Tragic Takeaways

I sat at my desk yesterday while my students were taking a district assessment. I opened up tweetdeck to see what my PLN was up to on this fine Friday. One of the columns I have in tweetdeck is for news and journalists from around the world. That was when I saw the tweet that changed the course of my day.

Upon reading that tweet I continued to follow the tragedy unfold through social media as well as various news sites. At some point in the afternoon, I just sat at my desk and nearly lost it. Too many images and stories that were being shared were just too much for me. My thoughts went to my own kids who were in elementary schools right then as well as the students sitting in my room.

For my own children, the thought of them having to experience something like the children in Connecticut did yesterday is just too much for me to handle. I cannot even comprehend what those parents are going through nor do I want to try. As I sat in my classroom and looked at the kids in my room, my mind naturally began to race. What would I do if a shooter came into my school building? How would I react? What would I do to ensure my students would be safe and get to see their parents again? As I asked myself these questions I realized that the thought of losing one of my students would be just as painful as losing my own children. I am not sure those that are not teachers can understand this. They just can’t.

As I went on a run this morning, I reflected on the big question, “Where do we go from here?” There are plenty of people shooting their mouths off and sharing their opinions and everyone is entitled to do that. Clearly, I am doing the same. For me, I focused on a few key takeaways from this horrific event.

·         Guns kill people. Our obsession as a country with guns and violence needs to be addressed. Had this man been armed with a knife, this would have been a much different story. Some will say that criminals and thugs will get guns if they really want them regardless of laws. That may be true…but criminals and thugs are not the ones shooting up schools.
·         You don’t have to look far to see the level of exposure young kids have to violence in movies and video games. How many parents disregard ratings and guidelines on such things and expose their children to graphic violence? As parents we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure our children do not see gun violence as normal behavior. We have to be parents.
·         Knee jerk reactions, such as arming teachers or front office staff are not the answer. Rather than putting more guns in schools, let’s put in more counselors and social workers. Let’s shift our focus to helping and healing our students with mental illnesses. Rather than shunning these individuals in schools and in society, let’s instead help them. Let us strive to understand them and support them in any way we can.
·         Let’s address bullying and create loving and tolerant environments within our schools. Character education programs and pep assemblies do little to address a systemic problem of intolerance and lack of empathy in our society. How many of these shooters were picked on, shunned or treated harshly by peers or in some cases teachers?
·         Don’t settle for meaningless tributes as the only way to honor the victims and families. It will take more than a tweet, a status update or a note on an NBA sneaker to change the cultural problems events like this expose. Take an active role in making your school safer and helping anyone in your life to be more tolerant and empathetic.
·         Cherish ever moment with your children and students…let them know how much you love them every single day.

I don’t have any answers and I genuinely feel my heart broken this morning. Yes, I have seen these events happen in other schools before, but this one got to me in a real way. I am not sure if I will look at my own kids or students in the same way as I return to work this week. However, I am sure that I will make my classroom and my home a loving environment in which everyone feels safe and welcome. 

The Jerk Store Called...

I originally posted this blog on the EdReach Disruptors channel last week. In addition to my readers over there, I wanted to share it here for those of you that may not have read this. If you are not a follower of the EdReach crew, I strongly urge you to check out some of the great stuff they are doing. 

The Jerk Store Called...

Ever since I was a young, I was accused of being a troublemaker. I questioned authority and was seen as a boat rocker.  I never took things at face value and many would have considered me a skeptic. In some cases, I was called an outright jerk…and other colorful names. Now, I always thought these character traits had value and allowed me to be a more reflective and honest person. However, recently I have been told that maybe I need to stop doing that. I have been told that I do cause trouble and when I question and challenge things it's not good or productive.

When I say that maybe we don't need principals or need to look at that role differently, people get upset. When I question if the flippedclassroom is an instructional model we should value, I ruffle some feathers. When I share my beliefs about homework and how I think students should learn, I get raised eyebrows. When I share honest opinions and observations that I have as a teacher in a public school, I have people that are frustrated with me and my honesty. Recently, I was told that if I would just conform and go with the flow, I would be much happier.

The problem is…I can't do that. I'm not even sure I know how to do that. When I see something that in my opinion is wrong, I'm going to say something about it. When I see there might be a better way to do something, I'm going to speak up. On top of that, I ask a lot of questions to hopefully cause some thinking and in some cases to challenge conventional so called “wisdom”. I just can’t seem to keep my mouth shut when there are things that are just not “right” for kids and learning in our schools. My sense of right is not the same as others, but I at least welcome the conversation and discourse.

I really think that far too many teachers conform, go with the flow and take just about everything at face value. They don't challenge things. They don't question things. They don't stand up for what they know is right for the profession and for the students they teach. As a result of this, they're taken advantage of and in the end it is the kids that suffer. I just can't help but think of the positives that could come about if more teachers would stand up and question the status quo. Just think of what kind of educational system we could have if we had teachers advocate for themselves and for their students without fear of repercussions. We teach our students to self-advocate and raise questions but are we modeling that in our own lives and careers?

