December 27, 2008

Teacher Coach?

I am now a “consulting teacher” in my school district. So far my understanding is that a consulting teacher works with another tenured teacher who is in danger of losing their teaching position. Sounds to me like a teacher coach. Could you imagine marching into a colleagues classroom dressed in gray sweats and blowing a whistle? But I digress. All teachers need help to become better teachers. That includes me, you, and everyone else who stands in front of a classroom of any size full of students of all ages. Where do teachers go and how do we find help?

First, we go to our colleagues. Isn’t the first step towards recovery admitting you have a problem? Most teachers I know don’t like to admit that they have a problem in the classroom, and even less actually seek help. Sometimes it takes an outside observer to point out your areas for growth. How much time do you spend watching other teachers teach? Do you ever invite your colleagues into your classroom while you are working with your students? We teachers are full of pride in what we do so it is often painfully difficult to reach out for a lifeline.

Next, we go back to school (on the web). Teacher training is important, and in-service courses on campus can be helpful, but the real innovation in teaching is happening on the web. Within the teacher focused web sites, teacher and education blogs, and on twitter teachers can find out what other teachers are doing in their classrooms and what pedagogy actually works with pupils. For every 1 teacher who shares their experiences through the Internet there are probably 100's more who could benefit from what the authors write and share. College is good for orientation, the web is about application.

Last, we go to ourselves and write reflectively. I can’t tell you how revealing and useful it is to regularly sit down and write about my teaching experience. But you can experience the benefits for yourself. I started writing this blog to keep myself in teaching, to convince myself that what I was doing mattered. Teaching is a brutally tough and lonely profession. The best way to improve as a teacher is to persistently analyze the what, and the why of the job. I am not saying you need to become a teacher-blogger, but reflecting on your teaching is key.

These are the coaching steps I plan on taking once I am paired with a teacher in need. I have no idea how it will go, but I plan on reflecting and sharing my experiences right here. I like the idea of being a teacher coach. I suppose it is has driven me to continue to record my reflections in this blog and to seek personal improvement as a teacher. I am curious to know if anyone who regularly reads these writings has been positively effected by my coaching efforts so far. If so, please share in the comments below.

December 18, 2008

Twitter Teachers?

Twitter is an online service that allows individuals to communicate to selected groups in short bursts of information. It can be used for a variety of constructive reasons. There are twitter groups based on a common interest, like edublogging, or career, like teaching, or personal interest, like conservative thought. There seems to be an explosion of twittering going on recently, or perhaps that’s just my observation since I have only recently perched upon the branch. I strongly advocate everything that will improve teaching and I have concluded that there are three reasons why teachers should twitter: connection, collaboration, and creation.

Teachers can be lonely. Connecting with other teachers is important to our physical and emotional well being. Time with colleagues in the staff lounge or after school reflecting on the day’s experiences (war stories) helps to relieve some of the stress built up from spending the day with needy students. The problem is that no one takes the time and often there is not a physical location available to commiserate. Most teachers use computers and spend at least some time online during the day. If you can’t share a cup of joe with a coworker, why not twitter Joe online?

I am one of two computer teachers on campus. My fellow geek teaches across the street and I never see him during the school day. Sure we can collaborate over the phone or through email, but our world is restricted to just the two of us when we do. If we tweet our thoughts and ideas we share them with not only one of our former colleagues, currently teaching in another state, but also all of the other computer teachers in our followers list. Our collaboration expands beyond our physical and individual intellectual boundaries. We become a global computer department.

One teacher can create a world of great curriculum. I have spent countless hours exploring the best ways to teach many lesson plans. But I do not create my best work alone. So whenever I need some perspective, or a fresh idea, I can tweet a short message to my online teacher buddies who can respond instantly with their ideas, and share their own best practices. Together we can create superior classroom learning opportunities for students. The advantages of this type of instant creative input benefit both teachers and students alike as teachers working together build a better learning experience.

We teachers need to very seriously consider the privacy of our students, our schools, and ourselves. I write and tweet under a pseudonym (although I am not trying to hide my identity) because I do not wish to represent the views and opinions of my school or my students when I write. My thoughts, views and experiences are my own intellectual property. Nor do I ever use any of my students or colleagues names. It is simply inappropriate to do so. Twitter is a great service that I believe all teachers should use in their endeavor to become better teachers.

December 12, 2008

Mean It?

Recently, a student complained to me about another teacher’s poor classroom environment. The student observed that my colleague’s class was unruly, no one listened to the teacher, and the students really didn’t learn anything. So sad. I lamented the situation with my beleaguered pupil. Later I tried to think of some simple way to prescribe a remedy for teachers who find themselves in similar disheartening circumstances. When it comes to all aspects of classroom management from rules and consequences to bell-to-bell instruction, the single most important element for the teacher to communicate to their students is that they mean it!

When I tell my students they must arrive on time for class and that I will send them to detention when they arrive late I have to mean it. Then, when a students comes nonchalantly strolling into class two minutes after the tardy bell rings, I have to actually send them to detention. I can’t express enough how much I HATE when a student sits in detention and not in my class learning and doing. Unfortunately, it is in the best interest of all of my students that when one or two of the students are tardy that they pay this penalty because it really does encourage the other students to arrive on time.

Direct communication with both the whole class of students and individual students is another key. Looking directly into their eyes when speaking, and even more importantly, listening, reinforces that you, their teacher, mean everything that you say and that you value how the students respond. I’ve already written about the keys to success in the classroom, patience and respect. Many teachers don’t appreciate the do-unto-others aspect of receiving respect in the classroom. Teachers must respect their students if they wish to enjoy a reciprocal relationship.

I say “spit out your gum” to at least one student in each of my classes at least once a day. Aggravating beyond description. But students who chew gum in class and break my rule are not a major problem. They do not chew out of disrespect for their teacher. Students chew gum because teenagers chew gum (and sometimes I am thankful they do). My reaction is the important thing. If I make a big deal out of the fact that I am irritated by gum then my reaction, and not the gum chewing itself, becomes ammunition for devious fun.

Every time a teacher opens his or her mouth in front of a group of students they must mean every word spoken. That means that forms of speech like sarcasm and even some types of humor are not appropriate when coming from a classroom teacher. Instead of creating a common bond with the students, teachers who try to be “cool” or “down” with their speech in front of class send a mixed message. Be clear, concise, consistent and follow through with every classroom rule, assignment deadline, and promise made in front of students. Most importantly, whatever you say, mean it!

December 06, 2008

Less is More?

My previous post generated a lot of traffic and comments. It’s good that many are concerned about a fellow colleague teacher blogger, and even more are outraged at any attempt to censor our collective freedom of speech rights. Clearly there needs to be some rules concerning the confidentiality of teachers, students, administrators, and schools, but most of the blogs and edu-sites I frequent are already very careful about what is written and how individuals are represented. So I say we teacher bloggers keep writing about teaching because it’s not only good for the soul, it also makes us better educators.

As you should know by now, the “Best of…” season is upon us. This blog was overlooked, again. In my previous post I pointed out a few of my personal favorites. I believe that lists like mine (and yours) are the only ones that really matter. Not in a wholly narcissistic way, but the Internet is a big place full of great stuff and it’s just not realistic to try and narrow the choices down to a “top ten” list. It’s as absurd as Dave’s nightly contributions. But then, maybe I only feel that way because I was left out.

Speaking of being left out, I am just now getting started on Twitter. Do you tweet? You should. My twitter id is KevinBibo. For those of you who have not yet got started, here and here are two good articles I found via Alfred’s Computer Science blog. Twitter allows you to communicate to individual or whole groups of people in short bursts. It can be used as a giant announcement board, or as a way to just keep those concerned posted about what you are doing, what you’ve discovered, or what you want to share.

I write a bi-monthly column over at The Apple you can read here. Since I now have two exclusive venues to pour my thoughts into I have decided to change the tone and format of Cal Teacher Blog just a little. Anyone who has read anything that I have ever written knows that I can be somewhat, what’s the word, verbose? Ok, fine, I like to talk. Can you imagine what my students have to endure? Believe it or not I had to take the written English PRAXIS (CSET) test four times before I passed. Can you figure out why?

So I'm taking my cues from all of the above. From now on I promise to write fewer words. Perhaps an abridged blog post will go down easier? To quote one of my all-time favorite films by Milos Forman of Peter Shaffer’s script from 1984:

Emperor Joseph II: My dear young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

And again:

Emperor Joseph II: Well, there it is.

