Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Farewell to Forward into History

Sometimes moving forward means leaving things behind.  In the past two years I have grown so much as a teacher and blogging has been a big part of that.  Writing has helped me to process my goals, my job and my life. I have every intention to continue. But, recently I have felt that I need a fresh start on a new blog, not so narrowly focused on teaching or technology or any one thing. I kept writing blog posts that I did not post because they were outside my current definition of what the blog should be.  
So I will reinvent my blog here. 
It is me. It is what I am learning and where I will grow.  I hope that it will better represent me in my totality rather than any one component, be it father, husband, or teacher. Our growth is like the legs on a table.  If any one part grows too fast or independently of the others, the table becomes unstable.  
I hope you will follow me there.  

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Building a Paperless Classroom

One of my main professional goals this year has been to develop the paperless classroom. In order to do this I established areas that I would need to address and eventually master.

      1. A System for distributing and sharing classroom materials materials.
2. A system for the grading and organization of projects created using online resources such as Google docs, Dipity, Prezi, Glogster and others. 
      3. A method for making formative and summative assessment paperless. 

Over the course of the next few days I will be posting what I have developed and embraced.  I hope that it can serve as a helpful guide to those who might be just beginning this process but also generate suggestions from those who are currently doing the same so that we can learn together. 

I am excited because I know that I can make this work.  

I am excited that it appears more likely than not that I will be part of a 1:1 tech initiative next year which will allow me to put these methods to full use in the classroom next year.  

I am excited because in the process I have discovered some incidental learning gains.

Most importantly, I am excited because I think it will make my classroom a more exciting and dynamic place for my students.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Planning My Professional Road Trip

(Written December 2, n Washington D.C., while attending NCSS.) 

It has been a while since I’ve posted to this blog.  Life gets busy, grades are due and then suddenly a month has passed.  I have written a few posts in that time. I decided that one of them was just venting and that another of them was more of a mental work session; necessary but not the learning experience I like to post here.  I have been hard at work getting done the work at hand and haven’t been focused on looking forward.

As I write this I am in my hotel in Washington D.C. I spent the day with the #sschat crew talking about education and attending seminars given by teachers who are passionate their jobs and about their lives in general.

Since being here I have filled a list with topics to blog about, lesson ideas, ideas for future #sschats and even a few ideas for planning the annual family road trip (thank you Tom Riddle). Before I began writing this I sat down and I wrote down a list of 5 things I want to do to be a better teacher.  The next few months in my classes were running through my head.  I started editing a lesson plan for next week.  I made a list of what I need to buy for my Middle Ages lesson next week; Legos, pipe cleaners and a wooden yardstick. (thank you Dave Burgess).  

The importance of conferences like this, the part that makes them worth the expense, is the examination and evaluation that takes place as a result.   I have some lessons to create, a few lessons to purge, and many books to read.  I’m feeling energized and excited to get back in the classroom.  This is what I wish every PD experience could be like.

I’m looking ahead and I have my sights set on some new goals.  

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Kids Are NOT Numbers: When the Test Score is Wrong

My son and daughter go to a great school.  We bought our house based upon that fact.  The teachers are thoughtful and the administration is progressive and responsive to the needs of the community.  But a recent testing error nearly cost my son a place in the gifted program.

As last year drew to a close we were informed that many of the students in my son’s 2nd grade class had received unusually low scores on the MAP test.  We were assured that the students would be retested, the error corrected in their records and there would be no other adverse effects.  No answer was given as to why so many students had anomalous scores and I never really felt that there needed to be.  It happens.  

Yet meanwhile in the background, the bureaucracy was rolling along and the placement for the gifted programs in the district had begun. There decisions were based upon test scores and teacher recommendations. Yet when we called to ask how the situation would affect his placement we were told we would have to wait for a retest.  Placements were made and no spots remained in the program.  Done. 

When summer came we called the district to ask what would happen when school resumed.  We were told that the person responsible for testing was a ten month employee and would not return until the start of school.  I was growing concerned.

The school year began we hadn’t heard from the district, but we were contacted by his new 3rd grade teacher and his teacher from the previous year. The two had talked and they were pushing for him to be retested and his placement reviewed. The heroes of this story are the teachers who applied this internal pressure on the district.  The testing took place and three weeks into the year, my son was placed into an accelerated math course.   While he qualified for other courses, no space was available.

