December 25, 2005

How to motivate the students?

There are many effective strategies that can be used to motivate students, probably as many as there are teachers. But what will work for the students you have to teach? That depends on what kind of people the students are. Most kids are not internally motivated (neither are most adults). Those who already see the value in a successful scholastic experience are not a problem for the teacher or tutor responsible for preparing them. But then, those aren’t the ones who need our help.

A Google search on student motivation reveals this: search results.

A colleague of mine, Stephen Caperton, who has experience preparing and motivating students for the SAT wrote this:

“One of the things I point out to student is that the SAT counts for a third or more of college admissions just a little under GPA. Then I point out that it takes thousands of hours to create a GPA, and several hundreds of hours to change your GPA, while you can prepare for the SAT in about 80 hours spread over a month or two. Secondly I find that many students think that the SAT is a test that you can't prepare for or that it is tough. I then point out that the most advanced math is basic algebra, and almost every math problem can be solved using arithmetic. The key to doing well is understanding the question which takes a little bit of retraining to translate the questions.”

For me it’s a question of motivated teachers. A motivated teacher will motivate students, even those who don’t want to play along. Motivation and enthusiasm for learning is infectious. A teacher who is passionate about learning will attract the attention of their students. The students begin to appreciate and get caught up in the teacher’s joy in the process. Soon, they too are motivated to succeed. The reverse is equally true, a crabby, jaded, apathetic instructor will do little more than confirm the students’ suspicions that school “sucks” and that being educated is neither important nor worth their time. The teacher’s job is to light the fire for learning within the student. How can a teacher light a fire when his or her own was snuffed out long ago?

But simply being fired up is not enough. Teachers face a challenge today that is unlike any in the past. We must educate ALL students to success. ALL? Yep. How? How do you motivate someone who hates you because you want to help them? How do teach algebra to a students who can’t add? How do you guide a pupil through a series of clearly defined steps when the pupil can’t read the instructions? This is the world we teach in. Sadly, there is no single one-size-fits-all answer. The military is very success at motivating soldiers, all types of soldiers, to do all types of jobs. Why can’t public education do the same thing? Why can’t we be as effective? Well, the military is voluntary, one must sign up to be motivated, which would indicate a certain base level of motivation to start with. Public education is a requirement. Kids must go, whether they, or their parents, are motivated to do so, or not.

One place to start is by focusing on the student’s belief in themselves. Some of our kids have been severely knocked around by life. Metaphorically speaking, many are bruised and some are still bleeding. Their self-esteem is in single digits, and they just don’t believe that they are going to be successful at school, or even at life. It’s an epidemic in some groups. Can teachers overcome the failure disease? Well, the more opportunities we can create for students to experience success, even the smallest opportunities, is a start. I’ve written about spoon-feeding. We must understand that many of our students have grown up without a strong foundation. They lack the basics from proper nutrition, to a consistent place to sleep. It’s hard to be motivated when you’re hungry and exhausted. Many schools now offer free-food programs, but I’m not aware of any overnight on-campus shelters. The classroom teachers needs to be able to focus on teaching the lessons, but understanding these deeper issues can help us make appropriate adjustments.

Students need to know that you are a real human being, and that you genuinely care for their own well-being. Learning their names quickly and using their names frequently seems like an obvious start, but you may be surprised by how many teachers never take the time to do even that. Asking the students about themselves, focusing assignments that help them discover and develop who they are as people can be very effective. It is possible for students to use themselves as a focus, and yet still teach them the standards. Once the students begin to develop a finer sense of self, the next step is challenging them to service. I was recently reminded of an assignment I use to give seniors to go out and perform 20 random acts of kindness. I believe that the more we serve others, the more we invest in ourselves, and the greater becomes our self-esteem.

Developing relationships with parents is also a very effective motivator for kids. If the students know that you, their teacher, connect regularly with their parents, they will be more likely to be more cautious and make better decisions. Email is so easy. I currently teach over 200 students. No, I have not established relationships with every parent. But I have made connections with the parents of many of the students I have who are struggling. Our conversations are not always positive, but they are always constructive. It’s good for parents to know that you truly care about their children.

The bottom line is that your students must understand that you, their teacher, mean it. You mean it when you say, “how are you doing?” You mean it when you say, “you can pass this class if you work hard and complete your assignments on time.” You mean it when you say, “I will be there for you when you need my help.” The students are a blessing in our lives; we need to treat them that way.

For further discussion please check out this post.

Please post your comments below.

December 21, 2005

Why do students get “left behind”?

Teachers, administrators, parents, and most importantly, the students themselves all play a role in the life of a child who gets lost in the curriculum, and left behind to fail. (I would suppose that grade school is different than high school, so please understand that I am writing from the perspective of a high school teacher.) After many years in the classroom watching a handful of students each year fail my courses, I’ve come to the conclusion that some students will fail despite the best efforts of their teachers. A student’s success is based on more that simply whether or not the teacher does a “good job” in the classroom.

