Sunday, June 11, 2017

Out Finlanding Finland

     I attended a one-day conference recently about innovation in education--what that looks like in my state and what it could look like. It's taken me a while to process all I saw and heard--some inspiring, some not so much. But what stands out most to me is that teachers across my state are ready to rethink education and make some radical changes.
      One of the sessions/panels at this conference was titled "Out Finlanding Finland." It was a catchy title that stuck with me. As I listened to the panelists, a few stood out to me. One was a student who said she wasn't prepared for college because she didn't have enough of a background in project-based learning. Not that she wasn't skilled enough to write a five-paragraph essay or decode Shakespeare, but that she felt inadequate when asked to collaborate and create with others in her class. In college she was given real-world assignments that truly could impact whole cities. She encouraged educators to incorporate more projects, teaching the art of collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication.  
  The most courageous proposal out there was from a superintendent of a smaller school district who is totally changing up how things are done at his school next year. I don't pretend to understand how it would all work, but I'm intrigued by it. His plan? He wants to eliminate grade levels all together. Instead of advancing a grade level, students would be advanced when mastery was achieved. Those who need extra help on a concept or two would stay and work on that concept. For a student who comprehends the needed material, he/she would move on.
     In addition, he'd like students to finish up required courses by sophomore year, so they can use their final two years to explore their passions, experience an internship, and go on job shadows. Why? So these students will actually be college ready, knowing with more certainty what they want to do and why.
     I think this concept works on numerous levels, although I don't know how the logistics of this set up will play out. This could be an ideal world for students at all levels. The bright students, who are usually bored in class, will find more challenges. Students who struggle in only certain areas will have extra attention in that area. And those who need more focused help, will receive it. Differentiation at its best.
     How will he accomplish this? I have no idea. It's going to be messy and confusing and probably even frustrating to some (many? all?)--educators, students, parents, support staff, administration. Messy, yes, but this guy is radically rethinking the way education is done in his district.
    There were a number of people from my district at this event and we're in the process of discussing the implications for our district from what we gleaned at this conference. But right now, my biggest take away is that my state could Out-Finland Finland.
     Not every school in the state needs to follow the lead of the school district that is ditching grade levels, but every school in the state should begin to radically rethink what we do and how we do it. I'm in the process of changing my syllabus...again. Hopefully, it will make all the difference.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Award-Winning Teacher

     There are certain things in life we have to accept about ourselves, whether we like it or not. For instance, I will never not be the youngest in my family, I'll never know why some kids are resilient and siblings in their family aren't, and I'll never be an award-winning teacher. And that's okay, I'm good with that.
       So what started this musing? An article on eschool news sparked this line of thinking. The article talked about what each teacher did in his/her classroom that was special. At the end of the article were tips from that person to increase your chances of winning an award. At first I thought, "Dang, I'll never be an award-winning teacher." And then I thought, "Who cares?" Instead of chasing after the recognition or prize, I'd rather chase after kids --their minds, their hearts, their abilities--and have a concrete impact on them in the classroom.
      We have a week left of school and as I ready my grade book to turn in, I look at all the names of students I've had in class this year--127. Was I an award-winning teacher to them? Did I engage them and challenge them and help them to feel succesful and learn? If not, no designation is warranted. If I did, their smiles and happiness at doing well in school and getting "it" are reward enough,
     I have friends who have been state Teacher of the Year and believe me, they well deserved that recognition. What they achieve in the classroom is beyond my comprehension. They amaze me.
     We don't need "tips" from award winners to be a Teacher of the Year. We need tips from our colleagues on how to be good teachers. Effective teachers. Impactful teachers.
     So if you've never gotten a Teacher of the Year award, remember, you're in good company. When that thought maybe bums you out, pull out some old grade books and go through the names of kids whose lives you touched. You were probably Teacher of the Year to many of them. And that? That can make all the difference in their lives.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Rats in the Classroom