November 22, 2008

Band of Bloggers?

One of our brethren has been released from his teaching position due in part to the reflective teacher writing that he posts anonymously on his teacher blog. Instead of being reprimanded, or even censured, he’s been fired. It seems so odd to me that anyone would look at this so important part of the teacher process as being anything other than a healthy and sometimes cathartic avenue towards working out our issues with education leading to the ultimate goal of being better and more effective teachers. To me, teacher bloggers, and anyone else who writes about improving teaching, are out on the cutting edge of education because we are actively seeking to grow in our craft personally, and to raise up our entire profession.

I’ve written before about how important I feel it is for teachers to spend significant amounts of time in reflection, and even blogging. For me this blog has two significant purposes. First, it gives me an opportunity to empty my pitcher of thoughts (so that it can be filled up again). I can’t help but think about teaching often, and sometimes it feels like I lose lots of interesting ideas if I don’t write them down somewhere, why not a blog? Second, here I get to work out my issues with teaching and re-convince myself that I do love to teach and that I am a teacher. All teachers know about teacher fatigue and desensitization, writing here helps me stay focused and hopefully fresh.

There are many all-star educators sharing out on the web. I have links to many of them here on this site. While I regularly check in with this group of writers, I am really anti-social because I rarely leave comments. It’s not that I don’t appreciate their thoughts and ideas, I do. But with 6 periods at school and 5 children under 16 at home, I just don’t have time. If you are not a regular reader of these ├╝ber-talented teachers, then checked them out.

Julia G. Tompson
Joannie Jacobs*

Cal Teacher Guy
Computer Science Teacher*
Cool Cat*
The Guru’s Handbook
Matt Harmless
Right on the Left Coast vs. Frustrated Teacher*

Adventures in Teaching
Newbie-A teacher’s voice
Penny Candy

The Apple
Teacher Lingo
Teacher Vision

*Nominated for a Blog/Web Award in 2008!

Add to this list in the comments area below.

The Internet is full of opportunities for teachers to connect with each other, to share best practices, and to commiserate when needed. Writing about and reflecting on teaching is an important function of being a healthy teacher. Clearly those of us who share our thoughts and experiences need to be sensitive to and protect those we may write about. It’s important for us to band together and protect this very important communication opportunity so that we may continue to enjoy each others on-line company.

November 16, 2008

The Lonely Teacher?

Teaching is a lonely job. I am sure that is hard to imagine for those who do not teach and who see teachers interacting with people everyday. While teachers develop excellent interpersonal communication and coping skills, we mostly use them to relate to students who are usually much younger and very different from ourselves. Sure, we know lots of (young) people and are regularly recognized in public, but filling the role of instructor, coach, sage, and sometimes hero can create a personal chasm that places teachers apart from the rest of the community.

Most teachers invite, embrace, and truly appreciate their roles as teachers. Teachers are held to a higher standard as they have come to represent an ideal of a contributing member of a community and a life of service. Most teachers are comfortable in their classrooms and spending time with their students and do not resent the pay scale or the hours; they recognize the importance and the real impact of the job. Effective teachers are able to forgo some of their personal needs and focus their attention on their students.

I am the center of attention (after the computers) in my classroom. Six times a day the room fills up with expectant young minds hungry for the knowledge that I am serving. Young people are wonderful sponges who love to soak up all manner of interesting and relevant facts, methods, procedures, tips, tricks, and even personal stories that they can recognize as useful in their lives. The majority of students adore the majority of their teachers and often enter their classrooms with a kind greeting and polite smile. The teacher-student correlation is a beautiful thing.

However, teachers work alone in a vacuum devoid of adult interaction through the majority of their days. Unless a teacher is team-teaching, or working in close proximity to a classroom of another teacher where there is common area or easy access, a teacher may not see another adult for many hours, or if by choice, the entire day. Not good. Just as children of all age groups need to spend time with their peers at school, so too do adult teachers need to spend time with their colleagues during the school day. Successful teachers require the daily encouragement of other successful teachers to continue to be, well, successful.

Unfortunately, opportunities for teachers to spend time collectively during the school day are usually not incorporated into the bell schedule. There are some exceptions, and schools who make the effort to give teachers time to work, share, commiserate, and even laugh together reap huge rewards for their students. But in schools that deny teachers the time to come together regularly whether it be in pairs, small groups, of as a whole staff, many teachers retreat into their classrooms, shut the door, and just teach. While an understandable reaction, this is not the best way for teachers to grow in teaching.

We teachers love to teach. So no mater what the intended focus of the teacher time the conversation will always come back to teaching. It’s who we are. Don’t think so? Then why are you spending time reading this teacher blog? Are you lonely to connect with other like-minded souls? What’s cool about a blog, in fact all of this web-based social networking stuff, is that there are exciting new ways of connecting with a broad spectrum of other people just like you regardless of location. It may surprise you that very few of my colleagues that I currently teach with know that I write these essays, and none of them follow this blog.

I recently came to the realization that while I may be well known in my small corner of the world, very few people actually know me. Even though I write incessantly, participate in many social arenas, and have many friends, very few of those relationships dive deeper than the surface. Maybe this is true for everyone, or maybe its just me. Perhaps I block those deeper relationship opportunities (but enough psychoanalysis). Sometimes when I am teaching a group of students, and things are going well, I think in my mind that it doesn’t matter that it’s ME who is their teacher, but simply that SOMEBODY is teaching them. Those are red flag moments when I need to pull aside a colleague and friend to check with them and to make sure that my efforts in the classroom are not in vain.

I invite you to leave your commiserate comments below.

October 18, 2008

Cal High?

As the oldest high school on its original campus in California tries to find its way through the maze of current educational reforms so that it can stay on the top of most “best of” lists and maintain both its API and AYP the answer to too many questions has been more middle management. A mistake made time and again in the business world is now being made in education. Of course there is a need for educational leadership on the public school campus, but I believe that this leadership should come from classroom teachers raised up into leadership roles without taking them out of the classroom.

Anytime a teacher steps away from the classroom and into a support position of any kind they lose touch with the most important part of teaching: working daily with students. Only when a teacher is teaching do they truly know first-hand what it means to fight the good fight daily. Once they are out of the ring (or the octagon) their experiences may remain valid, but teaching kids is a fluid and dynamic experience that changes moment to moment. If a teacher is not in the moment, they are disconnected from the teaching experience, and lose their ability to make meaningful and effective changes.

You see it on the university campus all the time. Professors of Education have great theories about education with very little application. Theory is nice. Every great teaching method works great on paper, but the test is in the classroom, and not the lecture hall. Educators can sit around and talk all day about pedagogy, but that conversation has little to no effect on the relationship of teacher and student in the classroom that is necessary to ensure that the students actually learn something.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t want to be an administrator. I am considering a PhD in Education, but only if I can keep teaching in the public education classroom. However, I do have an idea of how I would want to run my campus if I were a principal. Here’s my plan for “Cal High”.

There are only two full-time administrators at Cal High. The Principal is the educational leader on campus in charge of Curriculum and Instruction and master schedule. That is all. The principal works daily with teachers in classrooms and is highly visible and known to all students on campus. All educational reform ideas generated from teachers filter through the principal who makes sure that the teachers are all on the same ship heading on the same course. The Assistant Principal is the public face of Cal High. Their responsibilities include building and grounds, testing, attending all district and public meetings and security. Who does the rest of the usual administration of the campus including attendance review, counseling and discipline? Teachers.

The teachers at Cal High teach four periods daily. Their schedule includes a conference and preparation period and a period for administrative duties. The teachers administrative duties lie in the attendance, counseling and discipline of their own unique set of 20 to 30 students. These students stay with the same teacher for all four year of their high school experience. The teacher meets with his or her students regularly either on a pull-out basis during the school day, or during hours structured into the day before, during or after school. Imagine a seven period schedule where teachers instruct for four periods, prep for teaching during one period, check on their small group of students during one period, and then have an additional time, say 15 minutes of so, to meet with their small group. Simple.

Many teachers get frustrated with their administrators. Administration is a brutally time consuming and challenging job taken on by brilliant and well intentioned former teachers who wish to have a more global effect on their campuses. This is good. Unfortunately, many administrators get caught up in the management and loose touch with both the teachers, and more importantly, the students. Some are seen as outsiders attempting to force their will on the proletariat. This is not good.

I think that many campuses would benefit from fewer fulltime administrators and more teachers taking on small portions of the administrative responsibility while they are still teaching in the classroom. Sure, it might mean some more work for the teachers, but I believe that this structure would be better and more effective for educating the students. After all, we are all educators.

