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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Music

I realize I haven't had an entry for a while, I figured I would take a departure for the education posts and make an entry about Christmas music. Considering many of us spend the month of December and perhaps even more I figure it's about time for me to give my opinion on the subject.

First off a few things: I am constantly trying new music and different versions of songs. I have listened to many different versions and different singers/bands to try to find a wide variety of selections of Christmas music. I like traditional versions, but I also like when songs are enhanced/changed just enough to make them unique but still hold true the songs roots. All of the songs mentioned can be found on Spotify, which if you aren't using you need to. Easily the best free way to listen to whatever you want.

Favorite Song: O Holy Night. I love the lyrics, the music, the meaning, and the passion of this song. If I could only listen to one Christmas song it would be this one. I have listened to many versions and find it hard to pick an actual favorite. I most enjoy the versions where the singer bares their soul and all the verses are sung. That being said I really like the classic tones of Nat King Cole. I also like Martina McBride(outstanding vocal performance) and Kerrie Roberts(contains other verses-great piano and a very good voice) for variety I like a band most of you won't have heard of called Act of Congress.

Other favorites: Breath of Heaven by Amy Grant- A newer song that is a thoughtful take on Mary beautifully sung by Amy Grant.

What Child is This by Faith Hill. The violins and the drums bring out the rather serious tone of this song. Faith sings the song with reverence worthy of the subject matter.

O Come O Come Emmanuel by Starfield. Probably a band you are not familiar with but a great version of this wonderful song.

The Night Before Christmas by Brandon Heath. Another newer song that has great sound and lyrics

The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole
Carol of the Bells by Manheim Steamroller
Sleigh Ride by Andy Williams
Santa Claus is coming to town by Frank Sinatra

Fun songs: God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman by the Bare Naked Ladies and Sarah McLaughlan. If you haven't heard this you are in for a treat, if you have you know what I mean.

All I Want for Christmas is You by Mariah Carey. Just a great song all the way around. Try not to sing a long.

Mad Russian's Christmas by Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Sometimes you need to listen to song without lyrics that doesn't take itself to seriously but gets you into the Christmas spirit.

You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch by Thurl Ravenscroft. It's not Christmas without the Grinch.

Winter Wonderland by Jason Mraz. A unique version that makes sure the listener has as much fun as the band.

Rudolph by Jack Johnson. The final added verse is worth it by itself to hear. Love that Jack gave Rudolph the voice we always wanted him to have.

Albums you may not be familiar with that are great:
The Essential Christmas Collection (various artists)
Act of Congress
Orla Fallon
Mercy Me
Amy Grant
Peter Brienholt

Weirdest: The First Noel by the Crash Test Dummies (give it a listen and you'll see why)

Most Annoying: Wonderful Christmastime (scary that people thought that was good song once upon a time, scarier still people still do)

Least Favorite: Christmas Shoes (Not gonna get into it. If you like it that's fine with me, I don't)

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Treat every student as if they are your favorite

There are few concepts that have changed my life more than the following: "treat everyone as if it was their last day on earth". You are kinder, gentler, and a better version of yourself when you live up to this mantra. A while back I decided to apply this concept to my teaching. With any application there is usually an alteration of some sort. In this case I decided that the way I would make it work would be to treat every student as if they were my favorite. With some students this was no problem, because they already were, but with most it required a personal adjustment. I realized that I did treat some students differently than others. Certainly a lot of that is deserved, based on the way they act and behave, but I had no idea how this concept would not only change my perspective but theirs as well. The tough students aren't so tough anymore, the difficulties decrease. The interesting thing is this happens because of the way I treat them, which in turn influences how they treat me and their peers. If you are treated as if you are important, you will step up your game and try to live up to it.

One of the things I wanted to come out of this was that each student would feel welcome, comfortable, and confident in my presence. I wanted them to feel as if they were as important as anyone else in the room. I think we all have been in a situation where it is apparent that we are not as important as someone else, a feeling that makes us feel second class. I even came up with steps that would serve as a checklist to make sure I was treating each student equally. Among these were learning each student's name the first day of school, at the start of each class greeting each student by name at the door, giving personal feedback and positive notes in student journals, emailing parents and expressing to them how their son/daughter was doing in my class as well as saying something positive about them. There were other steps as well that escape me at this moment. For the most part I felt that I achieved my goal. I believe that many students actually believed they were my favorite student, and if not they would at least say that felt valued in class.

Not too long ago one of my colleagues ran into a former student of ours and was catching up with her. She mentioned that she felt that she was my favorite student. This is not the first time that this particular teacher has heard such news. He commented to me that he was impressed that students feel that way in my class. The interesting point I want to make here is that because of treating each student as if they are my favorite I believe it as well. I look around the class and don't see problem students, I see potential and opportunity. It has truly changed the way I teach and interact with students.

If you are searching for a richer experience and ways to connect with students try treating all of them as if they are your favorite students, especially the tough ones. The results will not only affect them, but you as well. Sure there are some students that are a lot harder to get to than others, but it will definitely change your outlook and attitude, which you will quickly realize will change your students as well. In the end you only truly have control over yourself. It is much easier to change one person, yourself, than try to change each student. Plus what a great moment it is when you look at your class and realize you are happy to see everyone and that each student really is your favorite.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Zeitgeist 2013-14: The essence of geography

Many of you are familiar with the Google Zeitgeist videos. If not, I have added them in at the bottom.

I have taught just about every subject and grade level. I have enjoyed teaching most subjects. For the past six years I have exclusively taught World Geography. For five years previous I taught Geography but it was at-risk and not quite what I am doing now. I love teaching Geography. I find it to be the easiest of all the social studies to teach because it's current, salient, and interesting. Sure history can have its fun moments to teach, but geography is about what is happening now. Plus with technology you can talk and work with other countries, which makes it even cooler.