Teachers are not solely responsible for the failure or success of their students. The same lesson taught by the same teacher in the same classroom during the same hour to two different students will produce different results. What makes the difference? The student. The preparation of the student, whether or not they are prepared for the lesson at hand, and the dedication of the student, their attendance habits and their commitment to their own success make a larger difference than the lesson, teacher, or setting. Assuming this is true, what can a teacher do to ensure the student’s success? Nothing will absolutely work for every student the same way, which is why teaching is both an art and a science.

The teacher’s job is to reach out to and deliver instruction to whatever students appear on their roster. This requires the teacher to be creative in both their personal approach to the classroom and their teaching methodology. Today’s students often refuse to work for teachers they do not trust, or cannot relate to. Once upon a time a teacher could stand at the bully pulpit and preach away. It was the pupil’s responsibility to understand and interpret what they heard. There was little instructor/student interaction and it was not the teacher’s responsibility to change. This is no longer a successful teaching model.

More and more we teachers find ourselves serving as not only instructors in the lives of our students, but also as counselors, friends, and sometimes, substitute parents. The modern instructor/student relationship would be considered irregular and inappropriate 50 years ago. Yet here we are. With so much being asked of teachers it’s easy to understand that we get tired, cranky, and exhausted of juggling so many different roles and responsibilities when all we were “hired” to do was teach. But today’s teachers are more than simply instructors, we are mentors who receive less respect than we deserve and at the same time are asked to raise an entire generation. The parents who should be raising their own children are too busy working 80 hour a week jobs and negotiating custody schedules. But where else are struggling parents to turn for help with their kids? Television? Professional athletes? Other struggling parents?

Teachers do not leave students behind, parents do. However the parents are not the ones held accountable by the government, teachers are. I am not blasting parents, but rather pointing out that when a child falls behind in class it is not because of lack of instruction, but rather because of lack of participation by the student and their family. In my classroom, the only students who fail are those who do not participate either through poor attendance, or through lack of follow-through on assignments (they don’t complete or turn in their work). These students receive very little support at home for either doing their homework or even going to school at all. Parents are too busy to help their kids with homework because they are working to support their child’s education? Or is it to pay off the credit card debt, or the boat loan, or make the alimony payments? Sounds so judgmental. There are plenty of exceptions to what I am describing here. But I have participated in too may Student Study Team meetings with too many parents of struggling kids who are clearly overwhelmed by life and the choices they (the parents) have made. Time for their kids? Not today. So their kids, knowing their parents don’t place them at or even near the top of their personal priority lists react by not placing themselves or their scholastic success at the top of their own personal priority lists. Phone, friends, xbox, getting high, and random silliness all place higher than schoolwork. And so they fail and get left behind.

The current educational environment is focused on making changes in the school day to help aid student success. Teachers and administrators committed to improving test scores and graduation ratios are making progress. But this is not enough. It’s not even the right fight. Until we win the battle at home, the scuffles in the classroom will continue to be ugly bloodbaths where those who would otherwise excel are ignored while those who are in the greatest need are given undo attention. Undo? Well, they do need our help, but so do “our best and brightest.” Aren’t they all “our best and brightest?” They should be. But until students are equally prepared not only at school but at home as well, there will be no equity in achievement. The current belief is that “all can learn, all can achieve.” I support that. However the truth is that not all will learn or achieve at the same level, or at the same pace. If we educators continue to focus all of our resources on compensating for what is not going on at home, then we are failing a different population of our students, and ultimately, our global society.

I am not suggesting that we leave anyone behind. What we need is RADICAL reform and change to our public education system and our societal values. Here in California we have a high population of second language learners, and a high population of students not performing well on their standardized test? Connection? You decide. We need to meet the needs of all of our kids regardless of who they are. But instead of demonizing the teachers for environmental factors outside our realm of influence, we need to look beyond the classroom for support. Changes need to be made in our society that demand that family units stay intact, that kids are a much higher priority, and that education is not a dumping ground full of baby sitters, but an institution for improving all our students, our world, and our futures thats given a fighting chance to leave no one behind.

December 18, 2005

Do teachers make a difference?

Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of this simple fact: teachers make a difference. A huge difference. But how can you tell if your time and energy counts for anything? How do you record the results of those long, thankless hours invested in grading papers, designing curriculum, and sometimes, wiping noses? I sometimes see the results of my influence in the success of my students after they graduate. Many come back to visit me from this university, or from that job experience. This year I’ve had alumni come to visit at least once a week. They love to share how well they are doing, or how much they like, and sometimes dislike, their jobs. I make a deal with my students on the first day they take one of my courses: if they should experience any success using the skills I have taught them, I don’t want any public recognition, I only ask for homemade tamales.

Friday I had an alumni visitor who almost didn’t graduate high school after and incident with one of our security officers. The student had made a typically bad kid decision, and was headed for expulsion. He is a big boy and the security officer who didn’t know him personally had felt threatened by his size. I went to the hearing and vouched for the boy I knew explaining his demeanor in class and the quality of work he had completed. The student was allowed to return and graduated with his class. Although this student spent at least one hour of every day of his high school career attending one of my courses, it was probably my presence at his time of greatest need that made the most difference to his ultimate success. He did not bring me tamales.