October 01, 2008

Who do you teach for?

Most teachers love teaching. But not all teachers teach for the same reasons. Teaching is a difficult, challenging, time consuming, exhausting, sometimes discouraging, often frustrating, and at the same time wonderful endeavor. Think about whom you are working so hard for. Choose from the list below, or add to it, then leave your comment stating why below.

The Students?
The Students are perhaps the most obvious response. Teachers have a need to fill a need and the students bring their needs to class everyday. Students bring their need to learn, to be recognized, and to be cared about. Most compassionate people are moved by the innocents' need to be supported in many different ways. And there is a great deal of satisfaction to be gained by participating in the improvement of another individual.

The Parents?
Some teachers teach for the parents of the students they teach. You might not agree at first, but in the end, who are our clients? The kids? Well, sort of, but really it’s their parents. The parents decide where the child goes to school. The parents complain to the teachers, or the principals, or the newspapers when schools fall short. And the parents pay the taxes that ultimately pay our salaries (if working in a publicly funded school).

The Administration?
No tenured teacher would willing admit it, but we do answer to our administrators. The administration of most schools consists of the educational leadership of the campus. In addition to providing support for the teachers, they also work with curriculum, scheduling, textbooks, and other needs teachers require to do their jobs. If the administrators are not happy, the teachers are often not happy.

The Paycheck?

Be honest. Getting paid to teach is a huge motivator. Some days I still can’t believe I get paid to do what I love. You can bet that if teachers didn’t get paid, they wouldn’t teach. As much as I love teaching, I could not afford to teach for free. Where I work in California teachers get paid fairly well, not so for many other states. In some states teachers need two or three teaching jobs to pay their bills. But teach they do.

The Individual (You)?

Teachers have a deeply personal need to teach. It’s not always the same need, but it is close to the core of who they are as people. Maybe it’s part of our DNA? There is an undeniable motivator that keeps us going to class everyday, dealing with the classroom management issues, staying up late correcting student work, and other challenges that most “normal” people would reject out of hand.

My Response

I teach for all of these reasons (cheap answer, I know, but let me explain why). I enjoy spending time with students while they are actively engaged in the discovery and learning process. I feel like the time I devote to teaching people to be better people is time well spent and a positive contribution to the world around me. I also teach for the parents. Being a parent I am sympathetic to the needs and desires of parents to ensure that their children receive a worthwhile and useful education. It’s important to me to be accountable to the guardians of my pupils. In addition, I teach for my administrators. Not only because my administrators are responsible for my evaluations, but also because they are the “educational leadership” of the campus, and if I do not follow their leadership then I am not being an obedient servant. While I am in no way completely satisfied with the leadership of my administration, I am thankful for their efforts and their support to my students, my classroom, and me. I recognize their efforts and share their overall vision for student success. Having a large family I also appreciate getting paid to work. Teaching pays me just enough to stay in teaching and not seek employment in the “real world.” Plus working as a teacher feeds my pathos. I will not deny that I need to teach as much as the students I teach need me to educate them. Honestly, I am afraid that I would be miserable in any other profession, and I am in no hurry to find out.

Teaching gives me a great feeling of personal satisfaction and puts meaning into my life. That’s important to me. Others may be able to detach from their professions, but being a teacher is huge part of how I define myself. I teach for me.

September 04, 2008

Individual Support?

I am a parent and a teacher. No, I don’t think you have to be a parent to be a teacher, but sometimes the insight provided by being both a parent and a teacher helps me both parent and teach. It also helps to have a child who is the same age as the children that I teach. Because I spend time with my son, seeing school through his eyes, I can sympathize with my students just a little bit better. Life ain’t easy for kids these days.

Teachers guide their students along the journey of discovery that these young explorers must travel during their school-age years. These are wonderful days for individuals to discover who they are and to begin the process of actualizing their discovery. All along the way, each and everyday, every students learns a little bit more about who they are, what they are good at, and what they enjoy. They also find out who they are not, what they are not good at, and what they do not enjoy. It can be an emotionally polarizing experience, but fundamental to the process of self-discovery.

Teachers shepherd their students along their individual paths while building them up with knowledge and empowering the students with self-confidence. We provide opportunities for success and celebrate with our pupils when they do well. However, the same opportunities may lead to failure, and we commiserate with our kids when they fall short. It is both wonderful and painful sometimes at the same time as we teachers invest in our students and fly or fall right alongside them.

My son is entering his sophomore year of high school. He is excited by all of the opportunities available to him through sports, academics, arts, and clubs and wants to participate in just about everything. He, like so many other students I teach everyday, is immersed in the process of self-discovery. As my son samples the smorgasbord of high school life he is naturally learning about himself and where his talents lie. As his teacher I am enjoying watching his future unfold before his eyes; as his father it is pure agony.

I am use to the teacher role where I work with children everyday to guide them along. As a teacher I can recognize a student’s strengths and weaknesses and help them to realize what directions and avenues will fit them best. I teach elective courses at a variety of levels, some focused on the general population, and some that specialize. It is never a struggle for me to look a student in the eye and tell them that the advanced courses I teach simply are not for them (and this the exception, not the rule). Sure, the student may be disappointed for a short period of time, but ultimately it frees them to discover their strengths. Other times students who I believe show great potential quit, or choose to explore a different path. Either way, these kids go home to their parents.

My son recently chose not to continue with an opportunity presented to him at school. He participated for about 6 months, and then decided to quit. As a teacher I respect his decision and how it fits into this discovery process. But as his father I am concerned. Not because I think he made the wrong decision, he never had a passion for this pursuit he was really just exploring, but because I’m not sure what happens next. As a teacher I trust that he will find his way to something else. As his father I wonder what next thing is and how long it will take him to get there.

As teachers (and as parents) it is important that we recognize the individual in each of our students and children. Our pupils are individuals, each with their own road to travel. As teachers we are lucky that we can separate ourselves from the pupils somewhat during these periods of trial and error. Parents, sorry, you’re in to it much deeper with your own kids.

When I spoke to my son’s advisor about his desire to quit, the advisor (who is also my dear friend) was concerned for my son, but readily accepting of his choice. It was the right position to take. Teachers need to support their pupils and empower them to survive through the journey. Our job is to make sure that our individual students achieve a strong sense of self are ready to face the world with confidence.

August 13, 2008

Seating Charts?

The seating chart: some teachers love them and use them, others do not. I find them essential. Many teachers seat their students alphabetically (either A-Z or Z-A) in rows. Others use groups of desks, or tables and assign seats after allowing the students to find a chair of their personal preference. Seating charts are VERY USEFUL for the mundane everyday tasks of taking role or handing back work. The biggest benefit is that it helps to learn all of the students’ names quickly. Plus they add a method of organization to the classroom management plan that is tested and proven to work. Here is an innovative and highly effective strategy for creating a seating chart with the kids on the first day of school.

I teach heterogeneous (9-12 grade) high school classes. My classroom contains 36 seats grouped around computer tables (or pods) of 6 workstations each. When teaching groups like this that contain experienced high-schoolers right alongside newbies I believe that it’s important to take advantage of the schism. Therefore I do not allow all the upperclassmen to coalesce, nor do I allow all of the underclassmen to mill around not making eye contact with anyone else. I believe in the strengths discovered in a diverse group so I work hard to take advantage of the diversity in my classes. If you teach strictly homogenous age or subject-alike groups then this seating method might be challenging to implement (but at least it might be fun to give it a try.)

The first item on the first day of school is the taking of role. Second is the seating chart, yes before the reading of the curriculum paper. I like to do the seating chart next because it can disrupt class for a time and I want them settled and paying at least some attention to me when I read through the class rules. Actually the “reading of the rules” takes a couple of days in a computer classroom. Using computers to teach can be very rewarding for both the students and the teacher, especially when plugged into the Internet. However, this also means that there are far more ways to get into trouble, and therefore far more rules then in a standard course.

The first step for setting the seating chart of six students at six pods is to take some class data to the whiteboard. I start by counting up the number of boys and write that number on the board. I then count the number of girls and write that number of the board. I then count the number of students at each grade level and write those numbers on the board. Then we do some math. We divide the number of boys by six to figure out how many boys should sit at each pod. We then do the same with the number of girls and with the four class levels. Eventually we come up with a description of a balanced and diverse group of 5-6 students for each pod. Simple, right? I love math for its logic and clarity. However, applying mathematic results is an entirely different task.