Yes, some people don't like me. Some people think I'm a jerk or that I cause trouble or that I speak my mind a little too freely. That is probably true. There are probably times I should keep my mouth shut and just go with the flow and toe the line. However, I just can't help but think that if I do that nobody's going to step up. Nobody's going to speak out and we're going to keep doing things the way we've always been doing them. I challenge you to stand up to speak out, be a troublemaker, rock the boat and challenge things. Even if things don't change, I can hope people will start talking and writing if for no other reason than to react to me. I hope people will start reflecting and looking at things in a different manner. At the end of the day I just want people to think. Thinking and conversing is how change will be possible…

Allegory of the School

A dialogue between S. Crates and G. Laucon about the school:

S. Crates: Here is a parable to illustrate the ways in which our teaching may be enlightened or unenlightened. Imagine the condition of teachers instructing in a school with no connection to the outside world. Here in this school, these teachers have taught side by side since the beginning of their careers. They would often share opinions on teaching and these opinions were always based on their common tradition and training. Their classrooms have no windows and nothing exists beyond their walls.

G. Laucon: I see.

S. Crates: Now imagine that the teachers in this school heard whispers of teaching taking place outside of these walls. Naturally, the teachers within this school would assume that if such teaching was in fact taking place, it would mirror their own in practice and procedure.

G. Laucon: Yes, I can see how they would think that way.

S. Crates: And if we understand this notion, then the teachers within the school would inevitably view their school as a reality of teaching as well as learning.

G. Laucon: Naturally, yes.

S. Crates: Now consider what would happen if one of these teachers was suddenly taken out of this school and placed in the outside world. He would have access to other teachers in various locations and with various backgrounds. This teacher would talk to teachers, parents, children and other educators to learn how teaching and learning looked in different schools that did in fact exist. Would not this teacher be perplexed and their sense of reality be challenged?

G. Laucon: Most certainly it would.

S. Crates: And if this now freed teacher was forced to visit other schools and connect with teachers around the world, would his perception of school reality even further change?

G. Laucon: Yes.

S. Crates: Now suppose that someone were to expose this teacher to all that is new and innovative in teaching. Would he not suffer pain and discomfort from the realization that his perception of teaching and learning was not real as well as the overwhelming nature of all that was new and different around him?

G. Laucon: Certainly he would be overwhelmed and not able to process all he was experiencing.

S. Crates: He would need time to grow accustom to all that he was seeing in the outside world. At first he would only hear of things in passing but eventually his skills would sharpen and his communication would be honed. After a period of time he would begin mastering the use of new tools and pedagogy the he previously was sure did not exist.
G. Laucon: Yes, surely he would.

S. Crates: Finally, he would be to able look at the outside world of teaching and connected schools and recognize the value and power of such exposure. He would begin to draw conclusions about the true nature of teaching and learning and how his own understanding of teaching had changed. One such conclusion would be the value of open communication and connection between schools and teachers.

G. Laucon: I can see how he would draw those conclusions.

S. Crates: At this time his mind would fall back upon his fellow teachers from his own school. He would surely be happy in the knowledge he had gained and feel sorry for those who did not leave as he did. Those teachers still in his school were in the habit of commending each other on sticking with their traditions and standard practice. Would our escaped teacher be likely to go back to the school and back to his old beliefs and teach in the old way? 

G. Laucon: I cannot see how he could do that.

S. Crates: Now imagine the teacher were to come back to his school and take up his former position. Coming suddenly in from the outside world, his mind would struggle to go back to his old ways of teaching. Now imagine once again these teachers start sharing their opinions of teaching. This now returned teacher would share new ideas and ways to teach that would be different from what the others knew. The other teachers would grow angry and mad at this teacher for trying to ruin their reality. This teacher would even try to open the doors and force the others out and expose them to the outside world and the same experiences that he himself had. However, they would not want to leave and instead would shun the teacher and ignore them.

G. Laucon: Yes, I understand why they would do that to him.

S. Crates: Every aspect of this parable illustrates the ascension of knowledge within a school. Knowledge cannot be achieved within the walls alone but rather through exposure and a multitude of experiences. However, many of the teachers in the school were not ready to be exposed and therefore resent and fear the change and those individuals that bring it. Without having seen another way, no one can act with the wisdom to change either their own reality or those around them.

This was my attempt to reinterpret the Allegory of the Cave which is a conversation between Socrates and Glaucon.

Not Flipping for Flipped

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a flipped classroom workshop. As many of you know, I have been fairly critical and skeptical of the flipped classroom model. I was engaged in a conversation with some folks on twitter about the model and was extended an invite to a workshop so I could see firsthand what it was all about. I wanted to attend this workshop to either prove myself right or to put my foot in my mouth and I was very much open to both possibilities. For those not familiar with the flipped model or flipped classroom, there are plenty of articles out there explaining it…just google it.

To get things started there was a keynote that highlighted the evolution of the flipped classroom. Right off the bat, I was not buying what was being sold. The basic flipped classroom takes the homework component and puts it into the classroom. Then the direct instruction or lectures are videotaped and sent home to be watched prior to coming to class. For me, this is not sound practice as I am not a believer in homework and mandating learning happening outside of the school. I am not saying that all teachers are using it this way but a majority of them are and that truly is a flipped classroom as it was originally defined. In this type of a model, it's no different than assigning homework to be done at home in terms of a teacher still impeding and infringing upon family time which is something I disagree with.

Moving through the morning, the phrase “it is not about the video” was referenced and cited several times. Yet, every person that shared experiences talked about their videos. If I was keeping track, I would say a majority of the people that asked questions from the audience were asking about the videos as well. In addition, a large portion of the day was dedicated to making videos and using the video software. Clearly, the flipped classroom is about the videos. Many of the video fans were talking about the transformative element of a student being able to pause and rewind. Yes, that is good for some kids, yet not for all. Some students need the interaction that a discussion or in class lecture provides.

