Monday, October 20, 2008

Closing the First Quarter

The last week of school is coming to a close. I really like what I did with the "Elements of Fiction" unit and how I am wrapping it up. By this Wednesday, I should have 67 original short stories that are ready to be published. What I have read so far looks really good and I am looking forward to settling in with some light reading this week.

If I do this again next year, I plan on getting the kids to start their story proposal earlier in the year. I may make their weekly writing assignments mirror the the short story skills, and create a portfolio a bit earlier. And I am particularly pleased with how this project illustrated the "writing process" for the kids. Instead of me droning on and on about how they need to write rough drafts and then trying to enforce it, they had real experience from the Digital Story Telling project to understand the value of revision and editing.

Finally, I think this project had helped break them of the "how do I get an "A"" attitude and more into "how do I do something brilliant." Oddly, I found myself channeling Tim Gunn from "Project Runway."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Digital Story Telling for the Digital Age - Conclusion

It is always a great pat on the back when a lesson comes off well. The Digital Story Telling lesson fits nicely into that moment. In the end, the kids were tricked into doing the "writing process" while having a great time. When you see kids staying after school and asking for more time to complete an assignment, you know they are really getting into the heart of the lesson. There is that mysterious line where it blurs between education and fun; where one cannot tell if the are learning because they are laughing or laughing while they are learning; when the teacher fades from the front of the lesson and the student truly directs their own process.

After the week was over I had 67 unique stories to listen to. Some were a little better than sitting at the neighbor's house watching slides of their family vacation and others revealed deeper views into the life of a 13 year old. Once student worked out his trauma from a near drowning incident and another shared the death of her dog. One did do the "family vacation" thing and made it into a revelation of why her family meant so much to her. Even the head of school wandered through and was visibly impressed by the kids work. If you are looking for a lesson that makes you and your students seem like geniuses - give this a shot.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Digital Story Telling for the Digital Age

One of the challenges from our Headmaster, as I may have mentioned before, is to prepare our students for the 21st century. Mostly, I am trying to get them past the eighth grade. One might think that I would just stick to the classics: make them digest and vomit back novels that they hate, write essays that are only more tedious to grade than to write, and do my best to help them hate their own language and heritage. Well, it's a good thing that I teach in a private school where George Bush and his No-Child-Left-Unpunished brigade can't get to me.

For millions of years (or only a little over 5ooo according to Governor Palin) humans have told stories to other humans. Only five minutes ago I told a story to my wife about how I proposed. Over time all of these stories change, from Gilgemesh the King to the fact that I forgot to mention that I proposed over camp tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. In my class, my students are working on telling their stories; only they are using the technology and the medium of the 21st century as opposed to the camp fires of yore.

This project started out as a neat idea I picked up at technology conference. A nifty way to get students to become more engaged in the writing process. They use found, created, personal, or staged images to tell a story that lasts about 2 minutes. The software is free (Photo Story 3) and the main ideas come from a non-profit called The Center for Digital Storytelling. I have a few days of mandatory computer lab time with the 8th grade English class; which was scheduled by our IT person whilst she goes on vacation. This is actually very, very flattering because she told me I am the one person she knows can leave in the lab and she will never be missed. So put all this together and what do you get?

So far, a great experience. Basically, I discovered that I am tricking them into engaging in the ever elusive "writing process." Because they are not going to write an essay, which, academically, is the equivalent of a hen laying an egg, they can't "fake it." Come on: you know who you are - the ones who wait until the night before, smash it out, hit spell check, print it, and turn it in. Now they have to actually brainstorm, discuss with peers the better and worst parts, and then revise their story. If I say I don't get it, they look at me like a bug; but if their classmate says they don't get it, they start scribbling away and trying to make it more clear. I am, in effect, using peer pressure to against them.

Tonight they are story boarding their ideas and generating a list of images they will need. Already, I have heard the "oohs" and "ahhs;" seen the light bulbs go off; got that warm feeling of pulling off a real lesson that will yield real results.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Meetings, Meetings, Meetings

You know that Summer is over when you sit though that first meeting of all faculty. Fortunately, I find our headmaster funny and appreciate the fact that our meetings are about growth and the school community - not how to properly fill out Form 527-z as opposed the old Form 527-j. We reviewed our summer readings in mini-book club formats and I think it is a testament to our school community that even the new faculty felt free to speak up and voice their opinions.