The next step falls solely on the shoulders of the students. They must now arrange themselves in the groups we described. This exercise requires the kids to do something they are very comfortable with in most every other situation, but not on the first day of school with a group of unknown peers: they must TALK to each other (cue the scary music). I actually love watching this part because I get to stand back and enjoy. Most of the time, a senior or two will take control and begin to organize. Sometimes this sorting-out can take a few minutes, sometimes longer. Eventually they settle in and I go around to check accuracy. Only very rarely does a class get it perfect. Most of the time there are one or two tables that I need to balance myself.

Setting the seating chart this way has multiple benefits. First, no one student can argue about their seat, they picked it. Next, it’s a great icebreaker. I encourage peer tutoring throughout the projects we complete in the course. Finally, it also establishes the authority of the seniors in the classroom. I believe that it is important for the senior students to take ownership of their leadership role during their senior year. Senior students can and should be wonderful mentors to the younger students in the classroom and on campus.

August 01, 2008

Thoreau's Lessons?

These are my two favorite passages from Henry David Thoreau's Walden: Or Life in the Woods published in 1854.
"We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

"Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify."
"I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

May 25, 2008

A Working Classroom Teacher?

I subtitle my blog, “A Working Classroom Teacher” because that is what I am, working. Teaching is hard work and those of us who teach work very hard indeed. Sometimes the work is in the planning, sometimes in the instruction, sometimes in the guidance of students, and sometimes the work is in figuring out what works best for us as teachers working with our students in our classrooms. The beauty of this last type of work is that the answers are not universal, and what works for me may or may not work for you. As you read through my essays remember that what I write is for ME. If you can take something positive away from my working process, great. If not, maybe even better. I believe that each individual teacher needs to figure out what works best for them, and then do it.

I know what kind of a teacher I am and where my strengths and weaknesses lie. I reflect on my teaching. I don’t need to be critiqued, reviewed, or judged by anyone else. In fact it’s embarrassing when administrators walk into my classroom, stay for five minutes to observe as I am working with students, and then leave me a “report” concerning how well I am doing. Please. My point is that teacher reflection is up to the teacher and you are your own best critic. If you feel that you are not being effective in the classroom then it’s time for YOU to start working harder to achieve your goal. If you are failing large numbers of students each semester then YOU need to figure out how to reach them better. If students are sleeping in your classroom during a lesson then its time for YOU to jazz it up a bit. A good place to start improving is research on the web reading about what works for other teachers, reading books about teaching written by teachers, and experimenting with different strategies in your own classrooms.

I find it interesting that the articles I have written that include “easy steps” or begin with “How to…” in their titles get more traffic and comments while other articles focused on the deeper meanings and motivations of teaching get less. Nothing can replace working out your own classroom issues on your own. No book, website, conference, or class can give you experience; and experience is the superior teacher. It’s equally true that some are born teachers, some made to teach, and others have no place in the classroom influencing children. I have no idea what category you as a teacher may fall into here, but you do. I have discovered that I’m no mechanic so I no longer tinker with my automobile. I won’t even change my own oil anymore. I take my truck (of course I drive a truck) to a professional and long-time friend. I know enough to know that I don’t have the talent or the aptitude to work on engines and such. The idea of me working in an automobile repair shop is as absurd as my dear mechanic friend stepping into the classroom to teach. Unfortunately, many people who are not teachers believe that they do possess the skill sets required by the classroom.

The process of discovery is important for teachers. We ask our kids to discover or learn something new everyday. When was the last time you made the same progress within your subject or area of specialty? I was told by a veteran art teacher once that teachers who teach any type of art need to create art alongside their students. Not only that, but that there is real value in teaching something for the first time as the teacher is forced to learn right alongside their students. Excellent advice. Unfortunately, once I discover something that works, I tend to stick with it. It’s a logical choice. But teachers who go too long without changing, adapting, and improving lose their relevance and their grip on the imaginations of their students. I believe this is one of the reasons why some state’s salary schedules are tied to the number of units the teachers take through the passage of years. The more new stuff teachers learn the more they can teach to students.

If you are new to teaching and still discovering the profession then I want to encourage you to keep working at discovering and learning everything you can about the teaching process and experience. Hard to do if you are not yet into a full-time teaching assignment, but not impossible. If you are not on contract then I suggest substitute teaching. I discovered more while substitute teaching then I could have ever learned in any teacher education class or from any book or website. The work of becoming a teacher and earning the certification is complex and time consuming. Young teachers are being asked to do more and more before they are eligible to solo teach. I believe that this vetting process is a good one as it achieves two goals: first it weeds out the pretenders, and second it gives young teachers more time to evolve and grow into master teachers.

If you are a veteran teacher and you consider yourself a master then I want to encourage you to keep working on your craft and to keep discovering new and better ways to have a positive impact on your students. In a way the new teachers have an advantage over us veterans. The new teachers enter the classroom prepared with the most relevant research, methodology and pedagogy proven to work for kids. True, most of the research was completed by the older guard, but its always good to get a fresh perspective from the youngsters. Writing opportunities like this are one way veterans can both share their experience and work out their issues with a transparency that all teachers can benefit from. That is why I write and will continue to discover as a working classroom teacher.

May 09, 2008

Settle Down?

“Relax and quietly sit in your seat.” There is nothing more challenging for a teacher than starting class off on the right track. It often feels like trying to change the course of a steam ship with a wooden paddle. But it’s not impossible to start off right and stay on-task for the entire class period or school day even with the most difficult populations of students.

You’re the Boss!
One of the biggest mistakes that inexperienced and ineffective teachers make is to plead with their students to respond. It’s a horrible practice. You are the teacher and you are in charge of your classroom of students. Period! A teacher should never beg his or her students to be quiet, to settle down, or to get to work. A weak instructor who will not show leadership in their classroom is bad for students and bad for education. Understanding that there are as many different teaching styles as there are teachers out there and that some teachers have a more authoritarian style while others use a more passive approach, I believe that ALL teachers must LEAD their students through the learning process. And teachers should never ask their students whether or not they want to reply.

Easier said then done, right? The key to engaging students in learning from the moment the bell rings is excellent and comprehensive preparation for the class by the teacher. Over-plan the day and leave no time for distraction. I can tell you that the classes that I teach that are the most difficult to motivate and corral are the classes that I have prepared for the least, or are the ones that I have put the least amount of effort into teaching (yes, I just admitted that I try harder to teach some classes than others, don’t you?) This is why young teachers often struggle early on with difficult groups of kids: the young teachers are just not as prepared to teach as the veteran teachers. A great way to start an outstanding learning experience is by using a collection or “sponge activity.”

Absorb The Students!
Madeline Hunter gets the credit for the idea and it’s a great one. We were supposed to be taught how to apply sponge activities in teacher training, but the examples are often generic and may or may not be effective in our own classrooms. A useful sponge activity is one that engages student interest and is connected to the subject matter. Students walking into the classroom should find the sponge activity written on a whiteboard or clearly and consistently visible somewhere obvious in the classroom. The activity should be self-directed by an individual or small group. It should also be timed somewhere around 10 minutes or less. While the students are working the teacher can check attendance and complete any of that oh-so-important preparation for class.

An example of a sponge activity that I have used for years is called “6-facts.” I teach in a computer classroom, but this activity could be modified to use a textbook instead of the Internet. I use this with my entry-level students to get them involved and active in the class work. I write a subject on the whiteboard. It’s usually a person, place, or thing. The students walk in to class, find the topic, and get to work searching the Web. My classroom is arranged with six “pods” of six students. Each pod must find six different facts from six unique web addresses. The group shares a single piece of notebook paper where they write down their findings. One student from each group then goes to the white board and writes a fact and a website from their group. The group paper is submitted for scoring. Once a fact and a website are posted, they may not be repeated. After time has elapsed (or six facts appear on the white board) I go to the board and review what the class has learned about the topic today. From there I transition into the day’s lesson. It’s a beautiful thing.

If you want some ideas of other teacher’s sponge activities, just do a web search for “sponge activities” (use the quotation marks) and you’ll get a long list. You can borrow another teacher’s ideas, or use their ideas as a starting point for your own.