The week before a student from the same graduating class dropped by on her way back to UCSB after Thanksgiving. She is working on campus as a graphic designer while she completes her bachelor’s degree and plans on graduating in 2007. Then its off to NYU for law school. I wrote her a letter of recommendation for her undergraduate application to NYU and she was accepted (not due to my letter, she was and is a phenomenal student). However she chose to stay in California. In high school she participated as a cheerleader, in mock trial, and other activities, but it was what she learned in my classroom that is now helping support her college career. She didn’t bring me tamales either.

There are many others. The firefighter, the stereo installer, the two in film school, and the one at Stanford. Whenever I am feeling ineffectual. Whenever I am discouraged or feeling down, I try to think about the success stories that I have enjoyed the privilege of participating in (well perhaps not the stereo installer, not yet anyway.) Many teachers ask this question daily, sometimes hourly, “is it worth it?” Is the endeavor of teaching the young worth my time and energy? Sometimes it doesn’t feel like choosing teaching is worth the long thankless hours, the endless number of hoops to jump through, and the systemic disrespect for the profession. That’s most clearly reflected in our insulting pay schedule. But then, teaching is not about the pay schedule. Teaching is about making a difference.

Teaching was not my first choice. I was hung up on “those who can’t do…” I was on my way to a career as a television producer when I realized that I did not want to spend my life selling soap. After my wife and my father encouraged me to substitute part time I was hooked. I had a better feeling of satisfaction after my first day subbing then I ever had doing anything else. Plus, I had fun when I was in the classroom. I enjoyed the environment, the activities, and most importantly, the relationships that I began to forge with my students, even as a substitute. Once I got my first contract assignment the good feeling that I got from teaching grew exponentially. Even today I look at my students as more than just seat fillers. More than just identification numbers or faceless names on a roll sheet. The students are people who I get to help become better human beings. I love the beginning of the school year because it is the starting point of a wonderful rollercoaster ride the ends even better it starts. I hate the end of the school year because that’s when I have to say goodbye. I am cursed because I made fun of my fourth grade teacher, the first male teacher I was assigned, who shed a noticeable tear on the last day of school. Regardless of the painful emotions I sometimes feel, I wouldn’t want any other career.

Think about the most influential people in your life. After your parents and religious leaders, most of us point to the teachers we had growing up. Life began for me in the 7th grade when my drama teacher cast me in the school play. Up until then I had felt like a lost, lonely, loser. I wasn’t good at sports, didn’t feel popular, and hadn’t found my niche. But with the help of a teacher, I not only found my niche, but I also began to grow emotionally and gain confidence. Confidence that spread beyond the stage into the rest of my classes and other areas of my life. Without the influence of a teacher who chose not to dwell on the mental fatigue, the pointless in-service days, or the “great pay,” but instead rested on his belief that what he did actually meant something in the lives of his students, I would not be writing this now. I certainly would not have chose teaching, and instead of working with kids, would be the worlds greatest television soap-salesman (I added world’s greatest for effect only, not ego.) What a disappointment that would have been to the visitor I had Friday, the UCSB student, the firefighter, the two in film school, the one at Stanford, even the stereo installer, and all the others. I am glad I chose to teach.

Please post comments below.

December 16, 2005

Veteran desensitization?

Teachers with even a few years in the classroom can easily begin to feel desensitized to the pain and suffering of their young students. Teachers often joke together in the staff lounge about what an “idiot” so and so is, or what a “rotten” family little Johnny must come from. But that’s just a sad attempt to relieve the tension that builds up day after day, year after year from the struggle of fighting knee deep in the muck of the classroom battle.

It’s almost like post-traumatic stress. I don’t go in the staff lounge anymore. In fact I am rarely seen in the office at all. It’s not that I am anti-social, or that I don’t value the company of my colleagues. No, I stay away because too often when I am in the presence of other teachers, especially ones I share students with, I am shocked, disappointed, and sometimes dismayed at they way other teachers, good teachers, experienced and successful teachers talk about their students. Rarely do I hear shared stories of hope and proud moments of success. I know these people care about the students because I know their hearts. I know why they got into teaching. I have seen the fruits of their labors in the students they sometimes insult. So why do teachers bash the very souls they are committed to saving?

One of my mentors, and very close friends, use to refer to the school we worked at as “The Factory.” The students lined up in front of his classroom before he allowed them to enter (this was middle school.) The desks were lined up in even rows with students seated alphabetically. He had a refined system of grading and never took work home because he was able to fit it in during the class day. He was an accomplished and decorated teacher who taught me as a youth and had a major impact on my life. He was one of the reasons I chose to teach. I even took over his assignment when I was hired for my first job. I knew his heart. I could see it when at 12 years old I sat in his classroom and learned from his lessons. I was inspired then. How could this be the same man who now equated his workday with automobile assembly? Had he changed from the man I admired, and the teacher I respected? After many years in the classroom, after the exhausting repetition of a six-period day, bell schedule, and seemingly revolving door or pain-stricken, hate-mongering, resentment-filled, loud and sometimes obnoxious pupils, well, he built up tolerance.

