Saturday, May 31, 2014

What's Your Batting Average?

  "Be a reflective teacher. Honestly look at what you do from time to time. Evaluate the purpose of your role as a teacher."- Robert John Meehan


Like most teachers, I find the last dismissal of the year bittersweet. I evaluate myself and the job I did guiding young minds to develop critical thinking skills. Did they get how to analyze something? Will they just mindlessly accept things or judge them for the use of logic? Did they grow as writers, being able to articulate their thoughts in a logical progression of connected ideas?
I don’t have any illusions of myself as an educator. Just as with everyone there are hits and misses. But when the hits happen, they feel like home runs. This year seemed to be filled with more singles and doubles than grand slams. What contributes to sub-par batting averages? I think it’s engagement. If students take an interest in a topic, home runs will be more prevalent.
Image courtesy of Peter Chen
So school’s out. Now what? How will I fill my summer? My pattern has been to take June and July “off” so to speak. I need to recharge and re-energize myself so I try not to think about lesson plans and new ideas. Instead I visit friends and relatives and tackle projects I put off during the school year. Like cleaning closets. Ugh!
But even though I say I “take” June and July off, I still find my thoughts wandering to the upcoming year. When I least expect it, it seems, I get a great school-related idea to flesh out at a later date. For those moments, I keep a notebook handy or use my notes section in my smartphone. I’ll often dictate the idea onto my phone where I can access it later.           
School is indeed out. I look forward to a summer of fun and relaxation and learning. I will continue to read books and plan on attending the first ever Google Summit that’s coming to town. I’m also jazzed about attending and presenting at the state English teacher’s conference.
But aside from those activities, I plan on taking some bike rides, having coffee with friends, mowing the lawn and reading. Blissful days spent on the porch with a book in hand and lemonade on the table next to me.
I’m looking forward to my “do-nothing” days, knowing that all too soon batters will be up, looking for me to throw them “home run” pitches. It’s the break I take in June and July that helps me be a consistent pitcher.  I may not get a multi-million dollar contract, but the satisfaction I get from feeding my students the right pitch can’t be beat.
By relaxing in June and July, I’m ready to say, “Batter up” in the fall.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Taking My Own Advice

"Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome." -- Samuel Johnson

I was talking to some colleagues the other day about next school year and some ideas I had of things to try in my classroom. One by one, like a gun shoot in an arcade game, those nuggets I had treasured were picked off by sharpshooters. “That sounds kind of kid-ish to me.” “Are you sure you want to do that?” “Isn’t that just coddling kids?” By the time the conversation was over, I was questioning my ilk as a teacher.
photo courtesy of
            Honestly, as I returned to my desk, I was disheartened. Maybe they were dopey ideas. Maybe the kids would think it was below them to do what I had planned. Maybe I would look dumb to my students. I sat there for a bit, ruminating about the words. I could let the words dictate my path as a teacher or I could let my actions reveal my path as a teacher. Did I want to sit back and wonder “What if” for the rest of my career, or was I willing to take my own advice and take a risk?
photo courtesy of Stacey Shintani
            Samuel Johnson, an 18th century English writer, knew what he was talking about in his quote above. He tried several ventures which failed before finding his niche as a writer and developer of the first dictionary. Personally, I can think of little less appealing than writing a dictionary, but Johnson ran with it. And succeeded amidst dire failure in his life. I could allow my colleagues’ comments to hog-tie me into inaction, or I could ignore their words and try something new. Just try it.
            The risks I proposed couldn’t even be categorized as such. Yes, my students may look at me as being weird, but when haven’t they? I could embarrass myself, but when haven’t I? I could raise the eyebrows of my principal, but when haven’t I?
            I came to the conclusion that I’d rather take risks than be sedentary in my profession. I could cruise into the new year with the same old stuff, or I could try to shake things up and be innovative. I could try to analyze my lessons and see what worked and what didn't. I could ask myself questions when constructing lessons about student engagement. 
            I like my colleagues and we get along well enough. And usually I take their advice. But I came to the conclusion that I wouldn't this time. In fact, I probably wouldn't share ideas with them for a while, until my confidence had grown some. Instead, I'd look outside my school for people to use to discuss ideas
So what's the moral of this post? Guard yourself against naysayers who can lead you to doubt yourself and question your ideas. Don't get me wrong, I think it's really important to get input from colleagues about ideas and things to try in the classroom. But ask yourself these questions first:
  •          Do your colleagues usually smother your ideas?
  •          Does the person you’re talking to try out new things in his/her classroom?
  •          How engaged are the students in that person’s class?
  •          How rigorous is the material your colleague uses?
  •          Is your colleague usually negative about other things in his/her life?
  •          Would this person be the first you’d turn to if you needed an idea of something          creative to do in your classroom?
  • ·         How reliable has this person been in supporting your other ideas?