All that being said I think it is a misunderstood subject. Many students come in thinking it is a math class (geometry) or that all we do is maps. Sure maps are part of it, but there is so much more to it than that. I had been trying to think of a good, fun way of introducing geography. In the past I have shown the Google Zeitgeist video for its geographic content, today I decided to make a slight adjustment and to this and found the best way I have ever introduced geography to my class.

For the record Zeitgeist means "the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time". I showed the 2011 version then had students brainstorm about what they would include in the 2012 version. They were at a disadvantage not having a device to use and having to rely on their neighbors, but in the end they did a nice job and hit the major events like the London Olympics, the Presidential election, the Red Bull space jump, world wide protests, Hurricane Sandy, among others. It was fun to see how much they got right and then realize how much more they had forgotten or didn't even know about it.

The magical moment came in the wrap up when I announced that these videos were the essence of geography. This class is about life in every part of the world. It is about people and how they live. It is about how we interact with one another and the environment. There are events that earth shattering like a vicious natural disaster. There are movements where people work together to make their lives better and remove corrupt governments through protests and revolutions. There are small moments as well as monumental ones, but all change the face of the earth in some way.

All of this led to the beginning of our new project. Making our own Zeitgeist production for the 2013-14 school year. This of course is in the embryonic stages of development. I think I am going to have students add events every week or two and maybe do mini productions at the end of each term or semester. Regardless how I decide to make this work in the end we will have a wonderful product that showcases all the events and learning from the entire school year.

My genius hour piece would be that students would take a part that interests them, after we have a substantial, comprehensive list, and go into detail on that particular piece.

Funny how one good idea can totally change everything. A week ago I thought I had a handle on how things were going to go this year. Halfway through the first week of school I have an idea that may change the entire year.

I will do my best to keep updates as to how we are progressing and in what direction this takes us. Gotta love the 3 G's: Google, a good idea, and geography.

Here are the videos: 2012


Friday, August 23, 2013

My Teaching Philosophy 2013

At the advent of another school year I feel the need to give life to my thoughts about my teaching philosophy.

At the core of teaching is the sharing of knowledge. It is the passing of knowledge, unlocking mysteries, uncovering gems of wisdom, and a forum where every student will want to learn. In order for this to be achieved, basic principles must be established. It is basic principles that form my philosophy.

"No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care"

If I could sum up how I feel about teaching in one phrase I would use this simple yet profound thought. In order to get to the core of teaching(sharing knowledge, passing information, etc...), trust must be established. I firmly believe that you can get any, and I do mean any, student to do anything if they believe you care. I don't care what their circumstances are, their past educational experience, or ability level; they can learn and will if they believe you care. There is only one way to show you care and that is to DO it.

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

The Golden Rule of Life pertains the same in a teaching setting as it does in any other facet of life. As a teacher it is your responsibility to model this as perfectly as you can. This means you cannot play favorites. This means you must treat all students and staff with the same respect you are hoping for in return. There is no better way of ensuring respect for you than by giving it to your students. You can demand respect all you want, but the teacher who truly as respect is the one who lives the Golden Rule. They will never have to beg for it, as it will come back to them as often as they give it out.

"You can't teach what you don't know."

Teachers should be the best example of how to learn. They should be passionate and actively engaged in learning. There are times when you can get by not fully understanding parts of the curriculum but that's all your're doing, just getting by. And if you are only 'getting by' then what are your students doing? How can you possibly assess them if you aren't certain of the answers yourself? The best teachers infuse their passion for learning to the students by sharing and being a co-learner with them. All facets for preparedness go with this statement, for if you don't know what you are doing, how can you prepare to do it?

"Never, never, never, give up."

The phrase made famous by the indefatigable Winston Churchill means that you believe that all students can learn and that there is a way to get through to them. The impact for positive and negative a teacher can have on a student is unparalleled. Other than parents themselves few individuals can instill the qualities of hard work and persistence like a teacher can. Again, you can't play favorites. You have to be upbeat and demand the best of your students. For if you won't, then who will? People follow those that inspire them and this is where teachers can be instrumental in teaching character to students; a will to achieve their very best; and to never give up no matter the odds. This is why I love being a teacher. It's like watching that inspiring part of your favorite movie over and over again. The part where it looked like hell itself would engulf the character, but because of perseverance he/she endures and beats the odds.

There isn't a more satisfying feeling as a teacher than seeing your students achieve when no one thought they could. Its priceless. As is teaching. Students always remember the teacher that cared. In the most humble way I can say this, "Why be forgotten when you can be revered forever?"

Monday, August 19, 2013

The hidden side of why education matters

Based on my last post, you can see that I enjoy listening to podcasts. One of my other favorites is Freakonomics, where they claim to look at 'the hidden side of everything'. I hope to take that approach with a look at education. This post is based on my thoughts after reading Jenna Shaw's recent entry "Why I teach" in her blog.

First off, I think I need to give my own opinion on the purpose of education and then delve into the hidden side that I think is so important. The quick answer to why we have education is so that when we reach adulthood, roughly at eighteen, we graduate or leave school with a shared common knowledge that members of society should have. It has been determined that we all should have a certain level of mathematics, science, English, social studies, etc... The idea being that this knowledge, what is learned in school, is essential for life and that without it you are at a severe disadvantage and much less likely to be successful. This knowledge is what makes you American. There is very little that we as Americans share: ancestry, language, socio-economic status, etc... (with this becoming less and less by the day), but this knowledge links us in a way nothing else does. Theoretically, you should be able to take a graduating senior from anywhere in the country and they should have the same understanding as any other graduating senior. There are values instilled in education, such as hard work, that will definitely benefit any student for the rest of their life. Of course, there is a point to be made about keeping kids off the street and out of trouble and that education serves to curb such problems and give kids much better and more worthwhile pursuits. I am sure I have missed other reasons for education, but the main point is that an educated population is better for everyone in society.

Historically we can look at the formation of our country when the great debate between two of the most famous founders/presidents, Adams and Jefferson, argued over whether the entire population should be educated or if only those with means should be. Luckily, Jefferson won and that from that point education was to be provided for all. This is where the hidden side begins to take place because we all know that all did not mean all, or at least equally to all. Unfortunately, gender and race as well as other qualifications were denied this privilege.