     I don't have them yet, but I want rats in my classroom. No, not the gray furry kind that scamper among the subway rails of New York City, but the "Rats,--I'm-done-with-this-class" kind of rats. I have the summer to achieve it. So what brought about my fascination, some say obsession, with rats?
      I read an article recently about Finland implementing a new program where they will be eliminating subject areas. Instead, they'll integrate subjects across the curriculum. It's inquiry-based and project-based combined.You can read about it here. It is fascinating and something I've thought about for the past decade or so. What would my world look like, my school look like, if we implemented something like this? Would absentee rates diminish? Would engagement increase? Would students switch their countdown to being done with a class (sheesh, FINALLY I'm done!) to being done with a class (rats, I loved this class!) I never thought I'd say this, but I want rats in my classroom this year!
     Would it be radical for a whole school to want rats in the classroom? Maybe, but could that tenuous move be beneficial to kids? I think it might. In fact, I think this is something to pursue because it could challenge us professionally and challenge students as well.
     It's definitely something to consider.Work for teachers? Sure. Engagement for kids? Almost guaranteed. And that could make all the difference.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Looking in the Mirror

     It's May. Some teachers say it with delight, giddy with the thought of summer days, sleeping in, and no papers to correct. Others say it with defeat. It's May--I only have a few weeks left to teach them something. It's May. For me that means looking back over the year, looking at the changes I made in the classroom, and seeing what I've accomplished in the lives of my students.
     I'm a big believer in self-reflection, knowing I'm my worst critic. But I'm honest and I don't embellish what did or didn't work. It's important for teachers to squeeze out some time, maybe at the end of the day or the beginning of one, to look back over the year and ask themselves some questions.
1. What did I teach my students? I'm not talking content or the standards but what did I teach them about being a decent human being? What type of behavior did I model? How well did I teach them to think and analyze?
2. What have I learned? Again, this doesn't have to be about content, but what did I learn about my students? What did I learn about me? What did I learn about the teaching profession and how to be better?
3.What impact have I had beyond my classroom, in the community? This may seem like an odd question to ask, but again, I think it's modeling community involvement to my students. School can't be my entire life, so what have I done this year that has helped others, impacted others, or made a difference in my community? I am involved beyond my classroom walls. Talking to my students about what I do models the volunteerism I'd like to foster in my students' lives.
4. What did I crush this year? Sometimes that's the hardest question for me to answer. And most times it isn't the content or curriculum that comes first. How well did I connect with my students this year? Was I peevish? Patient? Did I smile a lot? Did I make students feel safe, successful and self-confident?
5. How can I improve? There are teachers in my district whose work with students blow me out the water. I recently met with a colleague and I could only listen in amazement at her dazzling display of success she'd been experiencing with an exceptionally difficult group of freshman. I enjoy meeting with this friend as I'm always challenged to step up my game after my talks with her. She, without knowing it, shows me areas I need to grow in as an educator and as a person. She makes me want to better myself. I'm grateful for friends like that. Meetings with her always lead me to ask myself what I need to work on to become a stronger teacher.
     So take some time this month to ask yourself these questions. Slow down, take a break and really reflect on yourself as a teacher. Who knows? It could make all the difference.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The S is not for Silence

     We have a problem in our community. Actually in our area. Really, in our region. Heck, it's a problem statewide and it was accentuated in my mind as I listened to a senior recital. The showcased girl has amazing talents. She's confident, strong, winsome, nice, respectful---she could very well be the perfect daughter. And I contrasted that with the kids I've known who have decided as Wordsworth said, "The world is too much with us (them)." It was too much for them so they checked out--early. Painfully leaving behind a bevy of "Whys" and "What ifs" and "If onlys." This is a problem where I live and it's time we address this issue before another teen feels overwhelmed by life and believes he/she is better off without living out the rest of theirs.
     My Tuesday/Thursday book club is reading the book 13 Reasons Why and had begun the book prior to the latest heart-breaker. Add to that the controversy stirred from the movie and you have a tenuous hold on  a book club. I was thinking about how to address this in light of the recent tragedy, but really, I didn't have to do anything at all. The kids talked about it. They wanted to talk about it. We had a terrific discussion. I was mulling it over later, noticing the silence that the incident had garnered. No one wanted to talk about it. Suicide--there, I said it. And I think we as educators need to be saying it more and more. Let's take a proactive approach to this heinous action. Let's talk to kids, early and often. We took proactive stances on tobacco and alcohol usage and saw usage reduce. Why can't the same happen with the "S" word? The word no one wants to even whisper out loud in fear another student will get the idea.
      I'm here to tell you talking about suicide in a proactive manner probably won't incite anyone to act on their thoughts. Rather, wouldn't it seem more logical that those who are dealing with depression and other mental health issues would feel acknowledged and perhaps reach out for help? We don't need to be silent anymore. We've been silent long enough and where has that gotten us? With three teens in school who felt like the world was too much with them. In a year. That's not counting my student who graduated last year who ended his life this past fall. Four young lives ended prematurely leaving gaps in our world and our lives.
     Silence has gotten us no where. No where. It's time we change tactics and become proactive rather than reactive. Another young person doesn't need to lose the battle because caring adults were few and far between in his or her life.
     I know there will be more suicides in the future. But let's stem the tide. Let's start talking about this issue. Let's let our students know how much we care about them. Perhaps I'm being pollyanna-ish, but it's time to open our mouths and talk to kids. Even the young lady who sang amazingly at her senior recital last night could have entertained those thoughts. You don't know if you don't talk about.
     Remember, S is not for silence. It's for suicide. Care enough to talk to teens about it. It could make all the difference.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Flexibility and Fun with Technology