A teacher who tries to “handle” their students will quickly fail. It’s not our jobs. Yes they are in pain, and yes we want to take the pain away, but we cannot, and should not. Pain is a natural part of life and an important part of growth. If it doesn’t hurt, I don’t change it. This is the hardest part of teaching for me; watching people I care about hurt. Sometimes the pain is purposeful and leads to a positive conclusion, like childbirth. Other times the pain seems to go on and on without direction as the student makes one poor decision after another. Despite our best efforts, from the general talk-around-the-issue-soap-box-moments in the classroom, to those private, frank and very direct chats outside the classroom door, teachers give all that we have to our students to try and support them through their “education.”

Perhaps the largest misstep in education today is the over-emphasis on test scores and the seemingly complete disregard for character education. But that’s a different topic all together.

So after years of giving 100% to our students, seeing one class end and another class begin, we grow tired of suffering with our kids. At the end of the school year the students move on with their lives while we stay in the same place, the same classroom, at the same school, teaching the same subject to a brand new set of student the following fall. We know the cycle repeats, and yet we get frustrated when the new students don’t start where we know we finished with the former group. All of that time and energy invested, and then we have to begin it all over again. It’s easy to get discouraged, easy to become frustrated, easy to burn out.

After the 28th “Jenny” to receive a progress report because she missed 30 of 45 class days in the quarter comes in to ask if she can make up work before school and promises to come in early never shows up the teacher tends to anticipate the possibility that “Jenny” is not going to pass, no matter what the teacher does to help. I’m not as shocked as I once was when a student fails my class, but with every “F” I bubble I wonder what else I could have done? With every student who falls behind, never to catch up on their make-up work, I wonder how I could have accommodated them better. Failing a student for any reason is always painful for the teacher, no matter how long they have taught.

Our sensitivity to the student’s condition must never fade, never fail. If a teacher loses his or her compassion for the people within their realm of influence, then all is lost. It isn’t easy when teachers are so disrespected. One of my colleagues was “shushed” by a 9th grade student in his own classroom this week. Shushed! Because 21st century society does not celebrate teachers or public education many kids do not see the value of their so-called educational experience. What they don’t value they don’t appreciate. Well-intended good-spirited teachers often receive the blunt force trauma of the wild emotions of out-of-control youth who lash out of their emotional desperation without concern for who they injure. Over time teachers learn to protect themselves from the pain and suffering they share through empathy with their students, but they never lose sensitivity.

Please post your comments below.

December 09, 2005

School is supposed to be fun?

Yes, school is suppose to be fun. The more fun you have teaching, the more fun the students will have learning. There is nothing more miserable than sitting for 55 minutes desperately trying to pay attention to a miserable lecture proffered by a miserable instructor who is clearly disengaged from the subject and lacks all compassion for his or her students. It’s no wonder kids fall asleep in class. We used to call it the “Gurst” position.

Mr. Gurst was my freshman and senior year English teacher. He was a brilliant writer, but a boring orator. He literarily spoke in a monotone all the time. Now, Mr. Gurst was very influential in my young life. He rode his bicycle to school everyday. There was a time when I rode my bicycle to school everyday. Very cool. But Mr. Gurst liked to read to his English classes. When he did, it was all any of us could do to stay awake. It was brutal. Imagine Great Expectations read for an hour daily by Ben Stein. Pretty close comparison. So as a means of survival, we developed a way of looking like we were paying attention, when really we were out cold. We would place our elbows on the desk, point our palms straight up, and rest our cheeks upon them. See, in this position, the Gurst position, the instructor cannot see the pupils eyeballs. Therefore, we were able to look like we were engrossed in Dickens, when really, we were dreaming of skateboarding and burgers at In-N-Out. We got away with the Gurst position for a very long time. Until one day we were exposed. One of us (me) was caught drooling on the novel. That was the end of the Gurst position at my high school. But the Gurst position lives on where I teach now. I’ve taught it my students as a survival mechanism for their duller courses.

But none of our courses should be dull to anyone. If we love teaching then we should love every moment we spend teaching. You know when a lesson isn’t working. I know when kids tune me out. I hate it. Headphones drive me crazy and I don’t allow my students to wear them in the classroom. Once the headphones are on, the world is tuned out. We cannot let our students tune us out. So what do we do? If you are a teacher who often finds their students with their headphones on, or assuming the "Gurst" position, then it’s time to freshen up your shtick.

If no one has told you so far, it’s ok to have fun in your classroom. Think back to your own favorite K-12 teachers and classes. I will bet that the ones you remember most are the ones where the teacher was passionate about teaching. The subject was exciting and every new idea you had was cherished. You had fun. Do you have fun in your classroom now? Do you laugh with your students? Do you share your life’s experiences with the young, hungry minds of those entrusted to your care? You should.

Many English teachers agree that English is not the most entertaining subject to teach. Literature and writing can be a blast, but parts of speech and sentence structure, well. Sometimes the teacher needs to be very, very creative. But English is not nearly as dry as say Mathematics. I’m not a math teacher. But I have taken classes from math teachers who made math fun and exciting. My favorite high school math teacher was a man named Jim Costello. Jim had a way with teaching math. He could not only break math down into VERY manageable bite-size pieces, but he could also hook us into the daily subject matter through humor. His class was always fun, and I loved going. I haven’t loved math as much since.

