Thursday, December 22, 2011


It's almost the new year, and I've been on an extended blog-break (ah, how life happens in the midst of our best plans!), so I've decided to reflect on my posts, and how I've responded to the challenges I've posed to my readers up to now before starting with fresh topics in the new year.

1.  Flipping the classroom

I have really only done this with my high school class, and then only with grammar lessons.  It works well...when the students watch the videos.  As was my initial concern with flipping, students who do not complete other homework, will not watch the videos.  On the other hand, it frees class time to do enrichment activities with students who complete the homework while I reteach students who did not watch the videos, and they get more attention (usually needed) in a smaller group.  As I have maintained, this is another tool in the bag of tricks, and I will keep tweaking....

2.  Be proactive:  make a change

I. Got. This.  Being back in the middle school setting, I have completely changed my way of approaching my students -- in no small part due to what I have learned from my rockin' PLN.  My classes are self-paced, mastery classes, and my students and I enjoy life and learn more each day.

3.  My 3 Goals under Challenging my assumptions

I invited the building principal and one of the assistants to join Twitter.  No takers, but I'll gently keep at it.

I have not joined the Communications Committee, but it is not structured the same way at the middle school.  Honestly, this goal had slipped my mind, which is why this reflection is a good thing!

I invited the building principal and one of the assistants to visit my classroom (read:  computer lab).  The assistant who will be doing my review this year stopped in this week, so I feel successful!

4.  Honestly, this one was a no-brainer, because I found our opening day PD quite inspiring, without any  effort at all -- a great way to start the year!!

5.  I have truly made an effort to demonstrate gratitude as often and as publicly (in my blogs) as possible.  I highly recommend it!!

6.  My students know what it means to experience a FAIL -- First Attempt In Learning.  They also know when I experience a FAIL, because I am never shy to point it out to them (unless they point it out first!!)

7.  Giving up control.  I like to think that with my new self-paced mastery philosophy, allowing students choice in how they demonstrate their learning, I am right where  I should be in sharing control with my students. Then, they schooled me....again.

8.  Shaking up the physical space:

I am loving what I am able to do with physical space.  I have been in the computer lab more than the library these days, so what is available is different, but in some ways it is a sort of freedom to not have my own classroom.  I don't feel "tethered" to any one space, so I'm always asking myself what kind of arrangement will work, instead of starting with  a prescribed setting.

9.  Gathering information about my students

This is a way of life.  Today I met the student teacher who will be joining me next month.  I think that was the most important thing we discussed today.  We teach students, not curriculum, and without knowing who we are teaching, we are simply imparting information.

10.  Goalsetting with students:

This needs work.  My initial concerns about embracing a new platform for daily use were justified.  It was too much for my students.  I will be regrouping over vacation, and working more with them when school starts back up.

11.  Looking at the big picture instead of finger pointing.

Definitely easier said than done on some days, but when the going gets rough, I breathe deeply, repeat to myself "I do this for the kids", and tweet @AngelaMaiers to remind me I matter.

If you're a blogger, then this challenge is likely unnecessary, but here's my challenge for the New Year:

Honestly reflect on your school year so far.  Tally your successes and failures, set yourself some new goals, and count your blessings.

Let me know how it goes!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ed Reform, or Finger Pointing?

Two posts in two days...can you tell it was a rough day?  I stepped back from self-paced language learning  and pulled my classes together for some cultural inquiry in preparation for National French Week (Nov 8-14 for all of you who had a burning desire to know!)  Silly me, I thought I'd have them read a couple of English, of course, since they're novice learners of French.  No brainer, right?  Wrong.  Eighth grade.  You would have thought the world had stopped spinning.  Many of my students can't read.  Eighth grade.  Difficulties ranging from "a bit of a struggle", to "it might as well have been written in French".  Major eye-opener.  Needless to say, that lesson was an


Extreme Perseverance Is Crucial       First Attempt In Learning

I restructured my lesson, and it worked better with my next two classes, but it got me thinking about all the finger-pointing that goes on in the so-called ed-reform movement.  (I hate that term because it's so politically charged and ideologically motivated).  My reflection about my students, their issues, needs, and where they come from made me want to paraphrase some statements that either have been or could have been (based on circumstances) made to me by students with whom I have had contact over the years.