As many people have said, there are lots of different ways the flipped classroom is being interpreted. For me, the flipped classroom is bad. Period. With that being said, I think the flipped classroom idea has allowed some people to move out of a comfort zone. It forced some teachers to look at their practice with a critical eye which is a good thing. Some of those teachers just started videotaping their lessons and sending them home which, as I already mentioned, I view as poor teaching. Yet, some of the teacher’s classrooms evolved into a mastery model or PBL or other forms of teaching models that many view as good practice. As these teachers move to these more advanced models, I don’t see that as a flipped classroom anymore yet some still do. You can have a mastery model classroom without any videos or homework and the same can be said for a PBL setting. Myself, I screen-capture reviews and lectures and post to a YouTube channel for students to view at any time for review or re-teaching. It is never required but simply another resource for students to use and I don’t think of that as “flipping” anything.

My final thought on the phenomenon that is the flipped classroom is it is not good teaching. Flipping a classroom and pushing videos homes is not something I can vote in favor of. Yes, there are examples of teachers where flipping their classrooms has led to other instructional changes that have been for the better. They started with the videos at home and moved towards a mastery model or just simply created a bank of video resources for students to use as needed. The keynote address even described these changes in the opening remarks and I think teachers who have evolved in this way are tremendous. Unfortunately, the hype of the flipped classroom is overlooking what a flipped classroom truly is as opposed to what good teachers should be doing naturally.

I have talked with teachers that are firmly on the flipped bandwagon and will tell you their teaching has been transformed for the better. They have shared how they have increased engagement and their students are achieving at a higher level than ever before. Yet, when you talk further with these people, they are not operating a flipped classroom and pushing lectures at home. They are simply evolving their teaching to meet the needs of the individual learners and are using a plethora of tools and resources to do so. In my book, this is not flipping…this is teaching as it should be.

Type of Teachers

I used to think there were two different types of teachers. Quite simply, I thought there were good teachers and there were bad teachers and that was it. Good teachers were those that were excellent at what they did every single day in the classroom and in every aspect of being a teacher. They taught dynamic lessons, contributed to the school and continuously evolved their craft to be better. Bottom line, they were good. Bad teachers were those that were unable to connect with kids and had bad instructional techniques. They couldn't control their classes. Parents were always complaining about them. When I was in a meeting with these bad teachers I couldn't stand being around them. They seemed to be doing the same thing every year and in the same way. At the end of the day, these were the teachers that were talked about in the teacher’s lounge and people counted down the days until they retired.

For the longest time I thought that was it. Those were the two different types of teachers. You're either a good teacher who deserved to work with kids every day or you were a bad teacher and you deserved to be fired. However, I'm beginning to see a third type of teacher which might be the most prevalent and also the most important.

This third type of teacher looks suspiciously similar to a bad teacher. Yet, if you look closer and boil it down these teachers are doing the best they know how and that's it. They may not be good teachers, but then again they may not have ever been told how to be one. They don't know how to improve or how to teach any other way. They are just teaching the way they always have or the way in which they themselves were taught. At the end of the day they think they're doing right because they don't know any other way. These teachers often get frustrated when people think they're bad teachers. This is because they think they're good because they're doing the best they know how and they don't know any other way.

With this in mind I would like to think that there are three distinctly different types of teachers and they should each be treated differently. There are still good teachers out there that still fit in the definition above. We need to celebrate these teachers and model our work after and around them. I also think there are bad teachers out there but I revise my earlier definition. The way I see it now, a bad teacher is one that has been shown a better way to do something and refuses to change. They are making a choice not to change even if they have been provided the chance to do so and clear evidence that it helps kids. In my opinion, we need to help these people find a way to do something else for a living. Finally, I see those “other” teachers that just need a guiding hand or the inspiration to change. The good teachers have an obligation to not complain about these teachers but instead to mentor and help them be better at what they do.

What kind of teacher are you? More importantly, what kind of teachers are you working with and what are you doing about it? Are you pushing your peers to be better and helping them on their journey? Who do you turn to in an effort to improve yourself?

Why Would You Become a Teacher?

 I have spent a great deal of the past year speaking to future teachers and education students in higher education. Honestly, these are my favorite groups to speak with. They are so full of hope and potential and have yet to become weighted down with the realities of the teaching profession. However, as I reflect on these experiences I wonder why anyone goes into our profession anymore. There are so many things that teachers are dealing with right now that I truly question if I would suggest that anyone pursue teaching as a career. In thinking about talking to these future teachers, here are a few things maybe I should give them a heads up on and really ask them why they would want to become a teacher.
  • You will be villainized by your neighbors in the community that you serve when you are part of a union and the union goes on strike for better pay and better benefits.
  • You will inevitably work for an administrator that has lost touch with the classroom. These administrators will observe you and evaluate you and tell you how to teach even though they themselves do not know how to be an effective teacher. You will see that exact same administrator fire and release good teachers around you because they don't know what good teaching looks like.
  • You will turn on the news and never see a positive story about a teacher but instead be bombarded with negative images and stories about ignorant and misguided teachers that are telling the story for you and your fellow teachers.
  • You will be overwhelmed with initiatives that are not new but instead are just a continual recycling of old ideas in new packages so somebody other than a teacher can make big money on them.
  • You'll be told your sole value as a teacher is determined by students’ bubble sheet tests that you yourself have no value in and do not teach to.
  • You will be forced to teach a curriculum that is miles upon miles wide but barely scratches the surface of any real depth.
  • You will listen and watch politicians fill your head with false promises about how they will make education better but then just perpetuate the cycle of bad policies and underfunded initiatives.
  • You will watch as nearly one quarter of all new teachers quit or leave the profession within the first couple of years of their career.
  • You will constantly be told how to do your job by people that have never done your job. Whether it’s a politician or a businessman, they will all claim to know school because they went to school and none of them will hesitate to tell you how school should be.
  • You will watch as vital programs that help a child expand their mind beyond the core curriculum are cut or dismantled.
  • You will teach in a building alongside amazing teachers. You will also teach alongside terrible teachers that will stay in a classroom because administrators don't want to do the work to get rid of them but will rather shuffle them to another building.
  • You will invest hours upon hours of your life into a child who won't care, won't change and ultimately drop out of school.
  • You will work for a school district that only cares about test scores. The well-being of the whole child will be secondary to data driven results of the student.
  • You will sit through meetings upon meetings, in-services and professional development opportunities that have no relevance, no connection and no value to you in the classroom.
  • You will constantly have to defend your decision to become “just a teacher” to your family and friends.
Yet in spite of all of this, if you truly love what you do it will be worth it. Every single thing on this list is irrelevant if you are passionate about teaching. Those special moments when you inspire a colleague or motivate a kid will be worth all of this and more. I do encourage people who truly want to matter in this world to join the ranks of teachers and help change lives, touch the future and all of those other teacher cliches that ring true. :)  