I have sat through worst.

More Stuff Teachers Need:
-a toothbrush that lives in your desk for the middle of the day
-extra extension cords
-hand sanitizer
-Clorox(tm) wipes

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Velcro and Hermit Crabs

A few words were spoken over the final resting place of Hermit Crab #2 and a moment of silence followed by myself and another teacher who was passing by. The dead fish smell was the final give away that it was not molting, as I had hoped, but moved onto a better place. Luckily, one can get anything on the internet and two new crabs are being fedex-ed as I write this post. I have already asked the receptionist to be on the look out for a box marked "live animals" and to not be alarmed. I ordered two just to hedge my bets - is that wrong?

Sixth graders arrived today for their orientation with a few new 7th and 8th graders in tow. I was in my class listening to Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" on audio books (great story so far - very subversive for kids!), tacking up more wall decor, and making sure my A/V system works. I poked my head out just in time to overhear on of my rising 8th graders who, acting as guide for the newbies, informed her charges that I was to be their English teacher. I reminded her to tell them that I was also mean and made kids cry; however, she summed it up best by just saying "...and he's weird."

I read "A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future" by Daniel Pink for my summer teacher reading. I love it because I tend towards right brained thinking. The Science and math teachers don't seem to appreciate it as much - go figure. I highly recommend skimming it and dog earing the "portfolio" sections as they have great lesson ideas for ANY discipline.

Stuff Teachers Need:
  • Lots of Velcro
  • Access to a laminator
  • Scotch and masking tape
  • Collection of markers, colored pencils, and paper
  • Music
  • A tablet-style computer and
  • A Fujitsu "Scan Snap" scanner ( instant scanned PDF files directly to your computer and and literally as fast as snapping your fingers)
  • Pictures of your students that are small enough to fit on a standard sized sheet paper (I am visual, so my seating charts have my students' picture as well as their names on them to help me connect one to the other)
  • pictures and personal items on desk to show that you are human
Always ask for an "educator's discount." when I got supplies and stuff for our classroom's Hermit Crabs, I asked for and received a special discount on the spot from Petco just for asking. It never hurts - I even got new tires at 10% off just because the guy at the desk's mom was a teacher.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Velcro and the Beginning of the School Year

It's that time of year for all teachers to shake off the summer, be it all those little jobs we have to do to make ends meet or an actual two month vacation that they promised us in graduate school. For me, this was the first summer I have had off in over five years. Other than strengthening my online game playing skills, I am actually rested and psyched for the new school year. And on top of that, I am returning for a third year - the longest I have been with any school to date.

I have already ran into students form last year who are taller than me ad chatted with my incoming students for this year. As opposed the to the one parent who questioned my selections for summer reading, these young people were very excited about reading a book that they could actually relate to (thanks Dr. Bushman - I never doubted you!).

So how to get ready? For my third year, I actually feel better prepared on the one hand and still feeling my way on the other. Some routines I will keep and others will be either new or modifications of older ones. I am sure that all new and veteran teachers alike have their list of things to get done and for me it is still a work in progress.

Summer Prep Work
At the very least, I got to catch up on my reading. As opposed to summers past where I was training camp counselors and fending off middle camp management types, I actually got to take time to read stuff for me and keep up with what my students are reading. I had the chance to take a technology seminar to prep my "paperless classroom" model, get my first quarter planned out (more on that later), and learned a new word : luddite. I built a small, portable stage for my Shakespeare Unit and put together new tables for my classroom. And in between, my better half and I moved to an apartment on Campus top save some bucks - now my commute is 2 minutes of walking to school.

Getting the Class Ready
I love velcro. I spent this afternoon slaving over a hot laminator machine covering all my wall hanging in protective plastic. A few snips on a roll of industrial velcro, and now everything that goes on my walls stays until I move it. I have velcroed wires to walls, speakers to wallsm pictures, pens, and assorted toys, etc. Buy this stuff - and you will wonder how you got along without it.

