Do students have choices everyday? Does everyone’s work look the same? Is the final assessment the same for every student? What is the ratio of words spoken in class teacher/student? Who asks the questions? Who makes the decisions? Who owns the learning in your room?
I was that teacher. I knew the material. I had to tell my students how it was. Daily. For forty-three straight minutes. Outlining and vocabulary were very important skills, DAILY! Review on Thursday. Test on Friday. No retakes! The first several years of my career I taught exactly as my favorite history teacher had done. I was one of the ten percent of students that actually liked to listen to lectures about history. I liked to read my history textbook. So years later I taught history like I liked to learn it. My favorite time period to teach about was the Vietnam War. My first year of teaching, it took me eight weeks to cover the time period between the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to the Fall of Saigon. I loved learning about this era because when I was in school it was taboo to teach about a part of history that most people wanted to try to forget. My mentor teacher that first year pleaded with me to move on to other parts of the curriculum. I marshaled on. The rookie teacher had no idea that he had bored his students to tears. Several years later I decided to try something different. I was mesmerized by this new thing called the Internet. Students had limited experience with it. We had a brand new computer lab and WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) software for Internet publishing had just become available. I made in important decision. I was going to have the students make web pages documenting what they found out about the Vietnam War and put them on the Internet for the world to see. I told the principal what I was going to have the students do. She was very supportive. Modeling how to make web pages was the only direct instruction I did for the unit. Groups of students did research in the library and on the Internet about specific events that occurred during the war and wrote their findings in question and answer form–it was their idea. It was a change of pace for my classes. They worked hard trying to make their pages informative and appealing. They were writing for an unknown audience. Students began to show me things I never thought would happen. One student in particular began showing other students how to put fancy flourishes on their webpages by editing the HTML. I had no idea how he knew this stuff. He was the type of student that if he did anything he was causing a problem. He became a valuable instructor during those two weeks. Another student found a way to connect the pages to a search engine and soon had people from all over the country sending emails to the classes with suggestions or thanking them for putting their research on the Internet. They received messages from veterans with information to add to their research. Primary sources! The student who was the trouble maker but knew HTML, he went on to be a very successful computer technician. The student who connected our pages to a search engine (AltaVista by the way) went on to be a writer for a webzine. (They were going to do those things despite my class, but they got to do what they wanted to do while learning about Vietnam.) I was called into the superintendent’s office. While I sat there wondering how I was going to be disciplined for breaking a yet to be written user policy, Mr. Superintendent was clicking through the student created webpages. He looked at me and said, this is really cool! How did you get the kids to do this? I just said, “It was an act of letting go. I showed the kids how to make a webpage and they did the rest.”
Photo borrowed from the Tempered Radical’s (Bill Ferriter) Flickr photostream
(I originally posted this on May 14, 2014. Four years later we still need to concentrate on working with each other to improve our instructional strategies and make the work that we ask students to do more engaging and relevant!)
Engagement, as a condition that exists in the classroom, is not always easily defined. To steal a quote from Justice Potter Stewart when describing something hard to define: “I know it when I see it.” There is a certain energy in a classroom of engaged students. There is movement, chatter, discussion, disagreement, and no one person is the center of attention. We can say all we want about student centered learning, but until we realize that students want to be in charge of their own learning, we are going to have a hard time engaging them. Do not get me wrong, we have to guide, persuade, sell, and curate their direction, but learners want to be actively involved in the lesson. So many times I walk down the halls at school and notice the varied degrees of active student learning. When students are not passively listening or completing desk work, they are much more involved….engaged. I can watch the same student in various classes and see the difference an active classroom has. The engaged class is not waiting for the bell to ring, they are disappointed that it does. The challenge for teachers is to make the content available in an active exercise. In an engaging classroom students interact with information, resources, each other, and perhaps the world at large instead of being dependent on a text or the teacher for their learning.
