Friday, April 29, 2011

A recent online conversation about gum chewing in the classroom led into an interesting side tangent about teachers, students, respect and responsibility.

Several teachers insisted students cannot be taught to responsibly chew gum at school. One even went so far as to say it is a waste of time to try to teach students to be responsible.

Personally, I find this highly insulting to both students and teachers. If you think any part of teaching is a waste of your time, you need to find a different profession. Period. End of discussion.

Even on the worst day of my teaching career, even when all the scores on a test were low, even when behavior was roaring at an all time worst... I've never felt my efforts were a waste of time. I might feel I need to re-evaluate my strategies. I might feel overwhelmed and defeated. But at no time have I thought it was ALL for naught.

As far as gum chewing goes. Whatever... I really don't care whether a teacher allows gum or not. I am a gum chewer, so perhaps that taints my own views. I also think for active students, especially middle schoolers, chewing gum is a great release of some energy. Some research even suggests chewing gum stimulates the brain.

The real discussion point of disagreement wasn't about the gum itself though. It was whether or not students can be taught to respect school property, the classroom, and be trusted to act responsibly with gum.

I find it easy to teach students to be responsible and respectful of property but showing them HOW that looks. Often, we, as adults and teachers, make assumptions that students SHOULD know how to act, instead of gently showing them, encouraging the appropriate actions, and positively reinforcing their efforts.

At the end of each class period, take a minute or two to have students clean up. Make sure their floor area, desk, etc.. are clean. My motto is: It doesn't matter if it is yours or not, take care of it! Have students learn to automatically push chairs in when they leave a table.

Have them learn responsibility for the school at a larger level as well. When you clean lockers out, and the hall is littered with rubbish, grab THOSE boys to sweep the hall. Have students haul the garbage barrels to the dumpster.

Grab some wet cloths and disinfectant once a week or so and have students quickly clean desks or tables. Let volunteers clean boards.

When you have a 'party' or project in your classroom that creates extra waste, have students dump the extra instead of making more work for the janitors. When you notice the hallway is full of garbage or tracked dirt, grab a kid to make a quick sweep.

It doesn't take long and all those become second nature for students. It doesn't disrupt your teaching. In fact, it makes your own life easier. Students will began to automatically put materials back where they belong, take care of their own messes, and take responsibility for the classroom's 'essence'.

Teaching is more than just delivering the content. We are preparing our students to be adults, contributing members of society. We are teaching them how to be a part of something greater than themselves. It doesn't take much effort, and it makes a trickle effect larger than you can imagine. It all comes down to classroom culture and building respect, mutually, between yourself and your students. If they feel important, valued, and part of the greater whole in your classroom, the physical appearance of your classroom will reflect that. If they feel respected and valued as individuals, discipline problems will be virtually non-existent. It really is a give & get situation, a win-win for all involved on every front.

It is possible, and it is worth the time and effort. Don't sell your students short!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In his ASCD Edge blog, Walter McKenzie posed an interesting thought: Just Because We Can. McKenzie questions whether iPads for kindergartners is a good idea. His discussion points out the developmentally appropriate activities for 6 year old's versus 12 year old's, as well as using Gardner’s multiple intelligences to structure instruction for each level of learner. McKenzie is not anti-technology, but instead questions whether sometimes, as in the case of iPads in the hands of kindergartners, we do it "just because we can".

I think educators are all too often guilty of "just because we can" when it comes to technology. Technology is critical to education today. Our students live in a virtually charged world, where real time communication is the norm, where access to unlimited information is a given, and where they demand to be stimulated with the bells and whistles that come with technology. It is no longer whether or not we want to use computers in our classrooms but how can we best effectively use them.

Unfortunately, computers too often become expensive babysitters in classrooms. Students are instructed to:

-go online and research tornadoes and write 5 facts about what you learned
-create a wordle with your vocabulary words
- type your answers to the worksheet
- submit your quiz online

While all of these are valid uses of technology, none of them demonstrate an effective integration of technology as a tool to enhance learning. There is no creativity, no collaboration, no anything different than a paper and pencil assignment.

Teachers need to explore how technology can make learning more efficient, more engaging, more 21st century.

