came next.

A Friday Fiesta

As I entered the room with colleagues, we were greeted by an amazing Mexican-style spread: tortillas, taquitos, salsa, corn, and a handful of other delectable items up for grabs. Two of our administrators had put together a full-blown margarita bar, replete with bartender aprons and ingredients for custom orders.

Plates were filled and glasses poured. Teachers ate at round tables around the room, talking and laughing as Mexican music provided ambience. It was a fun way to end the day and the week, and I left with a spring in my step that I didn’t have at the last bell.

A Christmas Banquet

On Friday night, my wife and I attended an elegant Christmas banquet for the entire staff of our 1500-student community. And when I say all staff, I mean administrators, teachers, education assistants, facility managers, custodians. Everyone. And their partners, too.

Planning and preparation for the evening had begun a full year in advance, and it showed. The food was magnificent, the conversations were enlightening, and the entertainment was fun. I was able to get to know colleagues and their partners on a whole new level. It was a great evening.

A Staff Luncheon

The third event to make this highlight roll was a staff luncheon two days ago. This time, a small army of staff volunteers worked through the entire morning to prepare a delicious home-cooked Christmas feast.

Tables were set, candles were lit, and staff enjoyed an extended lunch to enjoy great food and great company. More great conversations, laughs, and shared experiences. Main courses, desserts, and beverages were available in such quantities that a follow-up meal was required to exhaust them all.

The Incredible Power of Food as Culture-Builder

Looking back at these three highlights, I’m struck by the power of food to do what it does. I get it — it’s no great revelation that food makes people happy. But in the context of school communities, food is an amazing facilitator.

1. It brings everyone into the same physical spaces.

Let’s face it — staff teams generally don’t congregate in their entirety unless required to. If you’re like me, sometimes a lunch break is best spent catching up on email, planning, marking, or checking items off the infinite task list. On other days, the 4.5 hours spent with students between 8:00–12:45 simply demands a few precious moments of peace and quiet. Sanity recovery.

But feasts like the one we enjoyed on Monday trump all those demands. Everyone shows up, because you don’t say no to a home-cooked Christmas feast.

Food has a way of bringing everyone together.

2. Food facilitates longer conversations and builds relationships.

I think back to our Christmas banquet on Friday and the fun conversations at our table. I was able to connect with other teachers and education assistants on our teaching team, and I was able to get to know their partners as well. We talked journalism, real estate, life histories, infertility, and a host of other topics both light and serious. By evening’s end, I knew everyone at the table a little better than I did before.

Opportunities to have longer, relaxed, and unlimited conversations with colleagues are few and far between. And none of it would happen without great food.

3. Food events level the lunch field.

This point is a lighter one to be sure, but to me, there’s something unifying about everyone eating — if you’ll excuse the cattle reference — from the same trough. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, there’s something there that quietly signals we’re all in this together.

4. Nothing says “we care” like the act of serving up a great meal.

It might be the most obvious point to be made here, but at the end of the day it may still be the most potent. As we know from Abraham Maslow, food speaks to us on deep physiological and emotional levels that we don’t always fully understand or recognize.

When administrators and education leaders go to the effort of providing a meal, it is noticed. It’s a gesture that says you are welcome, you are loved, you are appreciated.

A good meal builds positive morale, energy, and optimism on a team and in a building. As these factors tick upward, the quality of instruction, creativity, growth, and learning on the part of our lead learners can’t help but increase as well.

When it comes to building a positive staff culture, food is an easy win.

Episode 61 – Chris Chappotin

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Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

CHRIS CHAPPOTIN is the principal at Steam Middle School in Burleson, TX. He’s a husband, father, Engage 2 Learn Coach, certified Google educator, and big sports fan. He’s also a bit of a rapper as well.

Follow Chris:

*Watch his district’s music video parodies (in which Chris has played an instrumental part) and subscribe to the Burleson Independent School District YouTube channel.