Jim found a way to make his class fun, interesting, and most importantly, engaging. What do you do to engage your students and make your class fun? Do you try at all? Many teachers don’t. They just leave it up to the students to figure out. These are the same “educators” who regularly fail 50% of their students. Happens way too often in education today. I have had colleagues who approached the classroom in this manner. Fortunately few of them are still teaching. Teaching is hard enough without hating the classroom. If you hate the classroom, then chances are, your students hate you.

Don’t take that personally. You’re just not fun enough.

But you could be. You need to be. Entertainer is never listed in the job description. But whether you want to or not, whether you like it or not, if you are a teacher, you are an entertainer. Twenty four-seven our students are being entertained. Through television, the Internet, cell phones, iPods, magazines, and film, entertainment is the name of the game. If it doesn’t make me laugh, I’m not interested. If it doesn’t shock, I don’t care. Look at the way modern sitcoms are written; a laugh every ten seconds, and sometimes even more. The “one-liner” has been refined to an art. Attention spans run very short these days. So to expect any child of any age to sit and listen for any period of time is fighting against the wind. We can’t win this war. So if you can’t beat them….

DON’T join them. Strive to learn, understand, and master the “rules of engagement.” Structure your lesson plans and arrange your classroom to invite and entice your students to LEARN! We don’t all consider ourselves to be “dynamic in the classroom.” You don’t have to be a dynamo, but you do have to be invested. Kids know when we care, and when we don’t. When they know we care they can be very forgiving if things don’t always go the way we plan. But if we don’t care about the time we spend with our students neither will they, and that’s no fun at all.

For further discussion please check out this post.

Please post your comments below.

December 02, 2005

What is the goal of education?

The goal of education must be excellence. To achieve excellence we must set high standards for our students, and they must strive to reach those goals. Teachers must hold the students accountable for meeting those high standards. Many will succeed. Some will fail. There are those among us (teachers) who favor equity over excellence. They believe that we must compromise our standards in order to accommodate the students who do not reach established goals. I whole-heartedly disagree. Not because “the world needs ditch diggers too,” but because I know from experience that students will only achieve when they are challenged to do so. Although some students will not master the challenge at a 100% success rate, their efforts to do so will be neither in vain, nor un-worthwhile. By keeping the standard high, the student who fails to reach the ultimate goal can still take pride in the effort they gave, and the objectives they accomplished.

It’s like the wall obstacle exercise some leadership groups use to build teamwork, mutual respect, and understanding. You know the one. A team attempts to get all of their members up and over a wall that is just tall enough that no one person can get up and over it alone. If you’ve never participated in this opportunity, next time you get a chance, give it a shot. The focus is on the fact that EVERYONE can make it over the wall, but NO ONE, can make it alone. And the height of the wall is never changed. Think about how that applies to the classroom.

I teach high school elective courses full of tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders. Each year we begin at the same place in the scope and sequence, but at very different places in both interest and ability levels. We start slow, too slow for some, too fast for others, and gradually pick up the learning pace as the year goes on. Some students who do not have the benefit of having a computer at home, or have never taken a computer course realize very quickly that they are in over their heads. (There is a 9th grade level prerequisite course to my courses, but sometimes students slip by, counselors.) Other tech-savvy students catch on right away and sometimes complain that we aren’t moving fast enough, or maybe even that they are bored. My response to them is to challenge, and sometimes assign, them to assist other students who are not as tech-savvy as they are. Their jobs are to help the others catch up and eventually keep pace. This is a very successful strategy for both types of students. Many teachers believe in peer tutoring, and I can tell you that not only does this approach to learning improve my class grade average; it also engages ALL students in the process and heightens their awareness of their responsibility to each other. “He ain’t heavy…” Together we make it over the wall and on to the next challenge.

What would be the benefit of lowering the obstacle wall? How low would the obstacle wall have to be before everyone could make it over without help? What would be the benefit of such a challenge? Would it be a challenge at all? And if not, then what would the purpose be? So that everyone could feel all “warm and fuzzy” about not needing help to scale the obstacle? So that they didn’t need the fellowship of their peers? What kind of personal growth occurs when the challenges we face, aren’t challenges at all, but mere hoops to jump through? Hoops so low to the ground, that they don’t require any “jumping” at all.

In California it feels like we are making these exact modification with the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). Educators have been told that our high school students will be held accountable for passing this test, or they will not graduate, regardless of earned credits. The year that the students will start to be held accountable continues to be pushed back, even though the regular administration of the test has been going on for some years now. It is a tragedy that a student can spend four years in high school, but not pass a 6th and 7th grade level test. I feel for the parents of these children. What does it say about the education the students receive in our high schools? How can it be that a student can pass their courses, but not pass a state test? Some districts have introduced a replacement graduate certificate available to kids who have the credits but who fail the test and still want to graduate. To me, it just seems like we are lowering our standards, and shorting the obstacle wall.