The answers to these questions may reveal a lot about the person(s) you’re looking to for advice. I know they did for me.
            So my conclusion? I decided to follow the words of Johnson. I couldn’t possibly overcome all the objections of those around me. Instead, I’d follow my gut and see what happened. Besides, there’s nothing wrong in modeling failure with students. They need to see someone fail and handle it properly.
            I may still doubt myself at times, but the reward could be worth it. Engagement. Students willing to try new ideas and take risks themselves.
            So bring on the kid-ish ideas. Bring on the weird ideas. Bring on the risk-taking cloak  and let me wear that as a teacher, so I’ll never grow complacent, sitting back telling others their ideas may fail. Let failure happen and learning begin.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Taking Risks

“When students create for the world they make it good.  When students create only for their teachers, they make it good enough.” -Rushton Hurley

My students have been creating a digital magazine for the past several weeks and I’ve observed a few things. I’ve noticed engagement on their part. Not initially, but now it’s there in spades. I’ve noticed a desire to learn more about the layout process. They all want to work on the layout, arranging the stories and art in ways they think is best for the reader. I’ve noticed they keep their reader in mind as they work—on everything. Videos, picture-taking, stories. Everything. But more than anything, I’ve noticed they want to revise more.
            This revelation is the most exciting in my mind. These are students who traditionally have eschewed the writing process. Their attitude majored on “it’s good enough;” they didn’t take pride in their work or put effort in to polishing it. But their attitudes are changing with this project. Even when we discuss the story and I point out ways it could be strengthened, I don’t get the usual whine. Instead, they nod in agreement and scurry off to do more research or beef up the weak areas.
            It makes me see the truth in the quote by Rushton Hurley. Make the work authentic and for a real audience and students will respond accordingly. They take ownership of the work, knowing that their audience will be wide and varied. Because of this realization, they want to put forth their best work, something they can be proud of and look to as a best effort.
            So why don’t we do this more? Offer our students authentic lessons? Is it because, as I said in my last post, we lack the desire to take risks? One of my students, who transferred to my school in April, asked me, “Why don’t the other schools teach English like this? I’d have gone to my classes if it had been more like this.”
            I thought about his comment for a few days, intersecting it with the quote by Hurley. My students reinforced this idea, tripping over each other to tell teachers all about what they’d learned and what they’d produced.
            Just as I observed a few things about the students during this project, I did the same about myself. I noticed a definite insecurity while managing this project. I was outside my zone of comfort, treading into unknown territory and that was scary. What if we ran out of things to do? What if we had too many things to do? What if I couldn’t keep up with the work the students were doing? How could I make sure they were engaged? What would happen if they didn’t buy in? Doubts swirled in my mind during the duration.
            I also noticed it took a lot of extra time to develop this idea and stay ahead of the students. Maybe this was why teachers were reticent to take on a project. The management aspect can be just as scary as the self doubts.
            Finally, I noticed how I had to readjust my thinking away from listening to the traditional education voice to listening to the progressive education voice. This took almost as much work as developing the project itself.
            In the end, I evaluate myself and the project. Would I do it again? With modifications, in a heartbeat. I’ve rarely had as engaged students as I did during this project. Some may argue with that statement, but it’s true. Watching my students problem solve, collaborate, and interact while honing their writing skills convinced me my strategy was spot on in choosing this project.
            So what’s the take away with these thoughts? Next year I plan on taking more risks. I encourage you to do the same. Step out of your zone of comfort and try something new. And engaging. You won’t regret it.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

What if...