As the year progressed, he has been moved into two other accelerated courses  as space became available and he is, for the first time, loving school.  On his last self-evaluation he is most happy with math because it is so fun and that he likes school a lot this year. Things worked out, for him.

Of the other students in his class, none made it into the gifted program. I wonder how this has affected them?   I wonder what might have happened if we never heard about the testing error or if I hadn’t been a teacher aware of how to navigate school bureaucracy. I wonder what would have happened if his teacher hadn’t known him (better than any test could) enough to know that the score was wrong.  I wonder why no one else questioned how his reading and math level appeared to drop by 3 full grades.  But for this placement would anyone have noticed?

So as it stands my son is in ¾ of the classes that comprise the gifted program.  He is in his same classroom but travels to another teacher frequently throughout the day.  He is really happy, happier than in past years. The whole situation came about because for a moment in time he was reduced to a number, one that just happened to be completely wrong. 

Kids are not numbers. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Mind the Gaps: Transitioning from "Me" to "We" in the Classroom

I have been making substantive changes in the way that I am teaching this year.  Chief among these changes has been an effort to tranform my Amerrican Studies course from one that is lecture/teacher based into one that activity based and student centered.
In my world history class I went 7 1/2 weeks without a single lecture. The change was not difficult, in fact I find that the change has made the class more enjoyable to teach and made assignments easier to grade.  I spend much more time interacting with students and I have interactions with a far greater number of students each day. Making these lessons isnt hard because I have only been teaching this World History course for three years.  I see it with new eyes and I think in activities and learning activities. 

Making this shift in American Studies is a horse of a different color. I have been teaching US history in general and American Studies specifically, for all but 2 of my 17 years in the classroom.  As a result I have an well ingrained program with nice connections and themes.  There are thematic strands and there are connections to the literature built in throughout.  I havee taught the class using a thematic approach, the decades approach and I have even taught it backwards.  The downside is that despite the organiztion of the class, the core of the program has been pure lecture. Another level of difficulty is that the class in 55 students (with two teachers).  Any activity has to consider this factor. 

So the transformation has begun and I am pushing ahead.  I have been running through the lessons as they were every night and trying to build activities that keep the rich connections between the units.  I have been working dilligently to inject the unit to tunit themes that make my curriculum cohesive.  Ihave found that it can be hard work if only because when I am pressed for time or in a pinch I tend to default to my old lecture mindset. 

It is working and the process is getting easier. I feel the class changing; more from them, less from me.  These are some takeaways and  the things that I find are helping with the transition:

  • Since each the activities are chunking topics and concepts. I find that it is very important for me to create effective transitions from one to another.  Here I have created mini lessons that make these connections clear and place the topic for the day into context.  I call this “Minding the Gaps.”  I have found that it works best with a visual so that they can see where they are and how it connects.     (It works so well I wonder why I don’t have a similar visual prepared for all of my units in all of my classes?) When I do it right, the flow from day to day and activity to activity is as smooth as it was when the class was more teacher centered.

  •  Laura, my co-teacher is great about cutting throught the extraneous and telling the truth about how things work in class.  So I have made it a point to share my goals and my feelings about where I am.  This puts four eyes and two minds on the problem. It makes the change faster and more efficient. I have never been disappointed with the class’s ability to understand documents and expresses complex ideas.  They are getting it on their own.  I suspect that this will be more satifying to them in the long run.  I know it has been more satisfying to me to see them discover and understand.  My fears that something would be lost in the transition have been unfounded. 

  • The idea of making the class more activity based is working for me and I feel it is working for the program.  The group of American Studies teachers meets every Monday and we have increasingly included creating activities for the art and achitectiture poritons of the class.   

Overall I am pleased with the resutls.  I am going through the enevitable “Why Didn’t I Do This Earlier” debate in my head but even that is a good sign.  There is a lot of work ahead, but I am moving forward. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A New Take on Professional Collaboration

As the year goes on I am noticing that when faced with a common task, I address it in an uncommon way, or at least differently than I have in the past. I believe this is the result of the incredible amount of collaboration I have been involved in this year. (Props to my tweeps here!)  
This week it was time for my student intern Tamar to present her first lesson.  She is a senior who as part of our school’s educational intern program assists me in class.  The topic of the lesson was “Roman Social Structure: Plebeians and Patricians and the Twelve Tables”

Our planning began with just a basic lecture format.  As we continued to plan Tamar kept throwing out things to plan to the lesson. So I kept adding to them as well. Rather than play the role of limiting her and keeping the lesson basic as I usually do, at some point I decided to let her run with it, make it bigger and see what happens.  By the time we were finished we had a lesson that divided the class into groups, gave brownies to the patricians, confined the plebeians to the floor, increased the conversation among the students, and had them discussing the injustice of a variety of legal scenarios.  Oh, and it took less time than what I used to do, seriously. 