Sure there is a stigma attached to not graduating. Yes, some people will feel bad. Parents will be disappointed in their children, the schools, and potentially themselves. No one wants to feel bad. However, education is not about feelings. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. Of course self-esteem is important. I once asked a close friend and very successful coach about working with kids on the athletic field. I was coaching little league baseball and I was concerned that all my young players feel positive and confident. The expectation was that everyone should play, and that sometimes made winning even more challenging. I asked him what the secret was to establishing these feelings in my players. My friend told me that playing felt good, but winning felt great. If I was not doing a good enough job preparing my kids to win baseball games, then I was doing them a disservice. The key to success was in making sure that every player was prepared to succeed at the highest level. They all worked to rise to the level of the best players, and not the other way around. Excellent and useful advice both on the diamond and in the classroom.

Back to the obstacle wall. We teachers are the ones who either stand on the bottom and push or reach down from top and pull our students up to the platform. Our job is not and should not be to break the wall down. If we do, our students will never have the opportunity to experience the view from the top of the wall or discover what’s waiting for them on the other side. The more they struggle to scale the obstacle wall and reach the goal, the more we push and pull. The more experience a student receives, the more they learn, the more they grow. Mediocrity is derived from the excuses and rationalizations that are made once we fatigue, get tired, and quit. Excellence is achieved when we all work together to scale the obstacle wall and reach the goal, regardless of how much time, effort, or sacrifice it takes.

November 25, 2005

Spoon-feeding students?

The first and best teaching advice I received came from my master teacher, Randy Thatcher. When it came to instruction, Randy told me to “spoon feed” my students as if they were infants only able to swallow a small amount or spoonful at a time. I was getting ready to teach Julius Caesar for the first time. I was so excited about the play, and there was so much that I wanted to share, that my first day teaching the unit was something, well, special. Special to me. I was up there, doing my thing, having a great time, selling it to the audience. But the audience was not buying it. A simple case of too much too fast. Way too fast. Later I would learn to write “Slow Down” on the chalkboard opposite from where I lectured just to remind me that not everybody loves what I am teaching as much as I do. Nor do all the students begin from the same place. It’s more like a staggered track start. Even with kids you’ve had in class all year. Whether you are teaching Shakespeare or shapes, the students always run the gamut in their preparation, understanding, abilities, and level of interest. How does the teacher reach the diverse group and lead them to a common goal? Spoon-feeding.

Spoon-feeding? You mean, like a baby? Isn’t that condescending to the students’ ability levels? Plus, if we break everything down into small parts for the students, what’s left for them to do? Don’t they have a responsibility in their own learning careers? Good questions.

Yes, spoon-feeding. As teachers, it is our job to make the material digestible to students. At least it’s our job at the primary and secondary levels. Plus its just good lesson planning. Once we have reduced the content of our lessons to the smallest possible portions, then we can mange those portions appropriately for our students. Every student is different and every class is different. So being prepared with lessons comprised of components that can be rearranged based on student need means that we can effectively reach and teach the students we have. Of course, that means more work on the teacher’s part, but hey, isn’t that part of the gig? If you design your curriculum right the first time, and break it down so that you can pull out components like cards from a deck, then that job is done. Now you can focus on attending to the needs of the kids, and not be distracted by trying to “stay one day ahead” of the class. Difficult, perhaps impossible for first and second year teachers, especially with BITSA and all the other hoops they are required to jump through. That’s where the vets step in. If you are a veteran teacher and you have never offered to help out a newbie, then shame on you. Randy was one of three master teachers who gave me everything they could, and what a difference it made in my first few years.

Now I teach technology, computer multimedia. I teach kids how to manipulate images digitally, to create their own web sites, to animate using the computer, and digital video production. It’s a blast. I was guided into opportunities that have now placed me an ideal situation for me. I love my subject matter and it’s a joy to teach it to the students. However, when I started, I had no curriculum. There was nothing to spoon-feed. So where to begin? I was assigned a few video courses. I wanted to teach them like film production courses, so I went to the NYU web site. There I found lots of useful information that I adopted, and have since changed significantly to fit the needs of the newer multimedia courses.

Once I had a handle on what I wanted to teach, the next goal was to determine how best to teach it. I looked to and included the California Standards in everything I wrote. I took each unit and broke it down into parts. Then I broke the parts down into steps. I wrote each step in a lab manual that I use everyday in class. That way if a student falls behind, or wants to work ahead, it’s all in the book. In the classroom I begin with a lecture. I ask the kids to take notes, but I do not collect them. Once I’ve covered theory, background, and vocabulary, I demonstrate while the students watch. Once they’ve seen the entire demonstration, and have an accurate idea of what to do, its there turn. I cruise the room answering questions and offering tips while the students learn by doing.

Here is a link to a page where you can download the multimedia manual, multimedia lecture notes, multimedia PowerPoint presentations and another manual I wrote for leadership: Curriculum Downloads.

The rest of the time in class is spent sharing life stories, theirs’ and mine, but more of mine. Kids love to hear about the lives of adults. We all love stories. There is something about hearing someone else’s experience that makes us feel less lonely, less absurd, and for high school kids, less different. Even the high school seniors are still just babies who need to be treated appropriately.