I purchased trapezoid shaped tables and currently have my seating arrangement in a narrow "U" shape. The plan was to make the tables low to the ground and have the kids sit on floor pillows for greater comfort; but alas, the pillows are not working so this year they sit in uncomfortable school chairs. Maybe next year. I have my class guidelines up and the consequences for anyone who has difficulty with them. I have portraits of authors and poets from the past as well as some choice student work to offer as demonstrations for this years 8th graders. The one new thing I am bringing in is something living. Plants would not do too well with me, so our classroom will home to two hermit crabs who are yet to be named. Although, there may just be one little crab if this other is not, in fact, molting.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Censorship and Summer Reading Lists

What does a teacher do when that teacher assigns a summer reading book that a parent objects to? I find it amazing that many of the parents at my school have college degrees and therefore, like many such parents, feel that entitles them to be armchair experts on what and how to teach. Of Mice and Men or Romeo and Juliette are considered canon and there are rarely objections to bringing them to an 8th or 9th grade English classroom. All this despite that one frequently uses the "N" word and the other dramatizes teen sex and suicide. Bring in a contemporary young adult writer like Chris Crutcher, and suddenly there is concern for the delicate minds of our children. Our task is to create a situation where students can become comfortable with writing and reading.

Here is how the logic and illogic goes. Nancy Atwell asserts that young writers need to be exposed to a variety of literature, and many of us would agree. But should it be Byron or Bloom? Should we teach the "Greats" as canon - preserve the cultural and historical heritage of the Western World? Or should we teach literature that deals with the individual and developmental experiences of an adolescent? Who would your 8th grader relate more to: Anne of Green Gables or Melinda from Speak? I would argue that Mellville is one fo the greatest American writers of all time, but do I really want my students to write like him? And how do we work with the enthusiastic readers who will take to anything we set in front of them and the reluctant ones who will are looking for any excuse to not read? Anecdotal and real research seems to concur that a strong connection exists between the stuff kids read and the writing they are asked to do (Blasingame and Bushman 2005).

I, for one, decided to follow Dr. Jack Bushman's advice ( to ballance my reading lists in and out of school between contemporary and classical works of literature. For my rising 8th graders I asked that they choose between two contemporary works (one aimed at young women and the other at young men) and to choose any two other books from a recommended reading list that included a wide variety of authors. Two e-mails so far: one because her daughter already read one and was not interested in the other and another parent who felt the material was "too sensitive" for a 13 year-old boy. The former is a student who reads through books the way fish move through water so I gave an expanded list from the American Library Association and the
Greater Boston Cooperative Library Association. Easy enough. The other parent was concerned about the sensitive subjects, how could they be adequately covered, and that she would not encourage him or any other 8th grader to read this book independently. Other than questioning my ability and credibility as a teacher, she got me thinking about how to deal with those parents who will call into question what tools we choose to use for our lessons.

Ultimately, I found out her concerns were more about whether or not the book's issues would be addressed as opposed to objections of the book itself. It still poses the sticky issue of how much say parents have over our choices. If a parent objects to a book for any reason and wants satisfaction ranging anywhere from removal of the book to alternate choices, then does that amount to censorship? How do we respond and still retain our credibility as professionals?

Ultimately, quite a bit has to do with our individual schools, dept. heads, administrators, and communities. Dr. Bushman gave me some very sage advice that I will pass on to anyone who finds themselves in this quandary.

1. Ask the parent if s/he has read the whole book. What parts give him/her problems and why.
2. The the best argument is to site the qualities of the book:
  • Great development of the characters.
  • Plot complex for that age group but not too difficult
  • Topic of the book is of interest to your students.
  • Reviewed by reputable review publications.
  • Nominations for awards.
  • Awards earned.
3. You can also speak to the reputation of the author.
  • Other critically acclaimed novels
  • Achievement awards for the body of his/her work.
  • Additional credentials (e.g. Chris Crutcher is a former family therapist)
  • Widely read by teens in middle and high schools throughout the country.

4. If the parent still persists, have them fill out the NCTE form on censorship: (

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Learning to Ask the Right Questions

Not mine, but a very interesting story from a fellow blogger, A Voice from the Middle, about why we go to school. The title of his Blog is:

Sunday, May 04, 2008

learning how to ask the right questions...