I gained valuable insight into how students think and view learning.  My intern Tamar gained an understanding or what it means to collaborate. Meanwhile the students in class went into the lesson with a completely different mindset knowing that the lesson was created by one of them.  I always want my class to have a culture of learning that is about “us’ rather than me and them.  I am proud of the discussions and collaboration that creating that environment generates. I wish I had thought to have students make lessons for me before.  It got me thinking…

While it is standard in the twitter-verse to see collaboration between teachers, I want to challenge you to bring students into planning a lesson.  I think it might make a great incentive for students or serve as a way to connect kids who are disengaged otherwise.  It is another way to hand them the reigns and let them control the path and procedures of their own education.

 Can I also mention that I love the idea of breaking down the divide between teacher and students as I was teaching about breaking down the wall between Plebeians and Patricians?  It’s kind of poetic really.  

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Little Tweeks to Get a WOW!

My ancient Greece unit is solid.  It builds a foundation for future units. I had even built in some flexibility with multiple readings and activities so that I could vary my teaching from year to year but still address each learning objective. 

But nevertheless, the unit was flat.  I remember thinking that the unit needed a wow factor.  I wanted all of the learning to congeal into a powerful conclusion that would have them thinking about Greece weeks later.
 So I took all of the readings that I use in class and instead of using my standard teaching copy, I started from scratch with clean copies so that I could read them with new eyes. 10 minutes later I had what I was looking for.  It really only required one very small change. I changed order of readings in a way that allowed me to develop a new idea.  

I began the unit as I always had but included a new theme: “What are the qualities of a good leader?”  Then after a brief activity on the geography of Greece I assigned a reading from Plato’s Republic.  For those not familiar with it, it is a discourse leadership that promotes the idea that a philosopher leader is best.  I have always included the reading but it was more incidental to the unit than essential. We discussed it as a class and students finished by writing a personal belief statement as an exit slip.

Next we began preparation for our Athens and Sparta debate.  The kids love this. We focused on types of government but also kept in touch with the theme, “What are the qualities of a good leader?” I was amazed at how the debate frequently touched on the theme and was ecstatic when one student added to closing statements “Maybe the Spartans were better warriors, but that doesn’t mean they were better leaders, force isn’t leadership.”  Big smile from me.  J

 The finally tier of this sequence was an analysis of Pericles’ Funeral Oration.  Once again for those not familiar, Pericles, the leader of Athens, is speaking to the families of dead Athenian soldiers at a public funeral.  He masterfully describes the greatness of Athens, gives credit for the greatness to generations of soldiers past, implores the mourning to respect the  legacy of the dead by supporting the continuing war.  I decided to recreate the speech and have the students evaluate it as I did so.  To make it more fun we had some student lie on the floor to remind the class what this event was.  Others were told they were their families and should act the part.  I entered from the hall wearing a full toga and wreath.  The families jeered.  I stood on the desk but instead of reading Pericles I read the Gettysburg Address.
 This surprised even me. As I went into the hallway to create “the big entrance” a student mentioned that it sounded like Lincoln at Gettysburg. I remembered that Lincoln had used Pericles as a model while writing the Gettysburg address. Once in the hall I searched for it on my iPhone and went with it (two minutes to read, 2 minutes to explain and connect).  It was well received, and made a powerful connection that the students really liked.

As I dramatized parts of the speech students shared what they thought the text was saying.  We shared, analyzed and then moved on.  The next day the topic for that discussion was “Was Pericles a Good Leader?” The resulting conversation included Socrates, Plato, Athens, Greece, Lincoln, Obama, Congress, our Principal, and me. 

We had fun, lots of fun, trying to make sense of the past and the world we live in today.  I came into class the next day to students still debating. Later that week I ran into a student and a parent at the local Starbuck’s and the mom told me about how they had talked about Pericles and Congress at dinner.