Lessons from SpongeBob

This evening I was catching an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants with my young son. The episode started with the boat school teacher coming under review by what was apparently a supervisor. Now, anyone who has a little child at home or a taste for cartoons know this to be a rather silly show. However, there was a line within the opening scene that made me think. The man/fish from the Teacher Accreditation Bureau was condemning Ms. Puff for failing a student numerous times.  When Ms. Puff tried to explain, the supervisor simply replied, "We can not blame the students for the incompetence of the teacher."

I am not sure why this resonated with me. However, I continued to watch the episode with much interest in terms of the perception of what a good teacher is as compared to what a bad teacher is. If you have a few minutes I suggest you watch can even have your kids watch it with you. :)

In Which I Create a School

Recently, my school district opened up an Innovation Process where teachers, students, parents and anyone associated with our schools could submit ideas. These ideas could be any new way of doing something within our schools with the purpose of increase student learning, efficiency or a handful of other indicators. 

I took the opportunity to submit a proposal for a pilot school within my current school. I am taking a page out of my good friend Tim Dove's playbook who did this already in his school in Ohio. Much of the terminology is taken from the Phoenix school but will be adapted to meet our needs if we are allowed the opportunity to move forward. Below is my proposal and I look forward to seeing what the future holds as I think the potential upside for such a pilot could be tremendous. 

There will be lots of discussions and further logistics if this pilot actually gets a green light but I would be lying if I said I wasn't completely thrilled. Feel free to take a look and let me know what you would add or adjust. 

Project Description
The intent behind this project is to create a learning environment that supports learning in its truest form and encourages the best aspects of good schools. While this team would physically be within the building, it would operate as a school within a school. Below is a list of pieces that will be unique on this pilot team.

·         Grades/Content
o   Mastery model of grading will be used for content knowledge based on Illinois State Standards and District content area standards.
o   Reports cards will be rewritten to include feedback to parents beyond academic letter grade.
§  Included will be a narrative of student growth along with a portfolio of student work.
o   Students will follow district curriculum in the areas of Language Arts, Math and Science. Social Science will be replaced with current events as a lens in which to teach World History and therefore differ from current 6th grade Social Science curriculum.
·         Schedule
o   Initially during the pilot phase the schedule would mirror start and end times of the Junior High School
o   Planning time would be scheduled for all teachers to collaboratively plan on a weekly basis.
o   The bell schedule however would be crafted within the team to meet the needs of learners and staff availability.
§  The schedule would include the following elements
·         Foundations Class
o   A class that would teach foundational skills such as note taking, character education, basic technology skills, basic writing/reading skills and any “foundation” skills that would transcend all aspects of learning within the school regardless of subject area.
·         Learning Blocks
o   This would be where the “core” curriculum would be delivered.
§  In addition to the core curriculum topics such as current events, global studies, community service and digital citizenship will be integrated.
·         Wellness
o   During this class students would participate in wellness activities that would incorporate both physical education and health topics. 
·         Lunch
o   Speaks for itself…
·         Learning Extensions
o   This would be a time where other classes that would typically be termed “exploratory” or electives would be taught. These would not necessarily be the same 4 exploratories being currently offered but would be created based on student need/interest. Rather than a set curriculum these would be more independently driven with staff guidance.
·         Independent Reading
o   Discovery Days
§  On discovery days students will spend time creating and implementing a learning plan. These days could be spent shadowing a parent at work, participating in a service learning project or another self-designed exploratory experience.
·         Teaching
o   Teaching will be based on a Project Based Learning model.
§  Students will participate in collaborative learning activities.
o   Co-Teaching will be the preferred and primary approach in most classes.
§  Teacher groupings will be based on content knowledge of teacher and student need within the class.
o   PLC Model will be used for weekly planning of curriculum delivery and student learning discussions.
·         Technology
o   1 to 1 environment for student devices
o   Social media and Web2.0 tool integration
·         Community Connection
o   Pilot team will serve as a model for innovative teaching practice and partner with local university/college education department(s).
o   Students will be engaged in real life experiences either in the community or through the use of community volunteers. The intent will be to utilize experts within various fields of study to create rich and meaningful learning experiences within context.
·         Staff
o   Pilot Team would consist of a high functioning team that is committed to innovative approaches to learning.
o   Peer evaluation, feedback and observations would be included in teacher expectations. Intent would be to create a collaborative professional learning community through active and intentional improvement.
o   Team make-up would be:
§  2 Language Arts teacher
§  1 Social Science teacher
§  1 Math teacher
§  1 Science teacher
§  1 Learning Behavior Support/ Reading Teacher
·         Staff Evaluation
o   Evaluation of staff will consist of five parts
§  Peer evaluations (using 4 domains of Danielson model)
§  Student feedback
§  Parent feedback
§  Student achievement
·         Combination of data from tests and student work portfolios
§  Professional development log/plan

Wish me luck and keep an eye out for updates...