Since it is National Teacher Appreciation Week, I thought I would write about a teacher that had the greatest impact on me and actually formed my understanding of what it means to be a teacher.

Back in 1989 Dr. John Loveland was the head of the Management Department at New Mexico State University where I got my bachelors degree (remember that I started out in the business world) and taught one of my senior level courses. Well on the first day of this class he stood before all of us and simply asked:
"What is the purpose of going to school?"
Naturally being all highly educated students, everybody shot up their hands with answers like: "to learn information", "to master a field of study for a future career", "so we can make gobs of money" (there is one of those in every crowd), etc, etc, etc. Dr. Loveland said nothing and simply called on us one by one until everybody who wanted to get a chance at trying to impress our new professor got a chance.

Then when the last answer was given a silence fell on the class and he just stood there slowly shaking his head and said matter of factly:

Everybody always thinks that they go to school to learn information and that is just not true because chances are good that you will forget most of everything you learn in your classes. Besides, we live in an information age and there is no lack of "information". When you get out in the real world and want to know something, all you have to do is look it up.

The reason you go to school is to learn how to ask the right questions."
Of course this answer took all of us by surprise and we just sat their looking at each other with the same puzzled look on our faces as if somebody near us just passed gas (yes, just like the face that you are making right now because you could not resist giving it a try). He continued:
"You go to school to learn how to think for yourselves and how to be problem solvers. When you graduate and start your career you are going to be confronted with different kinds of problems on a daily basis. With any luck your education will have taught you how to analyze the situation and to ask the right questions that will solve those problems. If you do not know enough base knowledge or how to think, you will never know what information you need in order to reach your desired outcome."
Well without a doubt, that little 10-minute lesson instilled in me a new appreciation for education. Ironically, I am now an educator myself and at the beginning of every year I too ask the same question of my students. Now at 8th grade not all of my students are the deepest of thinkers but I have to say that when I give this little talk, the vast majority of them get it.

I love asking my former students, "do you remember what I told you was the purpose of going to school?" and without exception, even years later, they always come right out and say:
"To learn how to ask the right questions!"
So on this National Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to tip my hat and thank Dr. John Loveland, a management professor who really gave meaning to me being a teacher.

Thank you Dr. Loveland...I will never forget you. Not only did you impact my life, but now your wisdom will live on for generations to come through my students.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Applied Psychology and the Quandary of "Fairness"

In a recent NPR (National Public Radio) broadcast, the "Kojo Nnamdi Show,"the issue of fairness was raised in the "Department of Human Behavior segment. Granted, they were talking mostly about employers and employees (pertinent to teachers and administration, sure) but one can get some insight into what it may mean when our students complain about life "not being fair." for more information, check out the Washington Post article, "Sense of Fairness Affects Outlook, Decisions."

Our students may be onto something concerning a deeply set sense of survival that creates the foundations of ethical behavior, character development, and altruism.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

...Our Revels Are Ended

So I come to the close of my second year at my school. It feels strange to pack up my room "as if I were not returning."

Under the leadership of a new Head Master, there are many new things to become accustomed to: policies, procedures, and habits. Personally, I am not bothered as I started at the same time he did, but the veterans who have logged the years sure do get rankled. As we did not get our contracts promptly and there was a mysterious e-mail message from Buildings and Grounds (a major player in ALL schools) left not a few of us checking our sixes. B&G asked that we pack up our rooms "as if we were not returning" which could leave one wondering if the powers-that-be were sending a subtle message. which, of course, they were not. They just want to be able to paint rooms and do maintenance without disturbing anyone's stuff.

Here's the thing, folks: if you don't know what is going on in your school, then ask. Changes are hard, and leadership changes can be the hardest in a school: but they do not have to be. If your principal/headmaster says they have an open door, then take them up on it, walk in without a chip on your shoulder, and ASK FOR THE STRAIT STORY. You just might be surprised to find there is a logical explanation and you have given the other side an opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. If they shut you down, then you have valuable information and should probably reconsider your future in that school. Otherwise, if you do not take them up and associate with the grumblers, you should also reconsider your future at that school. You don't need to toady up to administration, but you do not need to purposefully get on their bad side.