What is interesting about this, from my perspective, is not that certain segments of the population were denied an equal education, it is that after they were finally and rightfully granted access to education, the effect that it would have on society. A disclaimer here: I get that it can be argued that still today not all are educated equally.

Taking the example of denying education to groups in the population, let's look at what happened when blacks were allowed, because this, I feel, is an excellent example of the hidden side. In the beginning, there was major resistance to integration. Some parts of the country received more resistance than others. This process was messy and fraught with many issues, yet in the end it proved to make the biggest difference. As students of different races interacted in class, sports, clubs, and school, barriers were broken down. Some walls took longer than others, but I believe that the biggest difference that integration made was beating intolerance.

Education shines the light of understanding in the darkness of intolerance; breaks down barriers; and it opens doors of opportunity where there were none previous. Sure gaining knowledge in school is important, but what about the social skills that are gained, the understanding about other people and cultures. The hidden side of education is that it is in the schools where prejudices can be broken easier and have a more lasting effect than in any other place. In many ways, intolerance is just a lack of knowledge. Prejudices are just pre-judging a person, a group, a race, etc... As people become more educated they become more tolerant. This is the hidden side of education. For decades it has been the work in schools that have helped to halt prejudices and intolerance. The very nature of learning is the biggest eye opener there is. We see others as people and this humanizing is more powerful than just about anything you learn in school. Sure there are lots of other sources that have helped with intolerance, but it is nature of education that makes it the ideal location for dealing with weighty topics.

I applaud the brave work of those unnamed teachers who made this happen. Their everyday acceptance of their pupils made it easier for classmates of different backgrounds, gender, and race to do the same. Their example was paramount in eradicating prejudice and intolerance. Of note: I realize that there is still work to be done and barriers that still need bringing down. The work is not finished and we shall continue to move forward.

Schools have been asked to do so much. In many cases, they provide meals for students who would not get them otherwise, they provide stability in an ever changing world, and they have been asked to be counselors, parents, police, and social advocates. They are asked to accommodate those with special needs, and teach each student regardless of ability or lack thereof. Schools have been asked to do all this and leave no one behind and prepare each student for life after school. More and more is being asked and demanded of teachers and schools. Test scores have become the benchmark of achievement as politicians suggest this is the way to measure the success or failure of a school. Little is spoken about the hidden side of education: how schools successfully work with diverse populations with varying ability levels every day, how society as a whole has benefited from having an educated population, and how the issues of intolerance and prejudices have had world changing results that have effected not just the US population, but the world population as well.

The hidden side of why education matters is that the very nature of educating a population not only outwardly prepares them for life, but inwardly makes them more tolerant and understanding of others. Education is the anti-venom for intolerance. Schools have and always will be one of the most powerful engines of change in the world. So while the press and politicians may judge teachers on test scores, they should be thanking them for their efforts to make the world a better place for all. It took far too long for this country to realize the supposedly self-evident truth "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Once education became more accessible to all, it helped the entire country better live up to the ideals of "all men". In the end, it was in the schools that it proved most powerful and lasting force against dealing with intolerance.

My last point comes from my teaching. As a geography teacher, I deal with stereotypes of all sorts, whether they be regional, ethnic, religious, etc... Regardless of where we are studying, there are prejudices that are squashed as students realize that people in another part of the world are not so different from themselves. As we humanize others, students are able to see different points of view, and while they may not agree with another's perspective, they understand why they act and think the way they do. To me, this is as valuable as any perceived knowledge they may gain.

Too many times we look at quiz or test data to see if a student has learned the material and act as if that is the end all be all. There are reasons why that probably isn't the best approach that I am not going to get into, suffice it to say that learning to accept others regardless of ethnicity and gender is just as valuable as learning what the capital of China is, yet we don't test on prejudices and intolerance. I am not necessarily saying we should, just that learning takes place in many forms and that all too often what we test isn't all that important. What students learn cannot be fully recognized through assessments. Gaining more compassion and acceptance for others is hard to quantify but may be more important than any knowledge we deem important enough to quiz or test students about.

There are many reasons why education matters. I am not going to delineate each reason I believe is important, that would take too much time and restate many obvious reasons. However, I think schools get shortchanged for their ability to handle tough social issues and help create a much more tolerant, understanding, and accepting society. The hidden side of education is just as important as the outward side of learning. By helping students understand the world and other cultures and people around them, we are teaching them to be more compassionate and caring. We could spend a lot of time teaching character lessons, which have their place and are fine to do, but if we are really doing our jobs, students will come to these conclusions naturally because they understand more fully the people and world that we share.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

This American Life celebrates episode #500

In honor of This American Life recently celebrating episode #500 I thought I would post my favorites. This is by no means in order or comprehensive as I have not listened to every episode. From roughly 2006-9 I listened to every episode. I try to listen to the program each week, but alas I haven't kept up as well as I would have liked.

"On a summer day in 1951, two baby girls were born in a hospital in small-town Wisconsin. The infants were accidentally switched, and went home with the wrong families."

One of the most interesting stories you will ever listen to. Nature vs. Nurture at its finest. Very compelling story in so many ways.

"A special program about the housing crisis produced in a special collaboration with NPR News. We explain it all to you. What does the housing crisis have to do with the turmoil on Wall Street? Why did banks make half-million dollar loans to people without jobs or income? And why is everyone talking so much about the 1930s?"

Easily the best explanation of the financial crisis. I felt like I could talk intelligently about it after listening and help others with myth vs. fact.

"We devote this entire episode to one story: Over the course of six months, reporter and TAL contributor Jack Hitt followed a group of inmates at a high-security prison as they rehearsed and staged a production of the last act—Act V—of Hamlet."

One of the most moving pieces by my favorite contributor. Very moving and emotional in ways you don't see coming.