Great Teaching in Preschool

If you want to see how teaching should be done, I would encourage you to step into your local preschool or early childhood center. I have been fortunate to spend a fair amount of time in my local early childhood center because both of my sons have attended and one is still there. It appears to me that all a teacher really needs to know about how to teach they could learn in a preschool classroom. For example…

·         Play is learning – Kids interact with their environment and learning space as if they were playing. Learning through play is par for the course and kids actually enjoy doing it. At what point does play work its way out of our classrooms?
·         Relationships trump everything else – Just watch the way a preschool teacher helps kids and you know that relationships are key. Both of my sons absolutely adored their preschool teachers. They couldn’t wait to talk to them and share every single aspect of their personal lives and some of their parents as well. J The reason for this is kids know when you care for and about them.
·         Parents are part of the process – There is no other setting where you see more parental involvement than the preschool classroom. My son’s school has monthly parents in the classroom where my wife or I can go and “play” with your son. In addition, there are community nights, open houses, and numerous other activities for parents to be a part of the school community. This sends a strong message that parents are a part of the learning process and are a valued member of the school.
·         Small class sizes – Anyone that has actually spent time in a school as an educator knows that the smaller the class size the better learning potential there will be. When you have a class of 12-15 kids, you can provide the individualized attention we know to be best for kids.
·         Cooperation is taught and celebrated – Kids in a preschool classroom are taught how to work together to solve problems and cooperate. Competition is not a tool they use but rather they focus on working in a collaborative manner to learn and play together.
·         Failure is used as a learning tool – Kids at this age fail on a regular basis and that is to be expected. These failures though are learning opportunities and kids are challenged and supported to keep trying and figure things out.

I know there is nothing profound in this post but it just strikes me how we think some of these skills or ideas go away when kids get older. There is nothing in this list that could or should not be a part of any classroom at any grade level. For some reason we think that the fundamental ideas we utilize in early childhood somehow become less important as they get older. 

Good Educators Know

This afternoon I had the privilege to run a PD session at the school where I attended junior high and high school. It was a bit of a surreal experience standing in front of some of my teachers running a session about how to be a better teacher. Regardless, I enjoyed my time and wanted to share my slides/prezi from the session.

The focus was on what good educators know...

Learning from Failure

Today I learned a little bit about failure. For the past couple of weeks I've been working with our Sci-Tech Club at school on a STEM-Fest project. For this project students got to pick any sort of scientific principle and make a video to demonstrate it. We had groups doing tornadoes, volcanoes, diet Coke and Mentos, and a handful of others. One group of boys decided they wanted to make a Chinese lantern. Now if you're not familiar with a Chinese lantern, it is essentially a paper or plastic bag that you turn into a hot air balloon. The boys did their research and the scientific principles behind it and crafted their first prototype. In the video below you can see the complete and utter failures of the first set of prototypes and how none of them achieved any sort of actual lift or flight.

As we were testing one of the prototypes in the gym one of the young men had an idea. He knew it was the hot air that made these things fly. He then thought that maybe they needed more of a contrast in air temperatures and that might be best achieved outside rather than inside. This seemed to make sense so we took the Chinese lantern outside where the air was a little bit cooler and you can see the result of that test.

As you can see in the video it was a success and the boys got the Chinese lantern up in the air. What I really like was the reaction they had when they saw it work. It is very rarely you see young men such as these have this kind of a reaction to something in school.

Thinking on this whole process of what the boys went through with the failures in trial and error to get to the final product it made me think about some things. First off, I respect the fact the boys didn't give up. How many of our students would have given up after the first attempt that nearly burned a hole in our gym floor? The other thing I think about is do we provide students with enough chances and enough opportunities to fail and to learn from their failure without judgment? Are they able to constantly fine tune and change what they're doing. These boys were able to work through problems and work different scenarios and settings and problems and solutions and figure out what worked and ultimately succeed in the project. What you didn’t see in the video was their changes to the size of the bag, the weight of the fire starter and position of the “carriage”.

I am fairly confident that while the boys were super happy with the final product of the floating lantern, I feel as though they will appreciate it far greater by having failed and gone through that process than if they had gotten it right the first time. I am left wondering if we provide enough time and opportunities for students to fail and learn from it in school.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Over the past year I have had the opportunity to do a great deal of speaking, presenting and collaborating with educators all over the country. In talking with educators from every state in the US as well as numerous of the US Territories, I have gained a unique perspective of the state of education in our country. Now, I am not going to pretend to be an expert but want to share some of the things I have seen, heard and experienced. Despite what the title suggests, I will go a bit out of order in my observations.

The Bad:
There are bad teachers teaching in our schools. I have seen them. I have talked to them and listened to them talk. I have heard more stories from other educators about these bad teachers than I would ever have time to share. They are out there in our schools teaching students every single day.