It’s very important that we teachers understand what that means, to treat our students appropriately. One of my mentors and colleagues with 3 times as much experience as me has been known to say, “they (the students) can’t do it (the curriculum).” Harsh, but true. Students can’t absorb massive amounts of information and be expected to learn anything unless it is presented in a format that is appropriate to them. Spoon-feeding.

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November 11, 2005

Who Cares? Teachers!

Teachers care. That's why we teach. We care about our students. We care about the future. We care about our communities, our country, and our world. Caring is a prerequisite for teaching that does not appear on anyone's resume, and is not taught in any teacher prep program. Caring comes naturally to those of us called to teach. We teach because we care. Sounds so sappy, just dripping with compassion.

But teachers are compassionate. Well most of us are anyway. Compassion is a virtue diminishing in many circles these days. More and more I hear kids says, "Why should I care? It doesn't effect me," or "It's not my responsibility," and "That's their problem, not mine." True statements all, but so sad to hear, especially from kids. Where do they get that attitude? Oh wait, kids take their cues from adults, right? Teachers are adults, well they're suppose to be anyway. Parents are adults, again, suppose to be. So is this self-centered attitude a kid problem, or something even bigger?

Obviously something bigger, much bigger, and it's like a cancer eating away at the very core of our culture. It's taking away from us the things we love, and the the things we love about being people. For example, I love the football program at my high school. I love and value it so much, that for the past five years I have given up a significant amount of my weekends to support the coaches in the endeavor to build the young men who participate in the program. But the coaches are climbing a slippery slope, fighting against this culture cancer where kids are often unwilling and sometimes unable to follow through with their commitments, and easily lose heart. They let each other down, and there the cancer spreads.

Some call it apathy. A student in my classroom yesterday said a project that I work on with my advanced students "sucked." A very popular adjective among the high school crowd. That sent me. I went off on a diatribe explaining how easy it is to criticize, especially when the criticizer does nothing to contribute to the culture and community they live in. They are the takers, the destroyers, and their behavior, the cancer. I pointed out a young black girl in my class who spends everyday after school leading a step dance team. She has never, and would never openly and cheaply brand anyone else's effort to improve their community with such a vulgar expletive. I also pointed out an athlete who literally "leaves it all on the field." Two weeks ago he left the field during a game with an injury that may cost him the rest of the season. "Sucks to be him," I can hear the apathetic declare. No, wonderful to be able to suffer for the benefit of others. But that's where we are.

The lines are clearly drawn these days between the givers and the takers. The cancer runs unchecked among the apathetic life-sucking leaches who greedily seek out opportunities to grow their numbers. They revel in their own self-pity, and will gladly insult you for your arrogance in working to better yourself, your community, and your world. The same world they inhabit, waiting impatiently for the next disappointment, the next let down, the next giver to fall down into the depths of their own personal hell. This cancer is real, and spreading.

Who will fight the cancer? Teachers. The real super-heros of our age. We are the role models. We are the champions of right. We are the ones who are dug deep in the trenches of the battlefield, fighting daily the attitudes of the wicked young. Not all teachers see themselves this way. That is a problem. If teachers are not fighting the "Battle of Who Could Care Less" then they are contributing to the problem. The cancer has got a hold of them like a giant artery and is rapidly spreading to every student they instruct.

But there is hope. Good will prevail, and cancer can be fought, even controlled. It's up to the teachers to be positive optimists focused on life's loves. Teachers need to support the efforts of their students to go out and contribute to the success of their community. Teachers need to discourage the apathy, to snuff out the discontent, and to motivate those entrusted to their realm of influence to become better then they believe they can be. Impossible task? Somedays it feels that way. But if we teachers lose our compassion. If we lose that part of us that truly gives a damn, then what? If our schools are not safe-havens of hope for the future, then the cancer will truly take over.

Teachers love to point to the parents' responsibilities for their children's behavior. "What can we do about them?" I know an administrator who is fond of saying, "The only thing we can't change is the kids that we get to teach." Wow. We all live with some form of family. Families are places where life is uncontrollable. And every family is unique and different. The way it should be. School is not a family. School is a place where we can control far more of our circumstances, everything other than the "kids that we get to teach." At school we can structure our days, define our goals, and guide our pupils towards a desired result. Schools can be manipulated, families cannot. This is almost another topic entirely, but educators are influential in the lives of their students in ways that parents and families cannot be. I control my classroom and the events that occur within. I wish I could say the same for my family.

So, the teachers must fight the apathetic cancer battle in their classrooms every day because that is where the difference will be made for our students, our futures, our communities, our country, and our world. The teachers must care, sappy, or not.

October 30, 2005

Teachers Sacrifice... Right?

Teachers make sacrifices. Right? We give of ourselves, of our time, and of our resources. It seems to be a job requirement that we teachers commit every part of our being to our jobs. And sometimes it does feel like we surrender all. But is that surrender a sacrifice?

A sacrifice is something one gives that costs them greatly but returns something even better. Ancients would sacrifice animals to their gods in return for a strong rain, healthy harvest, or protection from a host of hostile elements. Sometimes it worked. Christians are required to give 10% of their income as a tithe, any more is considered a sacrifice. Most who sacrifice do it willingly in exchange for some thing or some situation they believe will improve their lives.