Smooth Transitions!
Transition time is difficult for all students. Some cope a little better then others, but holding on to the attention of a class full of kids when moving from one topic or activity to another is painfully difficult. Many students are easily distracted by change of any kind (think substitute teacher days). One way to combat this distraction is by using a regular daily class routine or schedule. This routine can be the same everyday or each day in the week (i.e. Monday schedule, Tuesday schedule and so on.) Time must be set-aside early in the year to teach the schedule and give students the opportunity to learn and adjust. Sure, it may seem boring and predictable, but boring and predictable is often the best type of learning environment for kids because it’s known, safe and reliable.

Once the schedule is established transitions can be smoothed out for students by avoiding sharp turns in favor of more gradual, sloping, bridges between events. The teacher must give ample warning and instruction before allowing the student to move on mentally or physically to the next planned activity. The teacher must treat his or her students like children, guiding them by the hand, using age-appropriate language because they are children, even the high school seniors.

Students will respond to and follow a teacher who demonstrates educational leadership in his or her classroom. This type of leadership starts with excellence in curriculum preparation and comprehensive scheduling. Packing the day or hour with lessons and activities that both engage and stimulate the student will guarantee that the students will stay involved and focused on the tasks at hand.

April 30, 2008

Tell Your Stories?

Kids love it when their teachers share stories about their lives. I’m not exactly sure why, but I can remember being a young student and loving to hear about the experiences of my teachers, the mistakes they made, and the lessons they learned. Taking advantage of an “educational moment” and sharing how a certain event changed our lives can sometimes have a larger impact on the lives of our students then when we teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic.

I remember Bob Farley, my high school algebra and geometry teacher. Mr. Farley was a veteran of World War 2 where he served as a tail gunner. Bob loved to share his adventurous stories about the war and other experiences from his long life. When I was a student in Bob’s classroom he was self-described, “older than dirt.” On days when we students didn’t want to work it was relatively easy to side track our beloved instructor by asking him to tell us about his life. Mr. Farley had a sense of humor too; and I loved to test it. One day he began class by saying, “Class, who was the world’s first stupid woman?” Being unable to stop my immature self, I stood up and responded, “Your wife!” The class was silent in anticipation of what would follow. I knew what was coming next (it hadn’t been the first time I had spoken out of turn) so I picked up my backpack and head towards the principal’s office. I was shocked when Mr. Farley started to chuckle, then instructed me to sit down. I did. Bob then began again, “Class, who was the world’s second stupid woman?” A classic moment.

Bob Farley was a classic, sophisticated, caring, sometimes charming teacher and male role model in my early development who not only taught me how to calculate, but also how to be a human being. Bob respect his students enough to want to share his lifetime of experience with them and “teach them something.” And I learned a lot from him. I learned that I never wanted to stand in the back of a flying aircraft behind a wall of glass shooting at other flying aircrafts. He once told us that he was sent to the back of a plane that did not have a machine gun. His commanding officer handed him a broomstick and told him to act like he was firing at the enemy planes. What an amazing man.

Mr. Farley wasn’t the only teacher who devoted a part of his lesson plan to the lessons of life. I have been fortunate to have many teachers throughout my scholastic career willing to share their wisdom with the students. There was the English teacher who was also a published author, the band instructor who had played in the USC marching band, and I’ll never forget the college economics instructor who literally “wrote the book.”

At an early age I learned to listen to the adults in my life and glean understanding from the experiences they had. I’ve always tried to use these lessons to avoid making the same mistakes as others. I regret to report that I’m not very successful in my endeavor. But this approach to life is worthwhile and worth teaching to our pupils along with the “three r’s.” I hope the days of “don’t trust anyone over 30” are dead and buried and that today’s educators can make a concerted effort to not just educated the young, but impart wisdom to our future leaders as well. How do we make our students wise? We share the wisdom that we have gathered by explaining how we got wise: we tell our stories.

Perhaps hearing about our lives reassures our students that their lives will turn out ok. These are turbulent times and it’s brutally difficult to be young. In fact, it’s downright scary. Many children feel alone and lost in the world. The family structure is being warped and twisted as our society struggles to find and redefine itself. Violence, drugs, and predatory adults are invading the solemn ground of our campuses at an alarming rate. Where can our young people turn for security and a protective wing? Kids today are hungry, starving for the undivided attention of the adults in their world. They covet our time and are in need of our guidance. It’s kind of difficult to impart wisdom when explaining sentence structure. We need a different medium. I suggest taking a break from the standards from time to time to explain why standards are important and how your personal standards have changed your life.

There is no doubt that one generation inherits both the successes and failures of the previous generation. I want to make sure that the generation that I teach not only receives a well-rounded academic education, but also a strategy for living that includes wise decision-making. We are always standing on the shoulders of giants. We stand upon our mother and father’s shoulders just as they stood upon our grandparent’s. So far this metaphorical human pyramid is pretty secure. I want make sure it stays that way.

So I tell stories. I share my life’s experience with my students. Not everyday, but from time to time I pause to share a lesson that I’ve learned and the experience that produced the lesson. I try to use humor as much as possible and share age-appropriate antidotes when they fit. Nothing gets the attention of a sleepy group of youngsters quicker then an amusing recollection of someone who they admire concluding in a fable-like ending that clears up their foggy world, if only for a moment.

It may not be included in the scope and sequence, and there may not be a standardized test designed to measure the wisdom that you impart to your students, but in my opinion, sharing your wisdom (and teachers are very wise indeed) is at the very core of our call to educate the future leaders of our world.

April 23, 2008

For Love of Teaching?

It is generally believed that teachers are supposed to love what they do and sacrifice for their job. We teachers are asked to spend our days educating other people’s children in everything from letters and numbers to Latin and neurons. We wipe noses, tie shoelaces, replace forgotten lunch money, and even console youngsters when they are faced with the harsh realties of the world. We share our wisdom and our wit, we entertain and we enlighten. Teachers are Homo Universalis or the Renaissance Men and Women of our times. And for some children we are the only responsible adults they will ever know. Our job is a diverse and complicated one for which we are expected to volunteer our extra time and dedicate our passion for learning while working at a “cost of living” wage.

Most teachers I know do not teach for the paycheck, the benefits, or the schedule. They teach for the love of teaching. They love working with students, they love spending their days in the classroom and not the office, and they love how they sleep so well at night knowing that their days’ efforts were not spent in vain.

Yet there are days and times when I reflect on this job and career that I love and all I want to do is pick up my ball and just go home. If it weren’t for my families need for food, clothing, and housing, I might even just outright quit. What makes me so frustrated are the sometimes bizarre ways that schools are run, and the many times backwards, inefficient, and illogical way education itself operates.

What I most resent is the attitude of some people that teachers should just do what we are told and love what we do just because we get to do it. The ignorance of non-educators about the depth and complexity of teaching others is mind-boggling. The attitude that any adult who has ever held the hand of a child can teach them to read, write, sing or even calculus is insulting. But we the teachers all know better.

The fact is that we are willing to sacrifice for our jobs because we do love teaching. We know the joys of those moments when we realize that in a small but significant way we have changed the lives of our students. Sometimes it through teaching a fact or equation that opens the door for further understanding for a student. Other times it in sharing a life experience that ensures the child that things really will be Ok. Every once in a while it is having our own lives changed by the sincerity or honesty and caring of one of our pupils.

A law enforcement officer recently complimented me for being a teacher. He shared that he couldn’t understand how high school teachers put up with those little darlings day in and day out and that given his experience with some of today’s youth he respected my endurance. I responded that high school kids were really a lot of fun to spend time with, and that most of the students I taught were very well behaved in my classroom. I suggested that the individual cases that he interacted with were in fact the exception.

What I most love about teaching is being in the daily presence of the developing individual. I get to see students grow intellectually, emotional, and even physically over the course of four years. Most start out as frightened mush-headed knuckleheads. When they graduate they are young adults with their eyes wide open ready to take on the world. And I get to not only share but also participate in their optimism and hope for the future. It’s awesome.

One of my former students who recently finished his AA is applying to a handful of universities. He had an interview this week with UCLA for one of their high-profile programs. He came to see me before the interview for advice on everything from dress to facial hair (I told him to shave.) I also passed along this little gem: eat an apple 15 minutes before the interview. It helps to calm the stomach and will prevent dry mouth. Plus I think its just good eating. Anyway, my cell phone rang during class right after lunch on Friday. My former pupil had just completed the interview and wanted to share the results. Now tell me, in what other job does someone get to enjoy this type of mentorship?