  • English isn't my first language
  • My mom's an exotic dancer
  • Call me Vicki -- that's my street name.  I'm a prostitute.
  • I have ADHD.  I don't always take my medication.
  • We haven't had electricity at home in over a month.
  • I have a learning disability.
  • I smoke pot.
  • Sometimes I can't control my bowels.  I smell bad.
  • I have to go to court to testify against my uncle.  He molested me.
  • I get bullied every day.
  • I won't be in school tomorrow.  I have to help my mom pack.  We got evicted
  • My rapist just got out of jail.
  • My mom has cancer.
  • None of my teachers look like me.  I'm black (Hispanic, Asian, Native American)
  • My parents are divorced.
  • My parents are dead.
  • I live with my grandparents because my mom can't handle being a parent.
  • I'm pregnant.
  • I think my girlfriend is pregnant.
  • I got so trashed last night!
  • My mom lives just down the street, but she doesn't want to see me.  Ever.
  • I'm afraid to come to school.
  • There's no food in my house.
  • I won't be in school for a while, because I'm going to rehab.
  • My family likes my sister best.
  • I cut myself when I'm sad.
  • I'm mentally ill.
  • I've been in trouble for dealing drugs.
  • My dad committed suicide over the weekend.
  • I'm autistic.
  • My mom is mentally ill.
  • You think my mom was drunk at Open House?  You should see her at home.
  • I have Asperger's Syndrome.
  • My 17 year old sister died of emphysema.  My mom has forgotten all about me.
  • If you call my house, make sure to talk to my mom, because my dad hits me.
  • Nobody else cares, so neither do I.
  • I'm on probation.
  • I have no friends because I smell bad.  I smell bad because I don't wash.  I don't wash because it keeps my cousin from waking me up for sex.
  • I'll never be as good as my sister.
  • My mom's afraid of my dad.  So am I.
  • I'm a kleptomaniac.
  • I'm a pathological liar.
  • My mom's in a nursing home because she's too obese to take care of herself.  Or me.
  • My father died. My mom doesn't know how we'll pay the bills.
  • My 20 year old sister has been taking care of me and my brother since our mom died, but our house just burned down, and we have nowhere to stay.
  • I'm in your class because I threatened to kill the other teacher.
  • I have speech problems.
  • I'm hard of hearing.
  • I'm blind.
  • I'm a junior.  I just came back to school after having my baby, but now my house burned down.
  • I think I'm going to kill my father.
  • I bashed my stepfather in the head with a shovel so he would stop beating my mom.
  • I'm in a wheelchair.
  • My parents use me and my brothers to hurt each other.
  • My stepfather is mean when he drinks.
  • I hate my mother's boyfriend.
  • My parents punish me by making me dig holes in the backyard until dark with no food.
  • I can't read, but there is not enough of a discrepancy between my IQ and achievement scores for me to qualify for special ed services.
  • I sleep most nights in a tent in the backyard with my boyfriend.  Our parents don't care.
  • I have to take care of my parents.
  • My boyfriend hits me, but my mom says I have too much invested in the relationship to break up with him.
I've only been teaching for sixteen years.  Every one of these statements comes from a student I have known in that time.  I teach in suburban America -- perhaps in a neighborhood like yours. 

To all who would point fingers at who is to blame for these students' failures, (inability to read at eighth grade):  Who would you say is at fault when they don't learn? Can you really put the bulk of the blame on teachers?  Budget cuts?  Unions? Public education? Parents? Society? Youtube?

When my students arrive in September, many of them have been dealing with the aforementioned issues (and this list is by no means comprehensive) for a lifetime, years, months, weeks, or maybe an issue comes up mid-year in the blink of an eye.  I know adults who would be brought to their knees by lesser problems than I have seen teenagers defeat and rise above.  Others flounder, and slip through the cracks of an imperfect system.  Still, some continue to insist on laying blame, because finger-pointing is easy, makes a good sound bite, and gets politicians elected. (It can also make you temporarily feel better when you're frustrated, and I'm certainly not above it from time to time, but the good feeling never lasts, and it never solves anything.)