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”   John Dewey

      The fire alarm at my school erupted for the fourth time that morning. Sure to be another false alarm set off by construction workers, the bell buzzed insistently, forcing all of us to head for the exit. Standing outside in the brisk air, I noticed the student fashions surrounding me. A custodian came up to me and read my mind. “I had a purse like that in the early ‘70s. It’s funny how things recycle with new names. We called them hip huggers and now they’re called low rise. Today they’re flares and we called them bell bottoms. Nothing really ever changes, it just goes through the cycle,” she said.
      Her words resonated with me for the next few days. I couldn’t stop thinking about how true the words were and how well they applied to education. Really, how many times can we rewrite standards and benchmarks? How many times have we looked at “new” practices only to realize the only thing new was the name?
      Teachers comment often, at least the ones I know, that when change comes to just wait. The “newest and greatest” will soon be replaced by a different program, repackaged from years ago, that is the next “newest and greatest.”
      So why is education like that? We seem to be constantly evolving yet never changing. The same delivery method used over 100 years ago is the same method used today—stand and deliver as the sage on the stage. True, some schools are moving towards a different model, but for the most part education as a whole, secondary and post-secondary at least, function using that prescription.
      But is this a best practice? As teachers we are encouraged by the education gurus to follow best practices, but I wonder when administrators will follow their own direction? What is best practice? To lecture or to engage? To bore or to stir up curiosity?
      I wonder a lot about my classroom and kids. “What if” scenarios stream through my mind rapidly, the more I ponder this idea of integrated classrooms. What if students were able to direct their own learning with teachers as a guide? What if we gave them freedom to research and explore stuff that applies to the real world? What if we broke free from the past model and created a totally new way of doing school? What if mandates and policies weren’t set up by businessmen but actually included teachers on an advisory board?
      What if teachers relied less on packets and more on inquiry-based learning, allowing students to delve into curricular areas and create projects that relate to the world around them? What if teachers met with other teachers and collaborated during time set aside by the district for just such an action? What if teachers taught PD days, utilizing and affirming the talent in the districts rather than bringing in multi-thousand dollar speakers?
      Education can deviate from the way it’s been done in the past. We can be the catalyst for change. Maybe not for a whole district, but we can affect our classroom and maybe our colleagues. Take a risk and try something different. Create a unit that allows students to research and read and explore topics that challenge them and relate to their world. Be a coach, a mentor, a guide and then see what an impact you can have. “What if,” indeed.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

It's Not About Us

courtesy Scott Maxwell
"We need to prepare students for THEIR future 
and not OUR past." Ian Jukes

As a college sophomore, I landed a job as a summer camp  counselor. Set in idyllic southern Wisconsin, this place offered it all--sports, water adventures, horseback riding, skits, and FUN!! Every week before a new set of kids arrived, Leroy, our director, would gather the staff in the main hall and remind us of one thing. Camp is for the Campers!

As an educator, I kept that saying in my mind as I prepared for classes. At first. But soon papers piled up, grades needed to be given, tests corrected, meetings attended, and whew! I forgot all about camp and campers. I just wanted to stay afloat and ahead of my kids.

I was involved in a Twitter chat about education one night (who knew I could tweet with others just as passionate about kids and education?), sharing with other educators ideas that worked well in our classrooms. In the midst of keeping up with the chat, I sat back, stunned as I started to consider what I was doing. I was engaged in a professional development (PD) in my home at 8:30 on a Monday night and I was learning! How awesome was that? I gained greater insights about my profession sitting at home tweeting than I did most days enduring PD days that allowed little interaction and lots of stationary time.

This got me thinking even more. If that's how I felt during a PD day, what do my kids feel every day? I teach at an alternative school with a block schedule. Two three-hour classes per day. I love the set up as it allows me to experiment with technology and projects. But how well do my kids like it? Why not ask? So I did.

When I questioned my students about the format of our school and if they felt they learned anything, most responded positively. They felt they learned more because they were more engaged. Quite a few admitted the first books they had read in high school had been in my class. Then they asked me something I couldn't answer. Why don't more schools have this kind of set up? Why don't more schools ask students how they want to learn and teach to that?

Why indeed? I couldn't answer and said as much. Their questions haunted me until my weekly Twitter chat when I posed the question to my colleagues. 

I felt like the Chaucer's knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale." I heard so many answers yet none seemed right. Until one brave soul ventured this solution. "Because we've always 'done school' this way." As soon as I read the tweet, I knew it was the right answer.

We do it because it's what we've always done. Habit. Ritual. But what about best practice? Educators are challenged all the time to implement "best practices" in the classroom but is our classroom set up and schedule a "best practice?" Do we continue to prepare our students for our futures based on our past rather than their futures based on the present? Or do we look for new, engaging ways to "do" school?

I teach at-risk students, but this whole conversation with them got me thinking if education itself wasn't at risk. Of becoming archaic? Of becoming out-of-touch? Of becoming a past with no future? Of becoming a disservice to our students? Because, after all, isn't that who this gig is all about--students?

School is for the students. By keeping students and their needs in the forefront of designing lessons, by taking risks and teaching to the needs of the students, by assessing our kids often, we can become more aware of their needs and take needed steps to meet those needs. 

I have no doubt if Leroy were my principal, he'd remind his staff often. "School is for the students." Do I teach like that? Something to think about...

For more thoughts on education, check out this blog.