Photo courtesy of Roobee’s Flickr Photostream
I can remember listening to students talk about what they did in class on a particular day and hearing the phrase “we just took notes.” As a social studies teacher that was like a shot through my heart. I worked hard to make lessons interesting! I Looked up anecdotes and researched my subject (in the days before the Internet mind you!) in order to try to make it interesting. So hearing students make it sound like all we did was JUST take notes was a shot through my heart. I took it personal. How could they make it sound so perfunctory? Why? Because it was. I liked to talk about what I knew, but only a small portion of students in my classes liked to listen to me talk about what I knew! Teacher centered instruction tends to be the least engaging style. Even the best lecturers do not hold the attentions of crowds (or students) for a long time. There is a reason the ignite sessions and TED talks have become so popular. Good instructional models use lots of different learning activities that can incorporate many learning/skill enhancement opportunities that both include the content area as well as soft skills needed for everyday life.
Photo courtesy of Carl Mikoy’s Flickr Photostream
Next Blog…..The day I stumbled onto an effective unit plan of lessons
I was caught off guard the other day by a Facebook post adamantly stating that an incident had occurred at school and nothing had been done about it. An investigation found there was never a complaint filed, there were no witnesses that could verify the occurrence, in fact everyone contacted about it seemed very perplexed about any such issue having happened. I am puzzled. Why do people make such public pronouncements about things they have not substantiated with evidence? I partially blame our infotainment obsession. The reality media has blurred the line between what is real and what is simply entertainment. Public attacks on others is the norm. Our politicians do it, the media does it, AND we do it to each other. It seems as though we have become polarized over such small differences, like the name of our political party, that we forget we have so much more in common than we have differences. The lure of “likes”, “retweets”, and sympathetic comments have pushed people to believe in a false sense of security and popularity where the most outlandish statement, true or not, garners self esteem boosting notoriety despite negative affect it may have on someone or group. The adults have to set a better example! The children are always watching us and WILL imitate our behavior! As we watch the horrible calamity unfold in Texas, please realize we all have blue blood flowing through our veins and our tears are all the same. Observe the amazing capacity we humans have to show compassion towards each other in times of need. We need to capture this spirit and make it a part of our everyday lives. WE ARE BETTER THAN THIS!
Photo courtesy of SynergyByDesign’s Flickr Photostream
A ship in the harbor is safe – but that’s not what ships are for.
– John A. Shedd (yes he is going nautical again!)
(This is a rewritten post from several years back)
After considering this quote for a while I found that it had many meanings for me as an educator and the instructional leader at Morrisonville CUSD #1. The following are a few of the things that came to mind:
- Risk—Of course it is always easiest to stay with what is known. Staying within one’s comfort zone, not attempting to try new things, is easy (until the hull rots and the ship sinks) for there is no challenge. But if we choose to set sail, risk the unknown, we learn a lot about ourself during the journey and could possibly find a whole new world at the end! Whether it is trying a new strategy in class, attempting a new schedule for classes, taking on a new responsiblity, or cutting ties and moving on, we will certainly gain (if only experience) for making the attempt.
- Destination—Sometimes it is not the destination that matters at all. It is the richness of the journey that is most important. O.K. so getting there is only half the fun. I think that as I gather more experience as an educator, the more I am moved to believe that there has got to be a better way to prepare our young people for the real world. Maybe the destination should be, if we’re willing to take the risk, a school system where students collaborate with each other, with teachers(as facilitators) and professionals from the real world of work to prepare for their life’s vocation.
- Doldrums—Defined as period with no wind to catch the sails, leaving a ship “stranded” in place on the ocean. If we are not making progress or we see hard work having no effect, we are like a ship stuck in the doldrums. Although not technically anchored in the harbor, sometimes we feel no progress is being made despite all of our effort. We must maintain our effort to make the journey happen even though it seems like we have lost all momentum. We must not let those who would take the wind away from us stop us from making progress!
- Discovery–The reward for leaving the comfort zone. The satisfaction of conquering the unknown. The feeling of accomplishment after reaching a goal. So many times I have found that it is the risk takers who are the ones who enjoy their tasks and make the most progress. Even though I doubted I could ever run 13 miles at one time, I found that not only could I do it, but I could enjoy it and feel better about myself for having attempted it. The same is true in our profession. I know several teachers who were afraid of using technology until they tried and now they are pioneering new things in their classrooms for the benefit of their students.