"n 1912 a four year-old boy named Bobby Dunbar went missing in a swamp in Louisiana. Eight months later, he was found in the hands of a wandering handyman in Mississippi (the picture at left was taken just days later). Reporter Tal McThenia co-authored a book about the Bobby Dunbar story called A Case For Solomon."

Another gripping tale, showing what This American Life is best at, telling a moving story from many points of view.

Stories of kids using perfectly logical arguments, and arriving at perfectly wrong conclusions.

A few of very favorite stories are on this episode including my all time favorite story. We'll see if you can figure out which one it is.

"In 1980's New York City, rent is rising: it seems out of control, and residents struggle to keep up. So Jack Hitt helps organize tenants, and threatens a rent strike. This does not go over so well with his building super, who, as it turns out, is a very dangerous man."

Another Jack Hitt special with one of the greatest stories every told. It's funny, surprising, and dramatic all in one. Plus a few other really good tales.

"The right of habeas corpus has been a part of our country's legal tradition longer than we've actually been a country. It means that our government has to explain why it's holding a person in custody. But now, the War on Terror has nixed many of the rules we used to think of as fundamental. At Guantanamo Bay, our government initially claimed that prisoners should not be covered by habeas—or even by the Geneva Conventions—because they're the most fearsome enemies we have. But is that true? Is it a camp full of terrorists, or a camp full of our mistakes?"

This won a 2006 peabody award. Again Jack Hitt at his best. You will be angered and upset and utterly amazed at the unfair situations in this episode.

"Writer David Sedaris recalls the days when his mother and sister played armchair detective — until a very odd crime wave hit within their own home. Plus, host Ira Glass goes out on surveillance with a real-life private eye."

Hilarious story from David Sedaris.

"When their seven-year-old caught the disease on an overseas trip, this decision became a whole community's problem. The outbreak infected 11 children and endangered many others. Also: Comedian Mike Birbiglia singlehandedly ruins a big charity event, and the disquieting truth about Amtrak's Quiet Car."

Great prologue, interesting story about vaccinations, and Mike Birbiglia is funny as always

"All the stories in this week's show center on personal recordings that one person made for just one other person."

Contains the infamous little mermaid recording. Shows the effects that going viral would mean in the future.

"This week we bring you backstage with comedy writers at The Onion. They start with over 600 potential headlines for their fake-news newspaper each week, and over the course of two days, in the very tough room that is their editorial conference room, they select 16 to go in the paper. Plus other people speaking their minds in very tough rooms."

Some great stuff on this one. Personal tie to the missionaries in New York. The Gladwell story is one of the best out there.

List wouldn't be complete without a nod to middle school
Middle School
This week, at the suggestion of a 14-year-old listener, we bring you stories from the awkward, confusing, hormonally charged world of middle school. Including a teacher who transforms peer pressure into a force for good, and reports from the frontlines of the middle school dance.

So there ya go. Some fun, moving, inspirational stories from the best program out there: This American Life
If you haven't listened, now is the time to start.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Failing class should be painful and hard, not the easiest thing to do.

"If you are going to fail, do it quietly."

I have not only heard this statement many times, but I have been guilty of thinking it myself. There are many things at play here and a possibility of endless discussions, but I want to focus on one point. Why do we not make it harder on struggling students than those that perform well?
I have been plagued with this thought the past few weeks as I prepare anew. Each year I take on a new challenge, this year I have decided that this will be my focus. I am still not totally sure what I am going to do, as will be shown in this piece, but I am prepared to make some changes and set up procedures for those that are not doing as well in class.
First off I need to point out that I worked at risk for many years and that this subject is important to me. I believe that each and every student has it in them to succeed and do well. That being said, many students have difficulties in some part of their life; whether it be home, social, a disability, etc... As a teacher we wield some influence but there are so many things going on in these kid's lives it is hard to have much more influence than the time they are in our rooms. For some that is enough, for others they need more. Much more. Yet it is this very group that fits the quote about failing quietly. Look I get it, we put our efforts where they are best utilized, we want to be effective, we want to help those that appreciate it, we realize that we are not going to be able to help every student, and some of these students are really hard to work with and just don't seem to care.
The problem in my class is there is no protocol for students who perform poorly. It is more of the better luck next time, you need to try harder, you need to study next time attitude. You see there is nothing that students would want to avoid or sacrifice like an extra assignment, early morning or after school study sessions, lunch time reviews, etc...My new thought is that I want to make it painful to fail my class, not easy. Just like earning an A is a badge of honor, I want it to be hard to fail. Failing should be the hardest thing to do in my class, not the easiest.
So here is where the protocols and procedures need to be put into place. This is where I am struggling and seeking advice. My first inclination is that if a student does poorly on an assignment, they will have to redo the assignment in order to receive some sort of increase in credit for it. I am not sure if I want to make it full credit or just an increase of some sort percentage wise. If a student does poorly on a quiz or test they will have to come in before school and fix the ones they missed. They won't get full credit, but they will receive an increase in percentage of their score. I am considering doing lunch time and after school reviews as well, just not sure how to implement these.
Note: these measures are mandatory. Again the point is to reward those that work hard and make it painful for those that don't. There is a lot to consider here and I think have lunch time and before and after school reviews will be the type of sacrifices that students will want to avoid. If you do a good job and study you are rewarded with a good grade and also exempt yourself from sacrificing before/after/lunch times to come in and do work.
Another thought is to have them reteach a section to the class they did poorly on. So if you prove mastery through assignments, quizzes, tests, portfolio, project you don't have to get up in front of the class and teach it. I think teaching it shows mastery and gets rid of the tediousness of redoing a past assignment/quiz/test. So if you don't do well you will have to really know it to teach it to everyone. I could use the lunch/before/after school times to prepare them. This is me thinking out loud. I am open for suggestions. Join the conversation. Let's make it painful for kids to fail, not easy.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Do you still have the idealism you had when you started? 4 ways to regain and keep your enthusiasm

At a recent outing I was discussing teaching with some new acquaintances when one of them threw out the following question "I wonder how many teachers still have the idealism they had when they first became a teacher?" I have pondered this for the past week as I think it is an insightful and reflective question to ponder. I would like to think that I still have that enthusiasm and zeal. Certainly there is an innocence that all idealism springs from and along the way the innocence is altered and in some cases hardened. I have tried to be true to the beginner exuberance and add my years of experience to hone, intensify, and keep it fresh. In Zen Buddhism the phrase 'Shoshin' means 'beginner's mind'. It basically means to have the enthusiasm and open mindedness of a beginner. I not only try to instill this in myself, but in my students as well. Everyone is excited, or should be, the first few weeks of school, that excitement can be tempered and dampened by January. I believe it's important to remind myself and students of Shoshin. I have a few ideas that I will present that work for me.