Episode Summary

Chris is the principal at STEAM Middle School, a grade 6-8 campus in Burleson, Texas. He helped start the school in 2015, when he served as assistant principal. After leaving briefly to another school, he was blessed to be able to return and take on the principalship in January 2018. The school’s mantra is all about creating engaging learning through an instructional design process called Engage 2 Learn.

His greatest struggles have related to questions of identity. At times, you wonder as an educator leader if you are having a positive impact, if you are properly equipped, and if you are making the right decisions. Often when you move into a new position you realize that you need to develop new skills sets. Learning to develop new skills in collaborative and authentic ways has been challenging for Chris at times, but the process has helped him gain confidence as a leader as well.

Lately, Chris has been diving into the work of the Visible Learning Institute, including John Hattie and Jenni Donohoo. When it comes to teacher efficacy, Chris asks himself if he is equipping and releasing his teachers to do great work, or if he is limiting them to the role of simply managing. He’s been asking these questions:

  • How are we developing teacher efficacy as a leadership team and throughout our staff?
  • Does the evidence show that our instructional designs and strategies are having the positive effects on student learning and achievement that we want to see?

Referring back to his work on instructional policy and teacher coaching, Chris seeks to grow as a leader. Better leadership means more effectiveness in his own work and also better support and empowerment for his teaching team.

Outside of education, Chris enjoys engagement with his family and community. It’s about strengthening relationships and serving people that he and his wife have known for many years. Chris is also a big sports fan, following the Cowboys and Mavericks closely.

Chris’s favorite edtech tools are the ones that facilitate strong professional conversations. Voxer is still his go-to platform for that purpose, but lately he’s also been looking at another Slack-like tool called Glip. Get to know both of these applications on Twitter @Glip and @Voxer.

On Twitter, Chris suggests following @ShannonKBuerk, CEO of Engage2Learn. In books, Chris points to Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant. Follow the author on Twitter @AdamMGrant.

As a big fan of the Dallas Cowboys and Mavericks, Chris is listening to Undisputed with Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe and First Take. Follow these great sports shows on Twitter @Undisputed and @FirstTake.

Although Chris doesn’t subscribe to YouTube channels, he’s watched a lot of content from the Corwin Press channel. You can follow this publisher on Twitter @CorwinPress. And although Chris doesn’t promote his district’s parody music videos, he’s been a big part of their production. They’re pretty amazing! Check them out at the BurlesonISDTV channel.

It’s not on Netflix, but a show that Chris enjoys when he does get the opportunities to watch some video content is Manifest.

Follow Chris:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

On social media, follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!

The Power of Authentic Writing

Some incredible things happened in my 8th grade English classroom today.

Photo Credit: Brad Neathery

I’ve been slowly making my way through Sparks in the Dark on my Kindle this year, and every time I return to this book I’m inspired to facilitate more authentic writing in my middle school classroom.

I mean, my students write every day. But how much of that writing is meaningful, passionate, or authentic? How much of it do they personally care about? I know I need to create more space for this kind of expression.

Last week, I asked my students to respond to lyrics from any song that held personal meaning or significance for them. Our learning target was “I can think critically, creatively, and reflectively to explore ideas within, between, and beyond texts.” Today, I asked for volunteers to share their pieces with the class.

Two boys accepted the challenge.

Boys. In 8th grade. In a gradeless classroom, with zero extrinsic motivation.

Sometimes we need to rethink our beliefs around middle school boys. But that’s a thought for another post. I digress.

One of the boys read a reflection about Natural, by Imagine Dragons. The other read a reflection on a song called Reluctant Heroesby Hiroyuki Sawano.

These boys spoke passionately about the human experience: the hardships we face, the expectations we bear, our families and the relationships that matter most.

And get this. As he read a closing paragraph about his family, one reader broke down into tears. If that wasn’t enough, both boys quietly sang all or most of their selected songs.