Learning is complex, and there are any number of variables which can affect learning outcomes -- many of which are utterly outside the realm of control of any current system, or any system proposed by ed reformers.

So here is my challenge:  before you point a finger and demand accountability, take ten steps back, and look at the big picture.

Let me know if you're still pointing that finger.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Setting Goals

In a lot of ways, goals to effect change are what this blog is about.  In the words of Mahatma Ghandi, "Be the change you want to see in the world".  If I'm writing well enough, and making my points effectively, there are teachers out there (at least one?  maybe?)  who have set goals for themselves based on the challenges I put forth.  Goalsetting can be a useful strategy in every aspect of life.

It's been almost a decade since my school district moved away from the traditional annual teacher observation to the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) model which begins with a SMART goal.  (If you are unfamiliar with SMART goals, please check out this SlideShare by Elona Hartjes.  This is what I used to present the concept to my eighth graders.)

When SMART goals were first introduced to us, it seemed to make a lot of sense -- a lot more so than putting on a dog and pony show once a year (although one of the highest compliments I ever received from a student was that I didn't act "different" on observation day).  SMART goals seemed a very common-sense and effective way to plan for and measure change.  As the years passed, I often wondered what was wrong with me that I could not write an acceptable SMART goal.  I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person (feel free to disagree) and I would say the same for my colleagues.  But being sent back to the drawing board umpteen times, or having an administrator just plain rewrite it for me becomes demoralizing after a while.  It was as if adminstration found a sound theory in SMART goals, but decided to sharpen it to a fine point and stab their teachers to death with it.

So out of frustration I was pretty down on the whole SMART goal concept for awhile.  This year, with the self-pacing I'm doing with my students, I realized very quickly that I needed to hand over the reins (see my post on Control ) and instead of giving them each their tasks at the start of class each day, they should be setting their own goals, and telling me their daily plan.

Easier said than done.  Experience (read:  prior bad judgment) has taught me not to approach something like this without first training students.  "Ok class, write a goal" will likely result in responses from "IDK" to "sleep" to "beat level 15 on Angry Birds".  So I started researching goal-setting with students.  You guessed it -- SMART goals were the basis of virtually every example I looked at, and with good reason.  So, after yers of moaning and complaining, I slapped a Band-Aid on my bruised ego (being stabbed to death might have been an exaggeration...) and got to work.  I showed my students Hartjes's SlideShar, and walked them through the goalsetting process using a website called Goalbook.  (fantastic site -- definitely worth checking out!)  They completed their first goals yesterday, and I was impressed.  Some of their metacognition was surprisingly insightful, and I think they were pleased at being given an additional measure of control over their learning.

So my challenge to you is a double-edged goalsetting challenge:  Set a goal for youself to teach your students how to set their own learning goals -- for one topic, one unit, one project, even one class period.  Let me know how it goes!

Saturday, October 15, 2011


TI was enjoying breakfast this morning in a local diner with my boyfriend (diner food -- a guilty pleasure) when two women entered with two boys aged approximately four years.  These two boys seemed very sweet, and amused themselves by playing a peg game:

Their food came, and shortly after they finished eating, one of the boys stood up on the bench and very loudly started saying "BEEP! BEEP! BEEP! BEEP"  Mom seemed upset, but what first occurred to me was that it must be his timer going off -- the internal timer that says "can't sit still any longer!"  Of course I was in no way responsible for this child, but all I could do was laugh.  Things progressed in similar fashion, and the moms finally packed up the boys and left (embarrassed) after one of them tipped the syrup bottle to his mouth to get a bigger taste.

I thought to myself that someone who left before the boys finished eating, would have a different interpretation of the boys than I do, as would someone who did not arrive until after the food had been eaten, and the "beeping" began.  Same boys, different points in the spectrum of  their tolerance of what was being expected of them.