So too do teachers sacrifice for their students. Teachers give of themselves to improve the quality of life for their students. Whether its through imparting some knowledge, or facilitating a hard lesson in character, teachers give to the students' benefit. But is that a sacrifice on the part of the teacher? What saturating rain, or bountiful harvest or guarantee of protection do teachers get for their personal and costly sacrifice? Better put, what's in it for the teacher? Not much you say? How about those painfully long days without adult interaction? What about the great pay? And don't forget test scores. Well there are those long summers off. That's pretty cool.

Maybe it's not a sacrifice. Since we do not do what we do for the greater personal return on our investment, then maybe what we do do is not a sacrifice at all. Stay with me here. Perhaps what we are really doing is building the future. Think about it. Who else in the global village (I hate that term) is saddled with the responsibility or churning out well-behaved, disciplined, moral, value-filled, hard-working, freedom loving young adults ready to take on the responsibilities of leading the free world and not blowing the place up? Certainly not television producers, alcohol and cigarette sales people, or movie, sports, and musical talents. No. Charles Barkley said so himself.

It's up to the teachers. We are held to a higher standard. I once used the word "bitchen" in class to describe a dance that one of my sixth grade students choreographed and shared with me. She went home and shared my enthusiasm with her parents and grandparents. At a parent conference I sat across from a pair of leather-clad parents who explained that it wasn't that they didn't use the word in their own home, but that I was a teacher, and I had to hold the higher ground. It was my first year.

So do we sacrifice? Well, not for our personal gain. So, no, we don't sacrifice. I hope that doesn't upset you. I know that martyr is on the list of synonyms for teacher (not really). Here is the list from thesaurus. com : abecedary, advisor, assistant, babysitter, coach, disciplinarian, docent, don, educator, faculty member, governess, grind, guide, guru, instructor, lecturer, maestro, master, mentor, mistress, pedagogue, preceptor, prof, professor, pundit, scholar, schoolman, schoolmaster, schoolmistress, schoolteacher, slave driver, supervisor, swami, teach, trainer, tutor. I think my favorite from that list is "slave driver."

So that settles it. We don't sacrifice when we spend hours after school helping kids with make up work for classes that they missed during the day because they slept in late and Mom and Dad couldn't get them to school on time, or at all. We don't sacrifice when we give up our weekends to grade essays written by other people's children trying to help them understand the difference between a noun and pronoun. We don't sacrifice when we can't afford to buy our families they vehicle they need when the students we teach drive to school in BMWs and Porsches. No, that' not sacrifice, that's building the future.

Wow, that's so negative. I can't end it there,

May 22, 2005

What are the keys to teaching?

Patience and respect are the keys to teaching anyone. Patience first. Understanding that we are all flawed, and no one is perfect helps. We all can learn, in our own way, at our own pace. It is the job of the teacher to both learn how to reach the students, and recognize their individual abilities.

A patient man or woman is a powerful person. Being quick to listen, and slow to speak is not only divine wisdom, but also practical strategy. Too often teachers are more interested in what they are teaching, then in how best to teach it. I am guilty of this, along with most of my colleagues. Enthusiasm is important, but not at the cost of losing the audience. Taking time to get to know the student, or students is key. Discovering how they will be most successful is both an Art and a science. The more time a teacher has spent getting to know their students, the more successful they can be at delivering a lesson. But just knowing students well is not enough. Patiently learning what works best in the classroom, whether it be a teaching strategy, or beneficial example that makes a specific point, separates the ineffective teacher from those who are considered "great."

The teacher must recognize their own shortcomings and inabilities. Students always do, and usually right away. The failing teacher is the one who fails to identify their own weaknesses before stepping up to the lectern. True, I cannot help you pull the toothpick out of your own eye while I have a fence post blinding mine, but knowing that the fence post is sticking blatantly out of my face, and using it to help humanize myself in front of my students, helps me connect with them, and consequently, capture their attention, and steel their will to learn from just another human being, and not some holier-than-thou monk of instruction.

If we teachers are to successfully communicate anything to our kids we must first respect them. Combine the unaware with the disrespectful, and you have a classroom nightmare with little chance of daybreak. Students do no respect teachers who do not respect themselves, or their students. And today's students will refuse to perform, or even attend the class of an individual who treats them with anything less than complete respect. Times have changed.

I believe that we were all created as equal individuals with a purpose for our lives. Being older or smarter does not make one better; It only makes one older and smarter. But how wise is it to serve disingenuously those who we are committed to help improve? Many teachers hold their students in complete disdain. They loath the classroom and everything about it. Some are simply, "putting in their time towards retirement." What a shame. How foolish it is to lose sight of the potential of all people. However, its difficult to see the light in others, when our own lights shine so dimly.

If we are to be successful with our students, and make no mistake about it, our future depends on this success, then we must be patient stewards of the trust put into our hands when parents lovingly send their children into our domains. We must be patient, even with the least of them. We must patiently seek the best way to help them help themselves, and teach them to survive without our assistance. We must respect their individuality, and their potential. We must treat our jobs and our selves with respect, even when the world around us does not.

Please post your comments below.