1. Be invested. For me this means I know each and every student. I work hard to build a relationship of trust so that when the disappointments of December arrive I have solid footing with which to work with each student. I don't play favorites, rather try to make each student feel as if they are my favorite(a tough task with tougher students no doubt). I am not always as successful as I would like to be and certainly there are students that face stiff challenges and lack good social skills and awareness, but aren't those ones part of the reason we became educators? My goal is to be able to have frank conversations with students and have them want to change instead of resenting me. Within the first week each student should feel that I know who they are, value them as a person, and that they feel that they can be successful in my class.

2. Keep it fresh. Teaching the same thing again and again loses it's luster quickly. If you are new teacher you are just trying to stay above water, but if you have taught for sometime it's nice to have lessons and units from past years to use. While there is much merit in this it can also lead to burnout. I believe that the best educators are ones that take what they have and build on it every year. This past year I added a much more global element to my class. We skyped, we communicated, we shared, we collaborated, we did projects together, we had neat opportunities to meet and share with the world. Some of this put me behind where I normally was and I had to make decisions on what was most important. I felt I needed to branch out globally as much if not more than my students. I found the entire process invigorating in a way that I had never had in any way. We made presentations for schools all over the US, Canada, the UK, Ireland, and even Asia and Africa. Students not only got to meet others from these parts of the world, but they worked on assignments together. It was a thrilling process that required a lot of patience, at times I wasn't sure things would all work out, but in the end it became my favorite year. There were definitely some stressful moments, but the rewarding ones far exceeded even my most ideal expectations. I could have just retaught the same old lessons, and in some cases I did, but I needed to freshen things up for me which in turn made things better for all. A special thanks to Ms. Lynda Hall, Trevor Connolly, and the Kacherede Primary School in Uganda for taking a chance on my ideas and making them a reality.

3. Don't think you know it all. The years have given me experience and wisdom. I have become polished and confident. These can be good qualities. They can also lead to a feeling that you don't need to improve and that you are better than you are. The enemy of greatness is goodness. If you think you are good enough tnen you will never find out if you can be great. That doesn't mean you should wallow in doubt, it's important to be confident. It does mean you should actively learn and grow and try to better yourself. I have found that my experiences in conferences such as UCET and ISTE have not only been enlightening and inspiring and refreshing, but I found a community of like minded educators that I didn't know before. I realized through these experiences that I may not have all the answers, but I knew a whole community of inspiring educators who would help me along the way. If I thought I knew it all I wouldn't have gone and then this would be a much different entry.

4. Be positive. Is there anything that is more of a downer than hanging out with negative people? Sure life is tough and teaching can be difficult in it's best moments. However, cynicism brings out the worst in everyone. It is the polar opposite of creativity, innovation, and enthusiasm. My rule for having a bad day is simple: I won't have two in a row. I will change whatever needs to be changed, whether is it my attitude, the lesson, the material, the assignment, the activity, or the students. I will reflect and determine what needs to be done and then I do it. I can say that since I came up with this mantra over ten years ago that I have never had two bad days in a row. People are drawn to those that inspire them. Choose to be inspirational, remember your Shoshin, and you will make it through the tough times that will inevitably arise. I think it's also important to remember that bad times will pass, you will make it through, might as well do it with a smile. I have included one of my favorite quotes/videos. This is from Conan O'Brien's last show. He was disappointed about being let go, but still remained positive. The message is for us all.

Whatever your profession is I hope you enjoy it. Try to live Carpe Diem instead of just talking about it. Know your students. Care about your students. Care about your subject. Change it up and teach something new. Be humble and ask for ways to improve. Be positive. Remember you get decide what you teach everyday and how you deliver it. Autonomy is awesome. Be kind. If you have lost the enthusiasm you once had, find it, regain it, do whatever it takes to get it back. And on those dreary winter days remember your Shoshin; not only will you be glad you did, but your students will too.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Even an MD can learn a thing or two from their patients

On my twitter feed this morning: "Some nurses enter your room to look at the monitor & collect data. Others ask how you are. What kind of teacher are you?" Got me thinking I should post the talk from Dr. Amy Cowan at my grandmothers funeral a few weeks ago. One of the finest talks in any setting I have had the pleasure of hearing in person.

"I first met Jeanne last year in clinic. It was the beginning of my fellowship in geriatrics and the prior three years of residency had left me tired, worn out and slightly suspicious. I was used to sleep deprivation, long days on my feet in the hospital and keeping an objective distance from my patients. This distance I believed would protect me from disfiguring heartache. It would legitimize me as a physician and keep my life perfectly organized. Work over there. Personal life over here. I failed to realize the human connection I had with my patients was part of what gave my work its meaning. My failures were overlooked by Jeanne. She saw it instead for what it was...a learning opportunity. Over the course of a year Jeanne would start out as my patient, become my teacher and later a member of my chosen family.

Before I ever met her I could hear her laughing. A distinct chuckle coming out of Exam room 3. I walked in to find a trim, once tall woman, shock of curly white hair, blue eyes, long denim skirt, navaho belt and turquoise jewelry. There was something in me that recognized something in her. Any flicker of recognition vanished as she told me in a dismissive voice, I wasn’t exactly what she was expecting.
“You aren’t a short, fat man, honey!” And just like that we both burst into irreverent laughter. And just like that there was a crack in my medical armor.