So, I should get to the point.  How many times have we had or overheard the discussion in the teachers' room about a single student and two teachers who view that student in a completely different way?  "She's such a handful for me!"  "That's interesting, because she's an angel in my class."  Too often the easy answer is to 

a.  blame the student, or
b.  blame the teacher

when in truth, there are so many more variables that could be at play.  At what time of day does the student perform better?  Is she not a morning person?  Is he burned out by the last class of the day?  Are there gender issues -- does the student relate better to males or females?  Is the class right before lunch, and does this student arrive to school having skipped breakfast?  Is the teaching style compatible with the learning style?  Is the student on medication, and at what time is the medication administered?  At what time does it begin to wear off?

My challenge to you, is to think about one student you are having trouble reaching.  Talk to other teachers -- current or past -- who have had success with that student, and try to find patterns.  Talk to parents, counselors, the school nurse, AND THE STUDENT.  Make your own observations of what seems to work with this student in your class when you do have moments of success.

Let me know how it goes!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Flexible Space

Flexibility, to me, is one of the two most important qualities for an educator to have, and yet I find so many teachers to be rather rigid in their thinking, practices, and how they deal with students.

I am in my fifteenth year in the school district where I teach now, and over my career I have been in about nine different classrooms beginning full-time at the middle school, then traveling between the middle and high schools when the ninth grade moved to the high school.  At that time, the middle school was on a 40 minute every day schedule, and the high school was on an 80 minute every other day block schedule.  After that, I was moved to the high school full time, adding a new course to my repertoire.  Not too many years after that, the high school went to a modified block schedule with 80 minute classes every other day for all classes except freshmen math and foreign language, which would meet for 40 minutes every day.  I straddled both schedules until this year, when we reverted to the 80 minute every other day block for all classes except I'm back at the middle school for four of my classes.  I teach from a cart, and do not have a classroom of my own.  Flexibility is a matter of survival.

Having given some of my professional background, I'll focus on the topic at hand -- flexible space.  My current absolute preferred teaching space is the middle school library because of the opportunity for flexible space.  Our middle school library is the best in all the land.  No, really, we have an award that says so.  Our librarian, Sue Kowalski is one of the most phenomenal educators I have had the pleasure of knowing.  So when I teach in our library -- (which it truly is.  I've worked with librarians in the past where I might say "her library", but this library truly belongs to the school community, most especially the students.  But I digress...)  as a technophile I am there because it is a 1:1 environment, and much of what I do with my students is much easier when each student has access to a computer.  However, off to the side there are rectangular tables, where I can split off students individually, in pairs, or in small groups for low-tech activities, or to access material on my laptop or tablet.  Between two bookshelves is a casual circle of comfy chairs that a small group can use for collaborative work.  Behind the rectangular tables, and separated by a book display are round tables.  On the wall, is a standard erasable whiteboard --  I have several students for whom that is their preferred method of practice.  There is even an area with beanbag chairs and pillows.  In short, aside from kitchen space (I'll have to negotiate some time in a FACS room for that) there is space in our library to meet the learning needs of my students in a variety of situations.

I feel very blessed to be back at the middle school at this particular time, because we are on the verge of some groundbreaking change in the area of flexible space.  We have what has been dubbed the "STEAM Team" STEAM, of course, being Science, Technology, Arts, and Math.  Part of what's so fabulous about what this team is doing, is that they are playing with physical space in such a way as to make it suit learning needs, rather than the traditional model of adapting instruction to four walls and one desk per student, let learning happen as it may.

Science and the technology labs have large double doors like you might find leading into a cafeteria -- fire doors if you will -- and there is a large common area in the hallway where folding tables can quickly be set up to expand space.  At any given moment you could see mini traffic cones set up with students collecting data about cars they've built.