What about you? Are you willing to take some risks….step out of your comfort zone? Start by clicking on the comment link below a start a discussion on change!
Photo courtesy of Alejandro Groenewold’s Flickr photostream
“A mind that is stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
I am sure the entire Paris area knows by now, it is with mixed emotions and a lot of excitement that I announce my resignation from the position of director of Paris High School. I have accepted the position of superintendent of Morrisonville Community Unit School District No. 1. My last day in the office at Paris High School will be June 30, 2017.
It is hard to know exactly what to say about a decision to leave a place you have loved to work for the past 28 years. Paris High School is a place where I have worked alongside some of the best people: the kind who made me a better person everyday. It was a place where I knew my own children were safe and challenged to become their very best. I do know that I have been very blessed by my decision to come here to teach back in 1989.
The experiences I have had here are invaluable! I was lucky enough to work for The State of Illinois’ first cooperative high school and be a part of a team that oversaw the design and construction of an amazing new campus. Every day I was able to work with outstanding people who really cared about students and did their best to challenge and engage them in innovative ways. I had the incredible support of a great Board of Education and cooperating superintendents. BUT…best of all, I was entrusted with the safety and education of some of the most amazing young men and women! I will miss you all very much!
The decision to leave here was not an easy one. For many years I have had held the credentials to be a superintendent of schools and have had the goal of eventually becoming one. Now that my children have finished their public education, my wife and I have decided it is time for me to pursue my goal of working for an educational community as a school superintendent. I am excited, and even though that excitement is tempered with the thought of leaving the only location I have ever worked as an educator, I know it is the right time for me to go. I will never forget the wonderful people that have supported my family and me, you simply are the best!
There will always be a part of me that bleeds orange and black!
I have been troubled the past 24 hours or so. I have this feeling that there is an important lesson from experience to be taught to a group of young men and women, but I am not sure I am the one to do it, or if the principle I think is important is valued by society today. I am willing to admit that I am of a generation that is pretty far removed from being young….(see how I have to admit to being old?) but I am sure that what defines excellence and being a winner has not changed. We watched the Patriots come back from a record Super Bowl deficit to earn their fifth world championship ring of the current era. That is a phenomenal accomplishment! They have become the penultimate example of winning and excellence. I want that same excellence to be a goal for our students and student athletes. Winning is an attitude. Winning is a work ethic. Winning is dedicating both mind and body to TRY to do what it takes (ethically) to be successful and reach a predetermined goal. I have never seen a winner that spends more time talking about why they don’t win than talking about what they need to do to get better. Winners do not spend more time and energy talking trash than giving their opponent a tenacious opposition between the lines. Above all, a true sportsperson is about competing at a high level and making themselves and their team mates better each time they have the opportunity. Great competitors do not always have the winning score on the board at the end of a game, but their opponents know they had true competition and respect the effort. Spectators at games should also work to encourage their team to do their best, applaud them when they do well, and encourage them when the team needs a lift. If a spectator feels the need to show up an opponent, put in the work, pull on the uniform, and do your talking between the lines!
Some problems do not have an immediate answer. Some problems may not ever have an understood formula, but circumstances will dictate a reasoned solution, and a life may be depending on it. My son’s medical condition defied conventional thinking, at least from my perspective. The syndrome never quite fit any typical pathology. It took some unconventional thinking and a team of experienced doctors to figure out how to attack the problem that was causing our son’s health crisis. The immunologist that headed his bone marrow transplant team, who has done hundreds of bone marrow transplants, said that he had never done one on a patient with this type of immune deficiency. What is the lesson in all this? Obviously I have had plenty of time to frame this situation in terms of how does public education contribute to our ability to creatively problem solve. I know that students spend time solving problems, but do they really develop deep problem solving experience when we concentrate on getting them ready for the PARCC exam or whatever the next accountability measure is? If we are teaching them and requiring them to problem solve in formulaic ways, will they be prepared to solve the “real” problems that come their way in a non-school environment? Schools need to be implementing programs and curriculum that have students using integrated skills, working in teams, to problem solve and create new content. Our current practice of assessment and focus on teacher accountability has forced the focus of the education system away from engaging students in way in which they practice these crucial problem solving skills.