Just today, in a lesson on theoretical and experimental probability, I had students in my pre-algebra class use an online coin toss simulator to conduct and experiment. In a short time, as a small group of students, we had tossed our coin 18,00o times, proving that the greater the sample, the closer the experimental probability gets the theoretical probability. This experiment would have been overwhelmingly time consuming to do by hand. Technology allowed my students to explore and see the connection between sample sizes and probability quickly and easily. We will also explore online using spinners, dice, and other interactive tools to learn about probability in ways difficult to replicate in a real-life setting.

There are countless ways to use technology to create, collaborate and communicate. Opportunities that would not be readily accessible without computers can be proved easily in classrooms in all subjects, at all grade levels. Bloggings, wikis, video conferencing, and collaborative websites are just a few examples of how technology can dramatically change student engagement and learning outcomes.

When teacher are trained to effectively use technology, when teachers actively use technology to provide unique learning opportunities for their students, then and ONLY then, is technology worth the price.

My school was fortunate to be part of a one-to-one initiative 7 years ago. Some teachers seized the opportunity to innovatively integrate technology into their classrooms, transforming already adequate lesson plans into dynamic learning opportunities. In other classrooms, computers were used as time fillers, with little thought to how to best utilize the tools to connect their classrooms globally. Students played games, typed notes, or simply "researched".

Now, again, we are part of a grant initiative giving all students grades 7-12 a netbook. How exciting is that? Not much unless we, as educators, jump aboard the train and let the technology transform what our classrooms look like daily. Otherwise, it will be just another huge wasted expenditure of tax payer dollars.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One of the most powerful phrases a teacher can use is, "I don't know." When a student asks a question, if you are not sure of the answer, or even just simply do not know, the best response is always an honest one.

Often, teachers feel the need to be the 'know-it-all' in the equation, and ad lib answers. When those answers are inaccurate, you've done your students a major disservice. Let go of the feeling you must know every answer, and gain respect from your students. Find out together. Challenge them to find the answer on their own.

Regardless, do not ad lib, chancing you will give wrong information. This misinformation will be the one tidbit of knowledge they remember from the day.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sitting in the back of the classroom, a different perspective is easily gained. I often think, watching different teachers teach, how I would approach their lessons differently, given the opportunity. Some things come down to teaching style with no obvious right or wrong answer. Others, I wonder if I am just overly critical (quite possibly....) and have too high of expectations.

For example, when a teacher reads the test to an entire class, explaining a large percentage of the vocabulary words in the questions, it makes me wonder about the validity of the test. It seems that this 'over' defining creates an artifical-ness in the scores on the test. If you need to explain that many words, it seems either the material has NOT been adequately taught/mastered, or the test is written at a level over the reading/comprehending level of students. Either way, it makes me wonder why give the test in the first place. Wouldn't it make more sense to reteach the material until students are comfortable and confident, or, simply rewrite the test at an appropriate level?

Test retakes in and of themselves are a critical part of the learning process. However, when retakes become the norm, the standard, the expectation, doesn't it seem that their is a simpler way to do things? Perhaps, the tests are being given before the material has been adequately taught to students. Perhaps, the tests are written poorly. Perhaps, other teaching strategies need to be implemented to meet the needs of learners. At any rate, when the majority of tests need to be regiven to the majority of students, there is obviously a systemic problem that should be addressed instead of simply retesting constantly.

I wonder how these teachers can best be helped? If they can be helped? Would requiring professional development on effective teaching, best practices, and how to engage learners make a difference?

Where is the breakdown in teaching and learning? How can we best bridge this ever-widening gap?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Today we will have our spring parent teacher conferences. I pause to reflect on my years as a parent, attending these conferences, and my many years sitting on the other side of the table, talking to parents about their students.

As a parent, going to conferences was something I did because we were supposed to. With rare exception, the comments were the same. Your daughter is doing great in class, polite, kind, works hard. The rare exceptions were my youngest daughter in her few rebellious episodes in high school, where she tried to shirk her student responsibilities and cause a few minor disruptions, slack off on a few assignments. However, she and her teachers knew, overall, she was a good kid, just needing a little prodding from home to get her back on track. Otherwise, I often wondered why I took up the time of those teachers, going to hear the praise of my children.

As a teacher, I've come to understand how it is like to sit on the other side of the table. Often, you see mostly parents of the 'good kids'. It is easy to tell them how wonderful their child is, how much they contribute to your class, how much you enjoy having them. You really don't mind these conversations. They are easy to have.

Unfortunately, you don't often see the parents of students who are struggling, or persistently disruptive. These are frequently parents who do not have positive school experiences, and therefore now, avoid school and teachers at all cost. They already know what you will say about their child, and either they simply do not care, do not know how to fix the problem or are completely overwhelmed with their role as a parent already.