Jason Fahy, a teacher for whom I have the utmost respect, is the science teacher for the STEAM Team.  He admits to being outside his self-described "very narrow" comfort zone (sorry Jason, I've heard too much about your cutting edge teaching from my students, most notably my daughter, to buy that you hide out in a tiny safe comfort zone!) and I think that's the biggest barrier to more teachers using flexible space -- "comfort zone" issues -- either their own personal/professional comfort, or in some cases the comfort zone barrier may belong to administration, and without administrative support, there are limits to what can be done.

Also, there is certainly some amount of chaos that accompanies flexible space.  This may not work for all students, and we need to keep that fact in mind.  I have requested a couple of old-school study carrels for one of the classrooms where I teach, in order to accommodate those students who need some extra structure and/or a quiet place removed from the rest

Friday, September 23, 2011


The tug of war of control between federal and local governments over education, union and school board, parents and school districts, teachers and administrators, are ever-present in any discussion of education reform or transformation.  But the control issue that seems to come up most often in my discussions on both #edchat and #langchat is the issue of student control.

It is evident that in order for students to have more control of their learning, teachers must give up some of their control.  For many teachers, this is a very scary prospect.  The idea that good classroom management equals a quiet classroom filled with obedient students is a traditional view that has been reinforced in teacher education programs for decades.  Then again, I have also seen tweeted and retweeted, even by educators I greatly respect, the sentiment that noisy classrooms are where the most learning is taking place. Judging from my own three-ring circus (read:  classroom), depending on what activities are taking place and how many activities are going on at any given moment, the volume can range from a dull roar to almost pin-drop quiet (which I find almost unnerving) but in either case, students are engaged.

I have students who choose to work alone when they have the opportunity.  I have students who choose the low-tech options when they are available.  With guidance, this is how they learn which learning methods work best for them.  Do they have completely free rein?  Of course not.  Am I endorsing classroom anarchy?  Never.  But students respond positively when allowed to make choices within a system of structure.

I was prompted to post on this topic by an experience I had with my students last week.  I had just introduced them to their electronic portfolios in wikispaces.  They were setting up accounts, embedding their first speaking pieces, when the buzz began among them that there was a chatroom in the wiki.  Now, I had planned to introduce this in the future, so having them discover it on their own, saved me quite a bit of direct instruction.  Of course, my little angels thought they were putting one over on me, but because I let them be in control, I have some found time with this group.

The day after I drafted this post, (but before I had a chance to type it), I had another experience with students that made an even bigger impact on me.  In a class of novice French students, one group was working on being able to count out loud up to 20.  I had selected two different counting songs (here and here) for them to use to model their pronunciation, and use for memory aids.  I was working with other groups for a few minutes, and when I went to check on the counting group, they were watching a youtube video I had never seen before (here).  They knew from a previous class that my teacher account (which was logged in on the computer they were using) did not have youtube blocked, and they took it upon themselves to try to find a better alternative to what I had offered.  They were successful.  I subsequently used the video they found with other classes, who also enjoyed it.  Here was a group of students who were allowed some control of their learning, realized there were better alternatives out there, found them, used them, and LEARNED.  I couldn't have planned it as well myself.

Giving students choice will not bring the world to an end.  In fact, it just might make your classroom manageable.  You might even find your students teaching YOU a thing or two.

My challenge to you:  Find one area in which you are willing to give up some control to your students -- homework, seating, practice method, assessment method.  Let them surprise you.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On Failure

Having finished the first week of school as a teacher of novice students of French, this post (that has been percolating in the draft pile for weeks now) seems very timely.  All learners benefit from this message.  I've often seen the message "Failure is not an Option" as a motivational bumper sticker/poster type message designed to raise expectations, but the fact is, that failure MUST be an option in order for learning to occur.  This blog is normally intended for the audience of educators passionate about making the changes they have the power to make in order to transform education, but I am writing this also to share with my students, because I believe it is a message they need to hear.