     Our school just got a green screen and an iPad to do some filming and editing. It's actually really cool. Thanks to our technology partner for writing the grant and for our Foundation for Education for financing this project.
     Some may think a green screen and its applications are a waste of time. What real learning takes place with something like this? Well, I'll tell you--lots. I've not used it much since we just received it, but I've had kids use it. A couple took passages from Macbeth, rewrote them in their own words, and then were filmed acting these soliloquies out. Nervous at first, they reveled in the end product. And what real learning took place? Speaking, use of technology, interpreting literature, summarizing, author's choice of  word usage...well, you get the idea. This seemingly simple assignment covered many standards and promoted real learning. Ask those students in a month about the dagger or hand washing scene in Macbeth and they'll nail the answer...engagement does that.
     I'm slowly thinking of more ways to use this godsend of technology. I'm asking students for their input as well. Why not get them involved? They are the ones who will have to complete the project, why shouldn't they have input on it?
     Even though I'm an English teacher, I need to find more ways to assess learning. The green screen is one tool I can use so my kids aren't writing paper after paper and becoming disengaged and totally bored.
     If I've learned anything in my years as a teacher, it's that flexibility is key. I can't be married to any of my lessons, and shouldn't be, because there's always room for improvement. What fits one student may not be the best for another. What type of assessment works for one teen may not be the best measure of knowledge for another. That's why flexibility is key.
     By having this attitude, I know I become a better teacher. Life isn't a hard and fast rule, and neither is learning, engaged learning that is. The more willing I am to be flexible and to work with kids and give them options and choices, the better the students will do.
      And isn't that the object of teaching? Making a difference by helping teens experience success while learning? I didn't have the same mentality when I first started teaching, but I've grown in a few areas since then.
      I've learned to embrace technology like green screens. I've learned to welcome the help offered by the tech partner; and I've learned that students are individuals and learn differently. So bring on the green screen and all it entails. I can't wait to see what my kids create next with it. Technology--it really can make all the difference.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Wait--What? School's Almost Done?

     Someone announced in the teacher's lounge the other day we had four more Monday's left of school. My reaction? What? No way was school that close to being over. Aargh! I didn't want to face the truth as I knew then it would be time to assess me--what goals had I accomplished, what had been successful and what an utter failure? What would I scrap and what would I use next year? All valid questions that needed solid answers.
     So for the past few days I've been thinking, wondering, postulating, exploring, and evaluating what I've done this year. I've reviewed the course and teacher evaluations my students complete at the end of a class. What suggestions did they give that I can incorporate into my teaching?
     I know of a few things that will change and some things that will stay the same. My corny joke of the day garnered the most accolades from students followed by Funny Fridays where we watch a clip of some comedian (usually Jim Gaffigan, my favorite). Why do I waste precious class time with such inane things? Because I don't think they're inane. My kids need to learn to laugh and they need to see an adult laughing. Laughter is good for the soul and often these comedic moments lead to great class discussions later. Funny Fridays won't be abandoned by me any time soon.
     Being a reflective teacher leads to being an effective teacher. Unless I can honestly look at my teaching and evaluate what I do in the classroom, I can't change. Unless I change, I'll be mired in the same morass of repetitive teaching; teaching that didn't knock anyone's socks off the first time around.
     I don't want to be a static teacher. I want to be dynamic, ever-changing and reflecting on how I can improve both myself and my classroom. Did you know we only have four Monday's left in our school year? How are you going to spend your time? Me? I'm going to keep looking backward so I can move forward. It can make all the difference.