When the parents you need to see do come, often the conversation is awkward. The parent may acknowledge the problems, and want to work with you to find solutions. They accept their part in their child's educational success and honestly are willing to meet you halfway to find a way to make things better. They don't blame you the teacher, but do expect you to have answers and be realistic and positive about their child. While these meetings can be difficult, as a general rule, afterwards, you see an improvement with the child's performance in the classroom. Things look better, at least for while.

Other meetings do not go as well. The parent is looking for a scapegoat. They know they have no control over the situation and instead of trying to be a part of the solution, instead, make everything worse by finger pointing at the teacher and the school. It becomes a struggle, head to head, where no one wins. The child often leaves the meeting feeling as if s/he has won, realizing that the parent and teacher are at complete odds as to what to do. The child feels IN CONTROL, knowing this battle is a win-win for them, with the parent blaming the teacher and the teacher blaming the parent, when in all actually, the blame falls on the student.

The solution? I wish I knew... but the most successful conferences I've had, even with parents of difficult students, difficult parents, start with compliments. If you as the teacher can find positive things to share about that child, you set the parent up to realize you are NOT out to get their child. If you've taken the time as a teacher to share positives all along, if you've opened the lines of communication early on, if you've established a classroom of trust and mutual respect, the difficult conversations become easier.

When nothing seems to work, it is often best to cut your losses, say something with finality but sympathy, like, "I am sorry you are upset. Maybe we can continue this conversation at another time when we both have gained a new perspective and can get together with clearer minds about your child." Shake their hand and execute an exit.

The most important part of being the teacher at the meeting? Remember that every child IS indeed special, unique and loved. The parent, truly, in their heart, wants to hear good things, know their child is success and valued at school. If you, the teacher, can meet that parent with a positive outlook towards their child, half the battle is solved before it begins.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Zoo does not even begin to describe school today. High school special education students were headed to a Transition Fair with 2 teachers tagging along. Senior bands students were in Chicago with 3 teachers tagging along. Yet another group of high schoolers were headed to a science event with another group of teachers tagging along. Not enough subs to cover the classes left behind meant the people here were left scurrying trying to cover for others. Some people left great lesson plans.. others did not. Again, leaving those here trying to piece it all together. Some scheduled subs showed up, on time, others did not. A zoo.... I am all for field trips which are meaningful for whatever reason. It may be part of the curriculum, linked directly to classroom instruction. It might be a culminating event as a celebration of some accomplishment or achievement. Again, great ideas! But why do we sacrifice the education of the students left behind for the enjoyment of the ones going on trips? Why do we leave the adult line at school skeletonized so the few can enjoy a day away? I have more thoughts on the subject but I'm off to cover for someone else again....

Friday, April 08, 2011

Yesterday, we had the pre-meeting for our annual 8th grade trip to Detroit. This 3 day trip is, for many students, the first time they've left our town/county... the first time they've crossed the Mackinac Bridge, headed downstate. It will be their first time seeing a traffic light, the first time they've travelled on a true highway with 4 lanes of divided traffic, the first time they've seen a city, a mall, or eaten at a fast food restaurant other than McDonald's. It is an exciting experience, even for me, as an adult who's been and seen and done. The traveling with a group of teenagers makes everything exciting and new to me as well. I love watching their enthusiasm and interest. Day one will get us to the big city, via about 6 hours on a comfy big yellow school bus, with a stop at a rest area to eat our sack lunches. Hotel check-in, then downtown Detroit, here we come! A ride on the People Mover will give us an overview of the city itself. A stop at the Joe Louis arena for a tour of the home of the Red Wings will be a highlight for sure! Then to Greektown for real deep dish pizza at Papa Papali's. Then.. the evening excitement?? A Tigers game at Comerica Park!! Back to the hotel for the evening.. where we will all crash, after a quick dip in the pool. The next day, up early, breakfast at the hotel. Then off to Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village! After leaving there, we will stop at Oakland Mall for dinner and finish at Joe Dumar's Fieldhouse. Friday, after packing up and breakfast, off to Detroit Zoo. After lunch at the zoo, our last stop is the Holocaust Memorial Center. An educational and fun PACKED schedule for 3 days... the long bus ride home will be filled with snoozers, I am sure! May 4, 5,6 cannot come fast enough!!!