Like any patient she had concerns and requests or so she claimed. She used to tell me that we met for a reason. That she came to the VA to find me. I didn’t really understand this until she died. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. In addition to completing her tasks with friends and the church, waiting to say good bye to her grandson Zach and embracing her beloved daughter with all she had, Jeanne also left a legacy with me. Jeanne let me fail as her physician. When I could have been listening, I was typing, my attention focused on a computer monitor not on the patient. When I could have asked her how she wanted the end of her life to be, I ordered tests and wrote prescriptions. About the only thing that she considered useful was a sheet with a few hand written suggestions about symptom management I had once given her.

With time and more practice I began to ask the questions I hadn’t asked. I became a better a listener. I slowed down. I turned away from the computer. I turned my iPhone to silent mode. I made eye contact. Clinics became less frenetic. There was less of me driving a snow plow pushing my agenda and more asking my patients what was important to them. There was also more laughter, story telling and once even an impromptu poetry reading in Geri fellow clinic B. With the increased connection there was more depth, more joy and meaning. Jeanne once told me to know rich joy, you have to taste sorrow. She was right. If my eyes welled up with tears, well so be it.

In the listening I became someone better. It wasn’t just ordering the correct diagnostic test or consult, but I started to ask myself how did I make my patients feel? Did my patients leave feeling small? Overwhelmed? Frustrated? or were they empowered, did they feel worthy? Over the year, Jeanne was content to let me progress at my own pace, but she wasn’t about to give up her independence or integrity for cancer, or because some young VA doctor thought it best. Jeanne egged me on to listen and then go teach other doctors how to do the same. Up until her death she continued to make discoveries about herself. Perhaps we both did in parallel. I learned how to be more present for my patients from Jeanne.

I wrote the following after one of my last home visits with Jeanne.

I kick off my shoes and pull an extra pillow to tuck under my neck as I make myself comfortable next to her on the bed. Each time I see her there is less of her. Her physical body continues to dwindle becoming almost transparent, as if held up to the light one might see how the mechanics of a heart or lungs work. The pink bedspread separates us from each other, but not the immodesty of death. And hers is looming. The sides of our heads touch. Her shock of white hair stands on end. My long brown hair a reminder of the room’s vitality absorbs what’s coming. As she talks her left hand seems so large compared to her frail body. She moves it about like a conductor leading an orchestra, while her wedding ring slides around her fourth finger. Her voice is quieter, conserving but not constricted. She’s not slowing down in what she tells me. There are discoveries to share, scripture passages to quote, jokes to retell and gratitude to make testimony of. We lay next to each other imagining that we are camping and the Milky Way is stretched above us. Her boney legs crossed, our hands, mine full and fleshy holds her nearly transparent one.

It’s in this simple moment that I see the progress that’s been made for both of us. She quietly reminds me to teach other doctors how to listen. Perhaps I had to go through the sleep deprivation and the isolation of medical training to be able to be exactly where I am today. Residency was instrumental in my preparation, but hardly adequate and Jeanne recognized this. I had to learn who I truly was before I could be present for the people in my life now.

Here I am on an island of a bed holding hands with an elderly woman slowly leaking urine, a pelvis full of tumor, laughing about her expression about not giving a big bird what anyone thinks. “Bury me with a fork honey,” she says. “Why?” I ask. “Because everyone knows that life is like a buffet! You need to bring a fork, because the best is yet to come.”

No matter your educational level or age you will still learn. Sometimes the best lessons are the ones the students teach.

Great writing, but an even better story that everyone can learn from. Thank you Dr. Cowan and especially thanks to my grandmother Jeanne Lawler.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Chromebook Review

Cost $250 roughly half the price of any other comparable laptop
Speed Fastest booting computer available. Literally seconds to start up.
Updates One of the problems with a Windows based system is you have to update or you will get behind and you have to pay for each update. Windows XP to Windows 7 to Windows 8 etc... With chromebooks there are automatic updates each day and you don't have to pay for costly operating system updates
Keyboard: In the debate of laptops vs iPads one of the biggest reasons to get a laptop is for the keyboard. For student use it is much more efficient and easier to use.
Virus Free: Because you cannot download potentially harmful software and because Google has added measures of protection the chromebooks are virus free. Currently they are the only virus free computers available, even cell phones can contract a virus.
Multi functional Device: Calculators Solves the problem of getting more calculators
Ease of use: Google Drive. One of the biggest pros of the chromebooks is being able to access Google Drive. Students can work on documents, presentations, etc... and be able to work in class or at home without worry of having a certain program i.e. Microsoft Word. It's free and set up the same as Word, you can access from anywhere with internet access. You can connect and collaborate easily with others. You can also create and not have to worry about saving it, or having it on a usb drive or cd.
Example of student collaborative efforts and what that has done for our class.
Battery Life: 6 hour battery life. Recharges quickly.
Filter: Wifi has automatic filter when you sign in.
Size: Light, thin, and small. Not bulky or heavy.
Camera: There is a camera that allows use for google hangouts. This is another great way for students to connect and collaborate. One great function of google hangouts is the ability to have up to 10 users at once. You can pull in a document, website, or video and be able to view it together and comment on it in real time. Another great feature with hangouts is that you can record your hangout. For me this is great with time zone issues and 7 class periods it is unreasonable and virtually impossible to connect with others depending on where they are from and their availability. Having the option to record and then show other classes is ideal. Really incredible opportunities for classes to connect worldwide.
Google Apps for Education:
Overall: For the cost it is easily the biggest bang for your buck. Great for students allows them to connect, collaborate, create, and critically think.

Cons: A point about the cons is that all of them can also be seen as pros for students use. For example not having a hard drive will prevent students downloading potentially harmful software. While there may be times you might use a cd/dvd these times are few and far between. Not being able to use Microsoft Word may take adjusting, but Google docs is free and very much the same and offers collaboration and ease of sharing, saving, and availibility.
Printer setup: Needs STS to set up printers on all computers, but would have to for any new devices anyhow.
No disk drive: Can't load movies, games, programs from a cd/dvd.
No hard drive: Use google drive to save, can't load other programs, pics and video need to be added to web because there is no hard drive
Microsoft: Can't use word, but for students Google docs is a much better option.
Programs: Can't download programs onto computer, all has to be web based, again this can be seen as a pro in some ways.