To be clear, I am not talking about the teachers whose students’ standardized test scores are low. Nor am I talking about the teachers who are labeled bad by some subjective administrator evaluation. I am talking about those teachers who are demeaning to children. The ones that teach the same way in year one as they do in year thirty one. Their lesson planner rolls over and the copyright dates in their packets are before the students were even born. Some are even engaging in inappropriate relationships with students or are abusive. These are the teachers that as parents we never want our children to have. They are out there and nearly every teacher or administrator I talked to could point out at least one in their building or district.

While this sounds bad, the reality is that these teachers are by far in the minority. They are few and far between but unfortunately they get all the press. These teachers end up on the 5 o-clock news for their antics and often embarrass our entire profession.

The Ugly:
As I have travelled and spoken to media, education lobbyists in Washington and even a handful of politicians and policy makers, I see lots of ugly. That is not a knock on these people’s personal grooming but more on the actions of the individuals within our government and our major media outlets. Despite what people want to believe, real change in our country’s educational system will only happen with a concentrated and real effort on the part of at least one of the two major influencers, media or government.

The national media has more power to change public perception and put pressure on politicians than any teacher’s union or grassroots movement in schools or on social media. Yet, they choose to report on the negative and continue to perpetuate the stereotypes that prohibit educators in our country from achieving a level of professional respect that many other professions are afforded. It is literally ugly at times to watch the education stories that show up on the news and in the papers. Media outlets are letting the few bad teachers tell the story for an entire profession.

Government is such an easy target these days in an election year where everyone is pointing fingers and casting stones. However, the reality is our state and national governments are doing little to help the state of education in our country. We have politicians around the country speaking of the importance of special programs and extracurricular activities in our student’s schools. Yet, when it comes down to voting and allocating resources, those are the first to get cut. There are policy makers that claim they don’t want teachers teaching to tests. Yet, they create systems of accountability that not only necessitate teaching to the tests but also set up a system built to encourage cheating and not collaboration. It is ugly to see the amount of pontificating that happens with little actual action to support those words. As the old saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.”

In addition, fake political campaigns in an election year to artificially show respect for teachers will not create any lasting change. Our politicians spend more time trying to get reelected and further polarizing the people of our country that any improvement or this so called “system” may be an unachievable dream.

The Good:
Of course I saved the best for last which is the good I have seen. Despite the bad teachers, disinterested media and incompetent policy makers, there is good abounding in education and it is everywhere. I could write for days about the stories I have heard from educators across the country and beyond. One such story is of Chad Miller, a teacher from Hawaii, who shared with me his school’s mission of promoting peace and a philosophical approach to learning. Then I was blown away when I learned that the Dalai Lama himself visited Chad’s school to talk about his mission and the work of the teachers and students. The work that he and colleagues are doing along with their students is inspirational to say the least.

I am constantly amazed by the sheer number of teachers that share their very best work and that of their students through social media. They have no obligation to do so but still choose to share in an effort to better learning for all students. Spend an hour following a hashtag or a discussion thread and you will see powerful work happening in 140 characters every minute of every day.

In my heart I believe an overwhelming majority of educators are doing good work. They are working day in and day out to the very best of their abilities. They spend countless hours perfecting their craft and making the learning experiences in their classrooms the best they can be despite the lack of funding and professional respect.

The Verdict:
What does this all mean? What have I taken away from this? Well, it is actually quite simple to me. Celebrate the good, fight the bad, and acknowledge the ugly.

We must bring each other up in a genuine manner and celebrate the good around us. Send a note to a peer who is doing something positive or trying something new. Encourage the positive work that is happening in your schools in big and small ways. We cannot settle for mediocrity nor should we tolerate it and need to fight against all forms of “bad” in our schools. We need to provide opportunities to support and improve teachers but also know when enough is enough. Cut our losses on those teachers who refuse to improve and focus on those that have a chance to be better. Acknowledge the ugly media campaigns and political circus but don’t spend our time focusing on things we really don’t have control over. Recognize and be informed but remain focused on what is important…the students. At the end of the day we must remember that above the tides of ugly and bad that can easily discourage our work as educators, there is far more good that we must recognize and appreciate. 

Passion Projects

I am always looking for ways to inspire my students and promote learning in my classroom. The biggest obstacle I often face is school itself. Whether its curriculum, rules, schedules, standardized tests or the host of other things that get in the way of inspired learning, there is always appears to be some obstacle. The past two years I have been fortunate to offer my students a day of unfiltered learning that was driven by their passions and interests in the form of Innovation Day. For me, it always kind of bothered me that this day only happened one time during the school year. I wanted a way to have this notion of learning exist in my classroom more regularly and this year I am giving something new a try.

Two weeks ago I introduced my students to something a colleague and I are calling “Passion Projects”. We committed a day a week (which is a class period in a junior high setting) to allow kids to work on these projects. To start, we asked our students what they were passionate about. What did they want to be when they grew up? If they had unrestricted time and resources to learn about something, what would that be? As a class we talked through the answers to these questions and started designing projects and learning activities based on their interests. Below is the first list of topics that was generated by my students during their first brainstorm.
  • Music
  • Environmental impacts on testing
  • Entertaining
  • Ocean
  • Building
  • Website design
  • Interior Decorating
  • Fishing
  • Photobooks/Photography
  • Acting
  • Writing
  • Engineering
  • Dinosaurs
  • Dancing ballerina
  • Cooking, chef
  • Perform-drama-skits
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Marine biology
  • Animals
  • Basketball
  • Swimming animals
  • Game design
  • Meteorology

Now some of these we are working with and creating into “doable” projects within the parameters of our school day and physical space. Outside of that, I have given them very few restrictions. One requirement I gave them is that I want them to keep a learning journal in some form to reflect on their learning. The other thing I asked them to do is share their work with their peers a few times over the course of the year. I told them I will provide feedback and guidance but never a grade or evaluation.