Their unfiltered emotions were on full display. They were powerfully vulnerable. Their classmates gave each of them standing ovations. I could have cried myself.

I mourn all the moments like these that I’ve missed in my 17 years of teaching, but today’s experience only deepens my resolve to do more authentic writing in the years ahead.

Because this was awesome.

“When you teach someone how to read or how to express themselves using the written word, you change a life. You introduce them to magical worlds, teach them how to access the voice within, and empower them to affect that same change in the lives of others.” – from Sparks in the Dark: Lessons, Ideas, and Strategies to Illuminate the Reading and Writing Lives in All of Us by Travis Crowder (@TeacherManTrav) & Todd Nesloney (@TechNinjaTodd)


*This story contains affiliate links.

Episode 60 – AJ Bianco

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Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

AJ BIANCO is a husband, father of two boys, aspiring leader, and middle school teacher at Harrington Park School in Bergen County, NJ. A fan of the flipped classroom and blended learning, AJ is also a co-host of another great education podcast called Podcast PD.

Follow AJ online here:

Episode Summary

AJ is currently a 7th-8th grade Social Studies teacher at Harrington Park School in Bergen County, New Jersey. His classroom is student-centered, flipped, blended, personalized, and he enjoys making the learning experiences as authentic as possible.

In general, AJ says that the lowest moments in his professional journey boil down to rejection. One example of this comes from his first five years of teaching, when his district repeatedly moved him due to budget cuts. After being split between two different high schools in year five, he was almost ready to quit the profession completely. One of the things that he credits for restoring his hope and faith in the education career was the PLN that he found on Twitter. Once he started connecting with other passionate educators, he was inspired to reimagine his practice and redefine his trajectory.

AJ recalls the beginnings of #PodcastPD, the podcast he co-hosts with Stacey Lindes and Chris Nesi. Stacey had been using the hashtag on Twitter for some time when Chris Nesi suggested they use the name as a title for a podcast show. The three co-hosts are all about “Anytime, anywhere professional development.” The show keeps it real, and the hosts include a good mix of humor, pop culture, and real life in the show content.

When he looks around at education today, AJ gets excited about the ways that educators are sharing their voices, ideas, and experiences authentically with others. Teachers aren’t afraid anymore — instead, they’re taking more risks and their practice is more inspired. Today’s classroom has come so far from the passive compliance of the classrooms we grew up in.

When asked about a current professional goal, AJ talks about his commitment to learning more about what leadership looks like in education. He’s reading, watching, and listening to whatever he can on the subject.

AJ’s primary passion outside of the classroom is his boys. He currently has two with a third on the way, and it’s a thrill to be involved in their development and play a part in their learning. Second to his boys, AJ is also a big sports fan and superhero aficionado.

AJ’s productivity stems from his competitive nature. Wherever he applies himself, he wants his work to be the best.

He’s got two Twitter recommendations, and they’re both amazing educators hailing from the New Jersey area. The first is @RichHayzler and the second is @Kevin_Carroll_.

Two edtech tools that AJ recommends trying out are Adobe Spark Video and Adobe Spark Post. Follow these apps on Twitter @AdobeSpark and @AdobePost.

AJ’s book recommendation is The Energy Bus: 10 Rules to Fuel Your Life, Work, and Team with Positive Energy by Jon Gordon. Follow the author at @JonGordon11.

If you’re looking to add another great education podcast to your commute, check out The Leader of Learning Podcast by @DKreiness.

On YouTube, AJ suggests subscribing to How it Should Have Ended, a fun channel that reimagines the endings to popular movies.

When he’s got no energy left for anything else productive, AJ’s watching Daredevil on Netflix.

We sign off on our conversation, and AJ tells us the best places to find him and follow his content online. Find AJ on Twitter @AJBianco and on Instagram @AJBianco.

For more from AJ Bianco, follow him online here:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

On social media, follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!