I think for a school setting the chromebook is an excellent option for teachers/students. The cost alone makes it an excellent choice. Add in the speed, ease of use, automatic updates, virus protection, and it's a top of the line device as long as you have wifi. You have the capability of using the chromebook offline. I didn't really have time to use that so I am not certain of it's effectiveness, but in a wired school this is a great option for students and teachers alike
Note: After speaking to students the vast majority prefer Google docs to Word because of it's collaboration, saving, and accessibility. I would add for me I like the ability for students to share work with me rather than having 180 copies of paper and so forth.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

My thoughts on the Teacher of the Year Award

Here is the story from the newspaper

Just want to take a minute and express my gratitude this morning. I am thankful for the many people that have guided, directed, taught, and helped me throughout my life. I would not be the person I am without everyone who has been there for me; family, friends, colleagues, teachers, students, neighbors, and all else who have in some way shaped my life. Thank you.

When I started I never imagined that I would spend the first eight years of my career working with at risk and even post risk students. Yet it became the most important and pivotal moment of my life. It was difficult, tough, and stressful. There were days I questioned myself and wondered if I was really making a difference and helping these students out. Yet there was something almost magical that happened along the way. Students that previously were failing all their classes were now not only passing but in many cases getting A's and B's. I realized the impact one could have when you followed the ever famous phrase "no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care." It has become the theme of my style. It is one of those truisms like the law of the harvest. "you get out of it what you put into it" While I have put in much I have received much more in return.

I was quoted in the article as saying I am humbled and excited at the same time. I truly am. I am proud of my profession and the wonderful people I work with and have worked with. It is great to work with such committed and caring people that are there to help others out. Too many times we hear the negatives about schools, teachers, and students. There is much more good being done than not. The teachers I know are committed to helping out and doing what they can to work with all of their students.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the students themselves. I am inspired daily by them. I enjoy each of their personalities, even the tough ones. Every day, every class is different and unique. We learn and we have fun at the same time. In my book that's the best way to do it.

Finally, it was especially rewarding to receive this award with my wife and kids present. It was neat to see and feel their excitement. It will be a treasured family moment in which we all shared. Hopefully it will inspire them to be their best and to make the most of the opportunities and their lives.

Thank you all for your kindness and support.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Marianne's story in her own words

I never thought about taking an honors class until my counselor mentioned honors geography. She explained to me how it worked the same as normal geography, just a little more advanced. I thought about this for a while and eventually I decided I was up for the challenge.

I have always been a good student but never a great student. I knew I could do better but all I needed was a little more motivation. My dad recognized this and made a deal with me early in the year saying if a I kept above 3.5 GPA I could get a car my junior year and every time I got a 4.0 he would move the date a month earlier. That was just the motivation I needed to make a goal for all A’s every term, but I never could quite reach it.

I thought the only solution to get all A’s was to work harder and get easier classes. Before the second semester I told my counselor I wanted to quit my only honors class, which was geography. I really did enjoy the class, the teacher, and the activities we did. It would get hard for me to keep up because the work was much more difficult and I felt the students in the class were so much better than I was because they were already 4.0 students.

After class one day near the end of second term I went up to Mr. Fawson to tell him I had switched out of his class for the next semester. He looked disappointed at this news. I explained how much I liked this class but I couldn’t reach my goal because it was difficult for me. Mr. Fawson said he knew I could do it and then added, “Go talk to your counselor one more time and tell her you changed your mind to get back into this class. I know you can do it.”

A couple days later I went into school early to switch back into Mr. Fawson’s class. After that, I went to tell him, he seemed very happy of my choice to get back in.

This term I worked harder than ever before. I did countless extra credit for every class, stayed before and after school to retake tests, and did all my assignments. When the reports cards came out I was very anxious. I ended up getting not only a 4.0 and all H’s. I was so proud of myself. After school that day I walked into Mr. Fawson’s classroom with the biggest smile on my face. I handed him my report card. He looked it over for a minute then he looked up and smiled, I could tell he was very proud also. He looked at me and said, “I knew you could do it, you made a goal and worked hard to achieve it.”

I’ll never forget this moment. He got me to believe in myself when I didn’t. Now for high school I plan on taking more advanced classes with the same goal of a 4.0.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Never Give Up on a student, even if they are ready to give up on themselves

Okay so that's really too long of a title for this post, but I don't know any other way of saying it. Last week marked the end of our third term and with it one of my favorite moments of the year. Sure we all enjoy teaching those that get it all the time. They think we are more clever and funny than we really are. They make our jobs and even our lives easy. This is not a story about a failing student that got an A, or even a D student that improved. I have often felt that one of the toughest things to do is to go from good to great. This story is about a B+ student who is a good student, but didn't see herself as an A student and therefore was discouraged, frustrated and ready to give up.

At the end of second term Marianne approached me. (Note: names have been changed) I need to begin by saying that Marianne liked class, she was a good student. But not a great student. Like a lot of students she had gotten by doing a good job and getting an A throughout most of her life. She signed up for honors geography and learned real quick that she was going to have to do much more to get an A. I know she was disappointed. Both 1st and 2nd terms she got a B+. This was below her standard and like many students she wanted to transfer out to the regular class to make sure she would get an A. When she approached me at the end of 2nd term she had already done so. Marianne was totally capable; she just had to believe and work more efficiently and study a bit more.

Funny thing was she didn't really want to transfer out of the class. She said, "this is my favorite class and you are my favorite teacher I just want to get an A" I understood what she meant and realized that in today's climate where A's are so sought over and mean so much to self esteem and parental pressure that this was a natural response for her to have. We spoke for a few minutes and finally I said, "I don't think you should transfer out. You can get an A. You just have to act like an A student. You need to do all the work and make sure it is high quality, complete, and in on time. You can do that. You might need to study more, but you can do that too. I think this is important for you to keep at this and work harder and make this happen."