Oh course, mentorship also means that you endure your pupils’ hardships as well. Life is difficult for everyone. People struggle. It’s brutal to have to watch those you care about muddle through the challenges in their lives. Sometimes growing up is a painful experience. It’s painful for the child, and its painful for their supporters. And the more students that you teach in your career, the greater the chance that you will be affected by the difficulties of some of the lives of those you educate. It’s inevitable, difficult, and yet somehow comforting to know that from time to time you will participate in and positively contribute to the maturity of another individual.

There is just something cool about participating in the improvement of others. Much like doctors, pastors and therapists, teachers get to see individuals grow right before our eyes; and not just one or two but whole classrooms full of them. Not only that, but we get to guide and influence that growth. It’s amazing when you sit and think about it. If we are the pebble and our students are the ripples in the pond then just think about how far our influence will go in their lives. I still reflect on the influence of my schoolteachers and that was a VERY long time ago.

So when you consider that huge impact that teachers have on their students, and by extension the world, then maybe we should just simply be thankful to have the privilege of being teachers.

April 19, 2008


The single most important element of a successful classroom is a teacher who designs assignments that keep the students engaged in learning. It helps if these assignments are also fun to complete. Disciplines issues including acting out, tardiness to class, and even failing students can be minimized and maybe even eliminated IF you, the teacher, think innovatively and make a focused effort to keep your students actively engaged in the subject matter and the learning process. Oh yea, it will make you an even happier and more productive teacher as well.

But how? How in this world of standards, standardized testing, exit exams and formative common assessments is there any time to spend on being creative when designing assignments for students? I’d like to suggest that you can both meet the objectives and be creative in your assignments. Here are few things to think about.

Authentically challenge the students.
Regardless of ability or learning level, all students can be challenged to improve, even within the same assignments. First, their assignments must be meaningful to them. As their teacher you need to learn about who your students are as people. This might be challenging to do at first, but the more time you spend working in the same teaching assignment with a similar population of children, the more you will get to know who they are, what they love, and how they work. Once you do, you can begin to tailor the work you give to fit the interests and experiences of the kids. For example: if you are an English teacher assigning a biography essay allow the students to chose subjects that they relate to. Sure you may end up with a dozen biographies of 2-Pac, but that’s acceptable so long as the kids are writing and completing their essays. In a history class you might allow the students to research their family history. In math you might take them outside and have them measure whatever they see. And the list goes on.

Second, you the teacher must set the achievement bar as high as possible and really challenge them to reach it. Don’t make the work too easy. If the student is not challenged to grow they will not grow. Embrace the standards and show examples of truly outstanding student work. Share your confidence in their abilities and urge them on to greatness. But your job does not end at the distribution of the assignment.

Give them support.
As your students strive to reach their goals, help them along they way. I often describe myself as just another human being on the road just a few more steps ahead of my students. My job is turn back and help guide them along the path a little ways. It’s important that your students believe that you believe in their abilities and potential to succeed. Of course, in order to be convincing, you really do need to believe in your students’ success. You can bet that they will know if you are pretending to believe in them, and they will resent it, and you. Good luck trying to motivate that classroom. But support is more than just motivation.

Teachers support their students by guiding them through step by step processes that will successfully lead the students to their goal. Some educators criticize “spoon-feeding” their students. I believe in it. By giving the pupil just enough for them to swallow or absorb instead of bombarding them with instructions and information works very well. Plus, by leading the kids step by step towards success, they learn the process well enough to repeat it on their own. This method also works with a variety of different learning levels. Students can work at their own pace when they know where to place their next step. The longer I teach the more I breakdown my assignments to smaller and smaller pieces. It might be micro-managing, but I watch the kids get better and better at learning each year. And they retain more too.

Hold them accountable.
Assessment is important. Meaningful assessment is even more important. Sure, there are times when a check plus, or a check minus is appropriate, but most of the time, students need more feedback then that. I like to write notes all over the margins, between the lines, and anywhere else I can fit them on my grading rubrics. I make sure that every aspect of the assignment is worth some points, even if it’s only one or two points. That way when the students study their rubrics they know that there is no area to fudge and no corners to cut. I don’t assign “busy work” either. Meaningless work equals time wasted on meaningless grading. Students resent wasting their time as much as teachers do.

Consistency is also crucial. Sticking to hard deadlines and subtracting a percentage of points for late work tells the students that their work matters. Holding your self accountable is important too. There is no excuse for not returning graded work to students in a timely manner. The best is a 24 hour turnaround, but that can’t always happen. All teachers were once students and we all know how annoying it is for an instructor to sit on your work and not hand it back within a reasonable amount of time.

In my opinion its important that kids enjoy school and that they have fun learning. It’s equally important that the teacher enjoy teaching and sharing their wisdom and the learning process with his or her students. If the teacher hates the assignment they give, there is no way the students are going to embrace it. Even the work that is mandated by the district or the course scope and sequence can be made to be engaging if the teacher is willing to find out how. Students who are engaged in their assignments will work harder to complete them and put forth their best efforts. The result will be smarter students, higher test scores and happier teachers.

March 24, 2008

Spring Fever?

It happens this time every year. No, I’m not talking about the exhausted crash and burn landing into spring break. I am talking about contract renewal time. That time of the year when teachers have to decide, “Do I really want to come back and do this again next year?” It’s easy to sign early in the years, especially before tenure kicks in. But as time goes on, and one year starts to blend into the next year, the signing of the contract becomes a symbolic milestone when I sit down and seriously reflect on what exactly it is that I am doing in education as a teacher? Am I still an effective educator? And is this really the place I want to be 12 months from today?

It usually starts for me much earlier then the moment I actually have to sign or waive my contract renewal. Generally by the start of second semester I have begun the process of actively looking around for a new job. Some years its in teaching, some years in other professions. I suppose it’s a healthy thing; questioning my purpose in the classroom and desire to continue. After 12 years in my current position at my current campus, you’d think I get it into my head that this is where I belong. But I can’t avoid the process, and in many ways I think going through the job hunt and interview procedure helps me to refocus my efforts back into my own classroom. Kinda like testing the waters and deciding its better to stay on the island.

Last year I found my “dream job.” One of my all-time favorite places in the world is the central coast of California. If you’ve never been, go soon. The people are friendly, the scenery is breathtaking, and the weather is amazing. My grandmother spent her last years in the area and I spent as many weekends as I could afford visiting with her and soaking up the environment. In January of last year I found a job post for a Drama teacher at one of the local central coast high schools. I started my career as a Drama teacher and I’ve never lost the desire to teach Drama full-time. So I applied. I got a call for an interview and with great excitement and anticipation I refreshed my resume and got all gussied up to go. I was sure that the job was mine before I even sat down with the Principal and interview panel. Although I felt very confident and shared by authentic enthusiasm for the position, I was turned down. I was disappointed to say the least. My dream of moving my family to paradise was gone. But after I got over the rejection I took a deep breath and refocused my efforts back into the job I was actually getting paid for at the moment. When contract renewal time came, I gladly signed my contract for another year.

And what a year it was! In the months that followed I got word that funding had finally been secured for my classroom to received a completely new set of computers. I had been working with machines that were at that time in their 7th year, and in desperate need of being replaced. New machines meant new software which meant new curriculum that I had to write. So my summer last year was filled with hours of research and writing to prepare for this school year. Things with the new machines didn’t start off so well. While the district was willing to provide funding for stuff, they were unable to find funding for technical support. So I was left on my own with the one-day-a-month support of an engineer from Apple. Thankfully, we worked out all the issues by the end of the first semester and now things are working great.

Then the fever hit again. This time it was a job in my second favorite state, New Mexico. I have a long family history in the area, although no immediate family history there. I’ve always want to live and work where my ancestors made their start in the United States. I was randomly looking around for job posts when I found one that fit me like a glove. An almost exact match to my current position. I went ahead and applied without a second thought. Again I got a call to interview, but this time I paused. (You could say I blinked.) I paused because I knew that if I was in fact the chosen candidate for this position at this new school far away from where I currently work and live I would not be able to follow through and take the job. I knew that deep down in my heart I was just pretending, and that the place that I really belong as a teacher and an educators is exactly where I am now. In other words, the fever broke. Before I left for spring break I signed my contract for one more year.

I suppose the saying, “The grass is always greener,” is true. As a young teacher I looked at the seasoned guard as being somehow weaker or less innovative or less successful if they were in the same assignment or in the same classroom for a long period of time or even a career. My very first year as a high school teacher my classroom neighbor was a gentleman who had been teaching the same subject in the same classroom for the past 30 years. “That will never be me!” I told myself. However, I no longer see teachers like this as failures. Teaching is a very difficult job to endure. Sometimes it helps to look over the school yard fence and think about what it might be like to play on someone else’s grassy field. But for now, I know who I am and where I belong, and that’s where I plan to stay for awhile longer.