Episode 59 – Dr. Sam Fecich

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Subscribe to the podcast on your mobile device HERE: iTunes | Google Podcasts | Anchor | Spotify | YouTube

DR. SAMANTHA FECICH is a former special education teacher and now a professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. She’s also a mom, edtech innovator, and most recently, the author of EduMagic: A Guide for Pre-Service Teachers.

Follow Dr. Sam online here:

Episode Summary

Dr. Sam Fecich is a professor of education at Grove City College in Grove City PA, just north of Pittsburgh. A former special education teacher herself, she teaches about educational technology integration and special education.

Sam recalls the crushing disappointment of applying to a PhD program in special education, only to have her application rejected. After cycling through discouragement, self-doubt, questioning her future, etc., she called her parents and spent some time reconsidering her passions in education.  She eventually applied for a PhD program in Learning Design and Technology, and she was accepted. Something we can all take away from Sam’s story: when one door is closed, keep trying more doors! The one that opens may just be the best fit.

EduMagic challenges the thought that your teaching career starts when you receive your teaching diploma. In it, Dr. Sam argues that the journey actually begins in your freshman year of college, and she shares authentic stories of innovation in education that will inspire educators today. EduMagic is also an acronym that forms the structure of her book:

  • E = Educate and Engage. Learning to take something from every learning experience.
  • D = Digital Presence. Start building a positive professional presence through digital portfolios of work, on LinkedIn, and other platforms.
  • U = Unite your PLN. Reaching out and building a professional network provides mutual benefits.
  • M = Megapixels. These are the bits of magic, flavor, and excitement into learning.
  • A = Always Be. Always advocate, be grateful, be mindful, and contribute to the learning of others.
  • G = Get Out. Get out of the classroom, go to edcamps, go to workshops, volunteer to present your learning to others.
  • I = Inconceivable. Use education technology to create original learning experiences.
  • C = Cooperative Teaching Gone Virtual. Use technology to build real-time partnerships between preservice teachers and teachers in the field in different locations.

Dr. Sam is passionate about the ways that Twitter and other social media platforms can connect educators and allow them to share innovative teaching practices around the world. It’s about showing process, progress, and product — in our professional learning and in the learning of our students. She’s seen first-hand the power and ability of Twitter to build a professional resume, and she shares a story of how Twitter helped earn one preservice teacher multiple job offers by the time she graduated.

Her professional goal for this year is to do a better job of meeting students where they are. In order to embrace this goal, she plans to master and utilize Snapchat better.

In terms of other learning and personal passions outside of the classroom, Sam enjoys spending time with her daughter, Summer, and watching her grow, learn, and try new things.

She tries to live by a simple rule: “Wherever you are, be there.” Among other things, she tries to leave her work at work as much as she can.

Her recommendation on Twitter is @NanKr1120, someone who does fantastic and imaginative work and gives Sam goosebumps every time she speaks.

Sam’s pick for edtech tools is Microsoft Teams. She touts the power of Teams to improve collaboration and accessibility for all learners and stakeholders. Follow Teams on Twitter @MicrosoftTeams.

One of the books she recommends most often to her preservice teachers is Dave Burgess’s Teach Like a Pirate. Follow the author on Twitter @BurgessDave.

Dr. Sam’s educational podcast pick is House of EdTech, hosted by Chris Nesi. Follow the podcast on Twitter @HouseofEdTech.

When she’s got no time left for anything productive, Dr. Sam is enjoying House of Cards on Netflix or Manifest on Hulu.

For more from Dr. Sam Fecich, follow her online here:

Subscribe to the Teachers on Fire podcast on your mobile device: iTunes | Google Podcasts | YouTube | Spotify

Follow the podcast on Twitter @TeachersOnFire and on Instagram @TeachersOnFire.

Song Track Credits

  • Intro: Relax (by Simon More)
  • Outtro: Starley – Call on Me Remix (by DJ Zhorik)

Listen to this episode on YouTube and subscribe for more episodes!