Having experienced "regime" changes at various educational organizations (not just schools) I have always noticed three camps start to form. One camp is almost always the "old-timers" who tend to be the most resistant to change; another group is the newer folks who usually started with, or just prior to, the new administration; finally, a group that tends to stay outside the issues. Oddly, all three groups tend to be motivated by similar trends: fear and opportunity. Not so much fear of change, but fear of what that change will bring. And every time there is a space between one leader and another, there is opportunity to be had.

The first group tends to be led by faculty that have been with the institution for quite some time. They arm themselves with the shield of "tradition" and wield the sword of "experience." These are not just "old-timers" and "veterans," but anyone who believes heart and soul in the history of the institution. They seem to be afraid that the change will dramatically alter their place in the school. I think they are right. A new head of school will naturally be curious about how their new school works and if a teacher has had tremendous success, then their curiosity will lead in that direction. Very few of us who have established our methods enjoy having those methods questioned. Yet any teacher worth their salt should, in theory, be able to account for how they do their job. If the teacher in question has been coasting, then they do have a lot to fear as a good principal will see through any slight of hand. If, however, a teacher knows why and how they organize their lessons, a good head of school will see that as well. Another fear related to this is that a new principal also levels the playing the field for the veterans and their mentees. No longer does the "this is the way it has always been done" excuse hold any water. A new head of school brings closer scrutiny. Here is where "opportunity" comes into play. A teacher's ultimate role is to teach: it seems logical to me that a principal will want to replicate good pedagogy as much as possible. The old guard should take this chance to show what they can do to help the school move forward, rather than simply trying to justify their existence. Now comes an event that allows them to break out of their routine, step up to new responsibility, and assist the new head in their first transition year. Ideally, this would be done with the help of the second camp in the school.

Newer teachers to the school generally make up this group. they are the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed brats that show up to school early and leave late and bring with them the latest in what they learned in grad school. This group probably started as the out-going head was finishing, so they may not have as close a connection. The nature of their fear is very different. As they are always dancing on the edge of insecurity about their performance and their job, they are going to bust their tails anyway. However, they usually take take their cure from the veterans and seem to confuse their anxiety with that of their mentors. As they were probably getting used to the old principal, they can be anxious about trying to get in good with the new one. Again, there is opportunity here. It has been my experience, having moved between schools and seen heads come and go, that newer faculty are not as intimidating to the newer school head This second camp can help smooth over relations through adapting to the new policies and by giving the older gang some perspective. In many ways the new principal is very much like the new kid on the playground and usually the newer kids empathize with other new kids. In theory, a new head of school is the beginning of a new legacy; and who wouldn't want to be a part of that?

Finally, there is the third camp. This usually comprises of the support staff: administrative assistants, buildings and grounds, coordinators - in other words, the people that make the actual school run. I always believe this is the group to watch. Usually, they have seen it all, from parents concerns to what our rooms look like after we leave for the day. These people usually stay outside the fray and keep the school moving. I am always amazed at how calm they seem and their tenacity for getting the job done. This could very well be the group the other two need to watch and learn from: stay calm. keep doing your job, adapt.

Introductions All Around...

I believe that this really is the best of all possible worlds (and all that it implies) and that the purpose of philosophy is not to educate but to help people educate themselves. Today, it seems that cynicism means giving a mocking show of indifference to modern conventions. Anyone and everyone seems to confuse Cynicism (a philosophical discipline) with Sarcasm (the lowest form of humor). The father of Cynicism, Diogenes, believed that the reason of human life is to satisfy out most basic needs. In my more optimistic hope for the world, I would make the assertion that one of our most basic needs today is education. In order for there to be true democracy, the citizens must be educated so that they can protect themselves and society. Politicians and the media are constantly vying for our attention and all are willing to manipulate the people, the facts, and the ideals to oblige us in grossly artificial ways. Education is the best possible defense to secure this best of all possible worlds. True Cynics practice the self-discipline of learning in order to avoid the unhappiness that invariably results from these efforts to comply with such obligations.