My goal is for students to pursue something they are passionate about and may never get a chance within a school to study. One way I hope to further inspire them is to use my social media “superpowers” to connect my students with some experts or professionals in some of the above topics. For example, I am already working on connecting my young meteorologist with one of the stars of Discovery’s show Stormchasers. I truly want to inspire these kids to think outside of the box and find something to be passionate about. If are or know somebody that is connected to one of these fields please leave me a comment as I would love to talk with you.

I look forward to sharing this journey with my students and sharing their successes and spectacular failures along the way. 

The Victim

The other day I had the opportunity to speak with a student who was heading back to school as so many children are or will be soon. This particular student, a young man, was not too keen on going back to school. I asked him why and he just said he hated school and didn’t want to go. Knowing this student fairly well, and even knowing a great deal about his school, I was a little taken back by this. Here was a good kid who I thought had a great previous school year, who was now nearly petrified of going back to school. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why. Personally, I just wrote this off to the unease that often accompanies a new school year. I even went as far as to talk to his mother about the situation and she was just as baffled as I was.

As any good parents would do, this young man’s parents encouraged him and slightly “forced” him on the bus that first day of school. Knowing both of them well, I knew the anxiety they felt and uncertainty of how his day would go. At the end of the day, he got off the bus, came home and appeared to be in good spirits. When he was asked about his day, he simply replied that it was good and that he wanted to go back the next day.

Being the inquisitive person that I am, I was curious as to what could have happened on the first day of school that could flip his seemingly strong feelings so quickly. Once I had a chance to sit down with him, I asked him how his first day was. He replied that it was good as he had told his mother. I then followed it up with the question, why? Why was school good for him? He looked at me and said, “Pat is not there anymore.”

Now, Pat is a fictional name because I don’t want to embarrass or put down a real student. However, he said that his day was good because this student was no longer in his class. This again heightened my curiosity so I asked him what he meant by that statement. He went on to explain how this particular student would push and hit him all of last year. Now that this student was no longer in his class, he was confident school would be “good”. This young man was a victim of bullying. As someone who knows this student well, I was shocked that he was apparently being picked on and nobody was aware of it. Trust me when I say his parents had no clue. As any good teacher would do, I then asked this young man if he told his teacher or another adult in his school. He replied nope and then went back to coloring.

The story above is real and actually happened to me as I described it. The students involved will remain nameless as that is not the intent of why I share this story. We have many students in our schools and classrooms that are harassed or mistreated in some way and will never speak up for themselves. Instead they harbor this fear where it manifests as it did in this young man to a point of him not wanting to go to school. Now, I know this student as well as his teachers. They would be the first to address this type of issue but clearly they were not aware of it.

It is this type of story that reminds me to be ever so aware of the quiet and meek students in our classrooms…or even the loud ones that you suspect are hiding pain. While many kids will share their life stories with you at the drop of a hat, many will never step up and advocate for themselves. Sadly, we have seen the pain caused by adults on children who were incapable of speaking up for themselves. We have to see the real pain that is also being caused by other kids. Be mindful of the victims and go out of your way to create those relationships that allow students to feel comfortable reaching out to you and advocating for themselves. Not all victims are obvious and not all victims will stand up for themselves. 

Parent Blogger Obligation

This week I attended my oldest son’s parent preview night at school. It was a great chance to let my son meet his teacher in person as well as tour his new school. As we walked through the halls locating the gym, the classroom and the bathrooms, I could see the anxiety and excitement in my son’s eyes. While talking with his soon to be 1st grade teacher she told my son Tanner that she was using a Super Hero theme in the classroom this coming year. Obviously, this was good news to me and I even sent the following tweet out.

A friend/colleague on twitter made a comment about how “lucky” this teacher was to have me live tweeting the preview night. I didn't think much of my tweet but have since starting wondering about where that line is between being a blogger/tweeter and a parent. Yes, I open the doors to my classroom and share it with the world as often as I can. However, what is my responsibility to open the doors of my children’s classrooms? Do I have a right to share what is happening to them at the expense it may celebrate or condemn things a teacher is doing they might not want to be shared?

As a blogger, do I need to be mindful of what I am sharing from my experiences as a parent? On one hand I see the need to share these stories so others can learn from them. My intent would never be to embarrass or publicly shame a teacher. However, if there are “bad” things happening, should I share in order for others to hopefully learn from my experiences? Do I have that right? If we don’t share these moments from the parental standpoint are we neglecting a great opportunity to learn and grow? I am honestly not sure what the answer is and am wondering if any of my readers have been in similar situations. 

Is the System Broken?

“The system of public education is broken and we need to tear it down and rebuild it from the ground up.”

I feel like I keep hearing this statement or some version of it from all angles. For a while I bought into this idea and felt the frustration and quickly got wrapped up in the negativity. It is very easy to look around and think the system is broken beyond repair. Some people are even going so far as to say we don’t need an evolution of the system but in fact a revolution. As a history teacher, I think the word revolution may be a bit harsh.

Now, I may be completely off but are we complaining too much about the boxes we have been put in instead of actually looking at how restrictive the box actually is? Are educators really that handcuffed and unable to change the systems within their own classrooms and schools? I think in many cases we have far more control to change our own piece of this so called system than we want to readily admit.