I know that Marianne never wanted out of the class. I know she liked it. But she needed to make a few minor changes. Most important of which she needed to believe that she belonged with all the other honor students. It can be an intimidating climate when everyone is an alpha and really is intelligent and hard working. I said, "You are as smart as anyone in this class, but you don't always believe it. It's time to start believing. I don't want you to transfer out and I don't think you really want to either."

She smiled and said, "Well what can I do, I just transferred out?"

I responded, "That's easy. How did you get out of the class? Tell your counselor you had a change of heart and you are up to the challenge."

Marianne agreed and had a look of determination that she didn't before we spoke. Later that day she found me and told me she was back in. I reiterated how important it was that she believed she belonged and that she had to see herself as an A student.

Grades came out a couple days ago. Marianne not only received an A, but also got an A in every class. Something she hadn't done all year. Equally impressive were the H's in citizenship that went with the A's. She came in after school to show me. It was a nice moment for both of us. She got to prove to herself she could do it and let me be a part of it. I said, "I hope you realize that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to. This wasn't as easy as you would've liked it to be, but you made some personal changes and set a goal and you made sure you achieved it. You have learned a valuable lesson in life at a young age and most importantly you have proven to yourself that you can."

Priceless smile.

Getting students to believe and then do what is necessary to achieve is what this is all about.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

You Tube Clean a Great Tool

Every once in a while you come across a little find that is a big deal, YouTube Clean is such a find. We all have watched YouTube videos only to have the comments or side videos ruin the experience. Few things are more annoying than the side videos and lame and inappropriate comments. The nice thing about YouTube Clean is all you have to do is type clean directly after the word YouTube in the URL for this to work. For example one of my favorite Improv Everywhere YouTube videos is Dollar Store Black Friday the URL is as follows:

(Note: this is not the embed code, it's the actual URL.) To convert this to YouTube Clean all you have to do is add clean after youtube and before the .com It will look like this

That's all you have to do. No annoying comments or side videos. Just the video itself.

At times I will have a URL on my website calendar to have students watch for homework and I always worry about it having inappropriate comments and side videos. This is a nice way to not worry about that.

If you are showing to a group now you don't have to worry about comments being profane or the side videos being objectionable.

Give it a try it's easy.

It won't filter the video itself though, so don't think if has profanity or suggestive scenes it will be taken out, it won't. It only removes the side videos and comments.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Student Choice Project: Inquiry, passion, focus for students and the teacher

Fourth term traditionally has been final project term. I have tweaked this for the past five years and last year felt good about the types of projects that were being produced. However, that didn't save me from tinkering again. Inquiry and passion are two important ingredients in learning and education and I feel that I have to allow my students to tap into them more than I previously have done. Which led me to decide to allow student's to choose their own topic and presentation method (website, video, art, slide show, etc...)

I decided to ask my students about this process with a google form survey. The results were surprising in some ways, not so much in others. I wasn't really surprised that students were roughly split on whether or not they cared about the presentation method. I was surprised that while students wanted to choose their topic, they wanted a comprehensive list to view when considering topics. Nearly every student accepted the presentation methods I suggested, only a couple students made suggestions in addition to the ones I offered.

I think it's important to remember that while these students are ninth graders (14-15) they still look for and need guidance. They are passionate and inquisitive, but probably aren't as knowledgeable as they'd like to think they are. Especially when deciding a big final project. I believe they want to make informed choices before offering up a selection. Passion is one thing, focus is another, and I think the two combined make for an exciting proposition.

My plan is to implement a bit of the 'genius hour' idea and allow students a 45 min class period once a week to work solely on their projects. I will have to plan for some sort of ticket out the door accounting, but overall I am not worried about them using their time wisely. They get to pick the project so it will be what they want to do, not what I chose for them.

Also I believe most projects fail or aren't as successful as they could be because they are not structured properly. Too many teachers say this will be due in eight weeks and then are shocked when no one has started a few days before they are due. I am going to have an element of the project due each week so that as long as they follow the plan they will finish on time without any rush the day before. It will be a natural conclusion to their work.

My job along the way will be to push, prod, guide, challenge, get them to critically examine and think about their topic, add perspective and point of view, and help them understand and evaluate to the best of their ability their topic. In order to do that I will have be totally engaged in the process. I will need to be the teacher I dreamed of being when I started this journey. It's easy to sit behind a desk and let students work, sometimes it's good to let them get their hands dirty and get messy with the work, but I need to be at my best in order for me to expect them to be at their best.

While they are working on a focused, passion, inquiry driven journey I will have my own project. Can I transform my classes into the students I know they can become by being the teacher I know I can be? This is my drive, my passion. This is my final project of the year.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Class Dojo

Okay I realize that it has been an extra long time, way too long. For that I need to revamp what I am doing myself, a new years resolution in the middle of March. I attended UCET this past weekend and picked up a lot of great new ideas, tools, sites, etc... One of which surprised me Class Dojo. When I first saw this site I was taken aback. Here were these silly looking monster avatars that I could attach to each students names. I imagine this would work great with 3rd/4th graders but deep down I knew my 14-15 yr old 9th grade students would enjoy them. After putting the student names in, there is an option to add them by list, it attaches a monster to each name. If you give students the rights they can go in and pick the monster of their choice. Who knows I may get to that point, but what I really like is the option to randomize which student is selected. We were beginning class presentations and rather than just selecting who went next I decided to ask Class Dojo for help. The randomizer works well and does a nice job of picking students from all over the alphabet. We sat back and randomized and the students knew the order. I am certain this site is capable of much more than being a randomizer, in fact it has a great behavior management system, I am totally satisfied with the randomizer for now and so are the students. Nothing like having a monster avatar to get you motivated to work. If you haven't tried it or think your students are above it, think again. I'm betting any age group will fall for the monsters.