March 16, 2008


Do your students understand your assignments? Do they know exactly how they are evaluated? Is your grading system clear and clean? Are you sick of students asking, “How much is this project worth?” Do you use a rubric for evaluation of student work? Do you give your pupils the evaluation grading rubric ahead of time? Do you issue regular progress reports on your own? Do more students pass your class then fail your class? How transparent is your evaluation process and your approach to grading your students?

In my first year of teaching high school I shared a group of remedial students with another teacher. When grading time came we sat down to assess our students’ progress. I brought my grade book, as did my partner. We went through the roster, student by student, sharing our individual semester scores. I offered my numerically calculated objective evaluation. My colleague also shared a number in the grade book, and then added comments like, “well, he didn’t work that hard, so instead of a B I’m going to give him a C+.” Shocked, I innocently asked, “Can we do that? Are we allowed to change a grade based on our subjective evaluation of the students’ effort in spite of the earned and recorded mark?” My collaborator told me, “sure.” While I DO NOT personally condone such grading practices I will not criticize those who do grade students in this manner. However, as an advocate for kids, I want to suggest that all teachers strive to be as transparent as possible in their approach to assessing their students.

In the school of education credential classes that I teach I recommend using rubrics to grade student work. When I started teaching teachers I used rubrics occasionally and never shared them with students. Since teaching rubrics to others and advocating their use in the classroom, I’ve made a more focused effort on using them more often. Now I experience clearer teacher/student communication and improved student performance. And my rubrics have gotten more detailed as well. In the past, I used a few general categories with arbitrary point values. Now I break every assignment down into multiple specific categories and line items assigning smaller values between 1 and 5 points to each area of evaluation. I give the students the appropriate rubric as soon as I give the assignment. Now as the kids work they can self-grade.

That’s only the half of it. As a result of using more detailed rubrics, my assignments have become clearer and cleaner. Once upon a time I might assign an essay and simply state, “Tell me about your summer vacation.” Now whenever I assign just about anything I include much more specific information like, “Your essay must include 5 paragraphs of at least 5 sentences each. You must use correct spelling and grammar. Be sure to put your name date and period number in the upper right hand corner. Write the heading ‘My Summer Vacation.’” I teach in a computer classroom, so I can also add, “Use a 12 point font, 1” margins, and double spaced lines.” This way I can take each one of these smaller instructions and evaluate students on whether or not they met the assignment criteria. By embedding these instructions clearly in the assignment, and in the rubric, students know exactly what is expected of them.

It gets better. By using this approach to the giving and evaluation of student work, the students can self-grade. I include a check-off list as one of the columns on the rubric. As students complete their work they literally check-off what they have completed. When all the checks are placed, the assignment may be turned in. At the very least the student can feel confident that they have fully completed what they were asked to produce, and I no longer have to return what I cannot assess because the child left their name off the paper or forgot a heading. Helping our pupils to develop this type of self-assessment is a great way to help them in many areas of their lives and their futures.

Many students today have a very difficult time with backwards planning or backward design. They are unable to see the goal and work in reverse to find a starting point that will help them reach their desired target. As teachers we do this instinctively all the time. I learned it from producing plays. First I decided what I wanted the production and the experience to look like in the end. Then I made choices that I believed would lead me to my ultimate vision. It doesn’t always work, but having the goal clearly in mind makes it easier to develop the steps required to get there. We teachers have the benefit of giving our assignments more than once, so each time we see the student make an attempt, and struggle in a specific area, we can make adjustments to help them along the way. By analyzing our assignments in this way we can strive to make them more understandable and as a result, offer students the opportunity to produce better results.

The regular grade reporting cycle asks most of us to total up points and turn in a letter or numerical grade about once a month with semester grades being issued twice a year. That’s good communication with students and parents, but we can do better. Many students at my high school carry around a “Friday Report” every Friday and ask their teachers to record a mark and to list any missing assignments. Sure, it’s a pain when you’ve got 4 or 5 or more to fill out each hour. However this type of regular communication with students simply adds to the clarity of the assessment process. Sadly, those who most need these weekly grade check-ins usually don’t ask for them. Anything that we can do to help all students to teach themselves to be attentive, productive, contributing members of our world is worth our time.

March 09, 2008

Swing Away?

I teach an advanced production course to high school students. It’s a brutally difficult class, and I don’t try to make it easy for my students. Two groups of ten students each have two weeks or 10 class sessions (less than 10 hours) to create their own 10 minute television program. Their work is viewed by the entire school of 3500 students, teachers and staff (Ok, not all of them tune in, but they could if they wanted to.) The “Friday Show” airs on Fridays and the advanced class watches and critiques the show immediately afterwards. The critique is aided by an evaluation sheet the students fill out while watching the finished show. The ensuing discussion is usually led by me or one of the students. The first question is “What did you like?” Students raise their hands and offer their positive reactions. The follow up question is “What will we do differently next time?” Again, the students raise their hands to offer their constructive opinions. Recently I’ve added, “What can we do to make the Friday Show better?” This question has enlisted some even more positive and constructive ideas from students who might not normally speak up. Asking students to evaluate their work in this manner forces them into higher-level thinking rarely experienced in the high school setting. It’s a very good thing. And each week the show improves because the STUDENTS identify their own weaknesses and collectively create an action plan for improvement. I know this model doesn’t work for many high school or even college courses, but I encourage you to look for opportunities for public presentation leading to real assessment of student work. It simply makes them work harder and strive to improve more.

On a Friday not long ago while critiquing the students’ work with them in this manner I was grasping for a relevant way of expressing my reaction to the quality of work the students had produced that week. My mind immediately went to the climatic scene of the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs when Mel Gibson’s character, Rev. Graham Hess, while confronted with an alien being about to kidnap his only son tells his former baseball playing brother while reflecting on the dying words of his wife that immortal line, “Swing away Merrill. Merrill… swing away.” For those of you who have never seen the film, I won’t reveal what happens next (but you can imagine). I thought to myself, that’s it. The kids had bunted, when they should have taken a full swing. (A bunt is a half-swing at the ball for you non-baseball fans.) So I told them, “Guys, you bunted. Next time, swing away.” That same group presented their Friday Show this week. Full swing, hit the back wall.

How often do you tell your students to “swing away?” As teachers we all have expectations for the students in our classrooms. Those expectations can be as diverse as our student populations. But how often do our expectations require our students to take a full swing at their assignments? What do we really expect from them? Do we really respect them and their potential? Think about it for a minute.

In the current day and age of NCLB education including standards, standardized testing, common assessments, API and AYP there is a huge push to teach to the test. I don’t have any problem with that approach so long as we don’t lose sight of our goal: building people. We need to do more in our classrooms then simply build great test-takers. However, the opportunities to strive for more then that are few and far between. It is easier for an elective teacher like me to talk and write about project-based learning and challenging students because I have no common assessments and my scope and sequence is somewhat more flexible. But elective courses are quickly being replaced by remedial courses for students struggling to pass the exit exams and as a result, more of the “thinking outside the lunchbox” load is being placed on the core subject area teacher. As a core subject area teachers with a heterogeneous grouping of learners and everything else piled on top of you, it simply may be impossible to create assignments like the one I described earlier. But then, that’s not my point. My point is, just how much do you really expect from your students not matter what the assignment? Do you expect a homerun every time? Do you ever expect a homerun?

For example: packets. I hate them. But, assigning packets for students to complete can be an effective and efficient method for getting the job done. I don’t like packet work because I see students in my classrooms sharing answers on a regular basis. Not much learning going on there. Packet work doesn’t require much of a swing but it will get you to first base. Another example: multiple choice tests. Sure you can write very effective multiple choice test and there is certainly nothing easier for a teacher to grade. But what kind of higher-level thinking do most multiple choice test require from the test taker? I’ve often heard them referred to as “multiple guess.” Hmm.

We want our students to be successful both in our classrooms and in their lives. If we teach them well in their youth they’ll be well prepared to take care of us in our old age. I want to encourage all teachers to design their curriculum in a way that not only authentically challenges their students to learn and grow, but that also includes opportunities for them to “swing away” at their assignments. Sure, they may strike out. Remember, the learning experience from a strike out can often be more beneficial them simply bunting to get on base. And just think of how amazing it will be when one of your students, your pupils, your prodigies actually knocks one over the fence! That can only happen if you, their teacher, gives them the chance.