I keep coming back to this idea that the system is broken and we need to tear it all down and rebuild. If the system is so broken then why do millions of kids come to school every day and become better prepared for life? Why do I have kids that love learning in my classroom every day if the system is that broken? If the system is so broken why are there so many selfless people teaching in classrooms around this country?  How is it that in this broken system there are kids whose lives are literally saved by attending school? Broken systems don’t produce the mind blowing and inspirational things that are happening in public school every day.  Yet we have evidence of these things happening all around us in public schools across this country.

The public education system in America has its issues…no doubting that. Yet the issues are primarily with the politicians and corporations that are trying to ruin it not the people that are actually doing the work. Too many people are claiming the entire system needs to be rebuilt because they are not looking at what is working and building on that. It is much easier to tear down an entire house rather than doing the hard work of fixing it up. Politicians love to talk a good game but when it comes down to it, their actions do not match the candor. Corporations claim to have an interest in education but truly it is about their bottom line. I know the system is not perfect. However, I see so much good within it that I will focus on doing my part to make learning the best it can be in my classroom. If we all just focused on that rather than trying to “fix the system”, we might be in a much better place.

Letters from Space Camp - 2

This week I have been privileged to do many things I never imagined I would actually do…especially as an adult. I walked on the moon, experienced temporary weightlessness, and performed a few deep space missions. Yet, one of my favorite moments of Space Camp was having the opportunity to listen to Ed Buckbee address our group. He gave us all a fantastic overview of NASA’s space program in the early years and specifically the “Real SpaceCowboys”. By the time he was done speaking I was ready to get back to school and inspire the next generation of much needed engineers, scientists, and leaders.

Buckbee told us a great many stories that we inspiring, amazing, humorous and just plain cool. The theme that came out the most in his stories was this notion of we were in this together. After JFK announced that we would be going to the moon, the entire country was behind this project. Even some of my fellow teachers who were living during this age remember the collective national passion behind the NASA programs in the early years. Everyone was behind the astronauts and the men that would eventually put them on the moon.

One of my favorite anecdotes Buckbee shared was when he talked about Wernher von Braun and how he would walk down the halls and tell people, “you are on the critical path”. He wanted everyone to know that they were part of something bigger than themselves. Everyone knew they were a part of the mission to put man into space regardless of what role they played. Another story was of Alan Shepard, one of the early astronauts, who was speaking to a technician working late at night on one of the launch rockets. Shepard asked the man if he knew how all the parts in the rocket worked. The man replied that he did not but said, “I’m gonna make my part work.” No one person knew how it all worked but they knew how to do their small part in making the whole work.

These men understood they were part of something much larger and greater then themselves. They were aware they played but a small role but each and every role served a purpose. The sheer complexity of putting a man in outer space is staggering when you think of the millions of pieces, parts and potential pitfalls and errors that were possible. However, all of these people were working together towards a common goal was powerful and the result was putting man in space.  

I was going to attempt to make a connection to the classroom but will save that for another post. Listening to the stories of the space program and what these pioneers did was inspiring to me as a teacher and as an American. It is sad to think that in my lifetime I have only ever seen our country come together behind a common goal in response to national tragedies.  I recognize it was another time period in American history but I hope to inspire my students to find something like these men did. I want them to be as passionate about something as the early men of NASA were. There is little doubt in my mind that when we are passionate about what we are doing and recognize our own roles amazing things can happen. 

Letters from Space Camp - 1

This week I am coming to you live from Huntsville, Alabama where I am privileged to be attending International Space Camp. Last night was our “opening ceremonies” where the teachers of the year from every state introduced themselves and their state while wearing some sort of costume to represent their state. We had New York dressed as the Statue of Liberty and the guy from Washington as a nearly fully functioning Mount St. Helens and 48 other costumes. After each state introduced themselves and presented, we had the great pleasure to listen to our international counterparts speak about their countries which was both highly informative as well as entertaining. My favorite was the German students who presented a couple abridged versions of Brothers Grimm fairy tales in hilarious fashion.

Beyond the pomp and circumstance of the opening ceremony we have also had the opportunity to listen to Astronaut Charlie Duke. He spoke to our group about his experiences in NASA and his Apollo 16 flight and subsequent walk on the Moon. Needless to say there is something surreal listening to a man talk about walking on the moon in the same manner I talk about walking to the ice cream shop. In addition to Duke, we had dinner with other members of NASA’s space program including some of the original designers and engineers that worked on the Saturn 5 which was directly overhead as we ate.

Today we begin our flight missions and presumably the real “fun” of Space Camp that many children have dreamed of participating in. As I being this week full of learning, challenges and surely a great deal of fun, I am reflecting on a comment made in our first session when we arrived here at Camp. The coordinator of the program was introducing Space Camp and the ideals of NASA and overall space exploration. While doing so she said, “we explore because it’s there.”

She didn’t say we explore because we have to. Nor did she say we explore because we are being asked to. Yes, you can argue that the engineers and astronauts were doing their work because it was their job and they did have someone telling them to do just that. However, at the very basic level, the exploration of space was out of a sense of wonder and amazement and probably a heavy dose of curiosity. When you listen to the people involved in the early years of NASA as we have this weekend, they truly loved what they did. They wanted to put man into outer space and did just that. They were creative problem solvers and critical thinkers because they had to be. What is more amazing is just what they were able to accomplish with the level of technology they had available. As Duke said, we have more technological power within an iPhone that he did on the entire Apollo 16 ship. That is staggering.

I plan on using the phrase “we explore because it’s there” in my classroom. I want my student to explore and discover because it’s there, not because it will be on the test or because it is in the curriculum map. I want them to learn because it’s there…period.