February 17, 2008

Teacher Reflection?

I feel that reflection is something that an effective educator does instinctively for themselves. Take this blog for example and the fact the you are reading this blog post. We are going through the reflective process together without having to be taught in a credential course or in-service day. I see reflection as one of those things hard-wired into a teacher. If you are not the type of individual who automatically spends time considering the how and why success or failure of your time with students in your classroom then perhaps teaching is not for you. Reflection is also a highly individual process as unique as the teacher. Some teachers take notes, some record themselves teaching, others pass out surveys to their students (I’ve done all of these). Others simply pause from time to time, even while teaching, to ask themselves, “Is this working?” If you as a teacher don’t take time to post-mortem your day, your week, your quarter, or your year in the classroom, then you simply will not improve as a teacher.

The Notebook:
I write my own lab manual. (You can read more about it here.) A student copy sits at every workstation in my classroom. I also keep a copy in a 3-ring binder open on my desk at all times. As the need arises I make notes to myself in the margin or on the blank backs of pages. Notes include highlights of lectures and assignments that worked well, errors that need to be adjusted, and stuff that simply bombed and needs to be reworked or cutout completely. Every summer I update the lab manual from these notes taken throughout the year. 36 copies each year cost about $100 total and I reuse the binders. So each fall the students get a freshly updated curriculum and the improvements build upon themselves year after year. I got the original idea from one of my instructors in grad school. His suggestion was to take notes in the margin of your lecture materials and to review your notes just prior to giving the lesson again.

Video Journal:
Setting up a video camera in the corner of your classroom to occasionally record yourself teaching can be an awesome tool. Many teacher ed programs now require some recorded teaching time as part of the student teacher or internship process. Just as athletes use video of themselves to help improve their athletic performance, teachers can use this type of footage to see themselves through the eyes of their students. Sure, it can be uncomfortable to watch yourself on tv, but it can also be a quick and accurate way for you to identify your weaknesses and begin the process of improvement. An even better idea is to invite a veteran teacher to sit down and watch the video of your teaching with you. The more experienced teacher can use the pause button to stop at critical moments and offer you tips and pointers in a way that could never be done while the students are sitting at their desks in your classroom staring expectantly at you. And just think, if it goes really bad, maybe you could win $10k on the funniest video show.

Survey the Students:
Another very effective tool to use is a survey of specific questions that you write and give to your students for their response. Kids will tell you point blank how you’re doing. Obviously you need to consider your audience very carefully when you write the questions for you students. Ask your high school students questions like: “What was the most interesting part of this weeks lesson to you?” or “Please rate the difficulty of the assignment this week on a scale of 1-10.” or “What can I do as your teacher to improve your interest and participation in this course.” For younger aged children you would need to make appropriate adjustments. I’m always caught by how honest students will be if you ask them, and how useful their comments become if you take them to heart. Sure there will be some responses that you’ll simply have to dismiss, and you’ll always get a few who simply state, “I don’t know.” But this type of direct inquiry can be the most effective tool for personal professional reflection. After all, the students are your focus group and finding out exactly what they think of you might hurt sometimes, but it’s the best place to start making improvements.

Data teams, yuck! Our core teachers are spending a lot of time these days analyzing data in the form of test scores from common assessments and standardized tests. This type of box-score analysis is very useful in identifying the standards addressed in test items that may not be covered well in classrooms. But is there anything more uncomfortable or that makes a teacher more defensive among his or her colleagues then sharing the entire departments’ scores on an overhead so that results can be compared? Of course it’s important to teach accurately and specifically, but when this information is shared in a group setting I’m just not sure that it’s the most effective form of reflection.

Quarter and semester grades are another good indicator. If 50% or more of your students are failing your class then perhaps the problem is not the students. Think about it. The teacher is there to teach the students. If the students are attending class regularly, completing the assignments, and still not passing its probably not the students’ fault.

Peer observation is another great way to learn how well you are doing. Try inviting a colleague to come in on a conference hour to observe you in action in your classroom. Then set aside some time to discuss your performance with them over lunch or some other casual meeting. This type of informal reflection can yield the greatest benefits of all as together you flush out what works and what needs to be improved upon in your efforts to educate your students.

February 04, 2008

Nuts and Bolts?

I don’t write much about the nuts and bolts of teaching. Mostly thats because I feel like its already been covered… extensively. But I do think that there are four major areas that ALL teachers should focus on if they desire to be effective in the classroom. Those four areas include: relationship, management, instruction, and assessment.

Relationship: How a teacher changes the lives of their students.
Why start with relationship? Why jump right in with the warm and fuzzies? Well, my experience is that students simply respond better and work harder and achieve more when they know that their teachers are genuinely concerned about the success of their students and the quality of the students’ lives. This can be expressed through a variety of styles and approaches; everything from the drill sergeant to the namby-pamby. It’s not how the teachers expresses their interest and concern for the students, its simply that the teacher communicates clearly with their pupils that they matter, that their success not only in class, but also in life is important, and that each and every child can and will make a significant contribution to the world. Not all teachers are loved, but then, that’s not the point. They don’t have to like us, and we don’t always have to like them. I write a lot about the importance of relationship because I am convinced that it is at the core of my success with students, and why I keep getting so many coming back to visit me. Those alumni recognize me as an individual in their lives who not only saw their potential, but also gave them an avenue to achieve what they only dreamed was possible.

Management: How a teacher prepares the environment, the curriculum, and the experience that they provide to the students in their classrooms.
Students cannot learn in unorganized chaos. This should be obvious. Every teacher credential program teaches about rules, consequences and consistency. That is a good thing. Every classroom should have clearly stated, posted, and enforced rules that govern the behavior or EVERYONE (yes, even the teacher) between bells. But effective classroom management transcends the rules and regulations. How the rules are established, and by what means they are enforced is less important than how the teacher engages the student in learning. Students who are actively engaged in the learning process have no time to throw paper, go to the bathroom, and annoyingly touch each other. Sure, there are always a few in every class that never seem to get it. And yes, it is vitally important that those who do not wish to play along are publically addressed and that the rules are enforced. As teachers we have to hope that someday these knuckleheads will understand that its way more fun to operate successfully within the rules then it is to rebel and be left standing cold and wet out of the pool. Your classroom management style should reflect your own learning style and be comfortable for you, the teacher. If you are relaxed in your classroom excited to be there and ready to work, your students will be too.

Instruction: How a teacher delivers the content through effective and engaging teaching methods that challenge the students to reach beyond their personal expectations.
I believe that the best defense is a good offence and that offence is established through instruction. I also believe that less is more. The nature of project-based courses is that there is less talking and more doing. That doesn’t work for every subject. But in every subject there is always a way to strike a balance that avoids the monotone hum-drum direct delivery of difficult content, and that can be both exciting and invigorating for the students. The first step is the teacher’s passion for the subject. I’m not passionate about Physics so I’d be a lousy physics teacher. However I have a colleague who is drop-dead crazy about physics, and his passion is so intoxicating that his students leave his classroom everyday craving more. Born from his passion for the subject the physics teachers has discovered a method of instruction that turns one of the most difficult subjects taught on campus into one of the most popular courses on campus. We have similar teachers for Latin, AP European History, and Statistics. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to instruction so don’t be afraid to experiment a little. There’s nothing worse then the teacher who is stuck in the book lecturing for 53 minutes every period while their pupils doze off into the abyss of boredom. C’mon, change it up a little.

Assessment: How a teacher determines the effectiveness of their instructions and makes appropriate adjustments to better develop their students abilities.
The onus is on the teacher to do everything in his or her power to provide the students with real opportunities to experience success, or failure. Assessment comes in many colors and flavors, all good. And like instruction, there is no one best practice to always use. I see assessment as an opportunity for kids to experience real-world success. Sure, it’s easier to grade a multiple choice test, or assign an essay, but those are only two potential methods. I like assessments that force students to not only show what they have learned, but also apply that new information. I also like to asks students to work together to problem solve. Strict deadlines and sharing their work publically such as on the web, or even posting it in the classroom (the work, not the scores) is always effective. An assessment that does not offer students an opportunity to fail is useless. Teachers who are afraid to fail students do the failing students a real disservice. When a child receives a D- they are often not required to go back and analyze what they did wrong. Whe whole experience is dismissed and little or nothing is learned. Any activity that better prepares kids for what they will actually face as adults is good assessment to me.