I am normally confounded by the alphabet soup that edjargon has become, but I've seen this acronym tweeted numerous times in the last several weeks, and it really touched me:

FAIL:  First Attempt In Learning

Thomas Edison said:
I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
Brad Flickinger expanded on this philosophy in his blog about how great ideas are born from failures.  Learning can be increased -- perhaps exponentially -- when failure is embraced as part of the process -- something to be analysed and transformed.  Like Henry Ford said:  "Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently. "

My favorite point from Abhijit Kadle's blog is how he puts failure in to the context of video gaming -- a concept most of our students understand quite well.  If you've ever played a particular video game for any length of time, reflect on the number of failures required to move from level to level.  Probably the first two or three levels can be moved through rather quickly, maybe even failure-free, but as you move forward, you may be stuck on a particular level through numerous failures until you finally succeed.  Put in the context of learning content in a classroom.  Some concepts come to some students very quickly, others require numerous failures, but boy what a great feeling when the success eventually happens.
Alina Tugend quoted a teacher in her post on Edutopia as lamenting that students have become "victims of excellence".  They have become afraid to fail.  Teachers have the responsibility to reassure them that

1.  It's Ok not to know something, as long as you are willing to find out

This is one of the most powerful things a teacher can model.  We are not the "keepers of the knowledge".  It is guaranteed every class we walk into that every student has something s/he can teach us that we didn't already know, so when we say "I don't know.", we make it OK for them to do the same.

2. It's Ok to take a while to learn

This is a particular point with me, and it bears repeating.  Students need to be allowed to learn at their own pace. When we allow them that comfort, it may come to bear that the pace picks up as students gain confidence, and realize they will not be shamed or penalized for taking a little longer to absorb the information

These excerpts from this post by Scott Dinsmore sums up the message I'd like to send with this post.

It’s ok to not be the best at something.

In fact there’s huge power in being a beginner. Here are a few:
  • Keeps you humble
  • Gets you out of your comfort zone
  • Removes expectation or comparison
  • Connects you with people on a new level – gives a window into their world
  • Gives you a chance to find something that lights your heart on fire
So, for a dual audience, a dual challenge:

Teachers:  I challenge you to tell your students directly that failure is part of the learning process.  Make your classroom a place where failure is embraced as a mile marker on the road to success, not something cloaked in shame.

Students:  I challenge you to play Angry Birds, and the next time you feel like a failure in French class, remember Angry Birds.  Remember how many failures it took to get to that next level.  The, remember how great it felt when you finally got there.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Power of Gratitude

I've started watching more TED talks lately -- many on the recommendation of another of my favorite tweeps, Terry Woolard.  The most recent TED talk I've watched was by Adam Grant, and had to do with the effect of gratitude on teacher burnout...and wearing dark suits, but you'd need to watch the video to understand that last bit.

Teaching, particularly in the current political climate, can be an isolating and thankless job -- especially if you teach secondary school, and have contact with far more students for a far shorter amount of time.  (And let's face it, spontaneous gratitude is not part of the general makeup of most teenagers).  "Teacher gifts" at the end of the year and holidays usually become a thing of the past as soon as parents figure out "You want to buy gifts for HOW many teachers?", which is as it should be, because after all, it really is the thought that counts.  And although there have been relatively few true expressions of gratitude I have received in my career, I cherish those I have gotten -- flowers from a student who passed after long hours of remediation, a guidance counselor thanking me for my hard work on behalf of students, an administrator telling me he was impressed with how I handled myself in a meeting with an irate parent.  We all like to think we go the extra mile for selfless reasons but the truth is, it matters when someone notices and says thank you.

Two years ago my school district moved to the PBIS system of student discipline (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports).  At the high school, part of this new system includes paper tickets known as "fist bumps" that are filled out by students or teachers who "catch a student being good".  Yes, there are monthly drawings for small prizes, but I have a hunch that the real prize is the "thank you" that is the fist bump.  The PBIS committee, made up of fabulously enthusiastic educators, had the wisdom to include faculty in the fist bumps, so students and faculty can give fist bumps to faculty as well.  To many of my colleagues it seems kind of silly, I know, but to me, a personalized thank you from a student or colleague -- even for something as simple as always being on time for lunch duty -- means someone is paying attention and, yeah, it matters.

So my challenge to you, as you go through your first weeks of school, is to sincerely thank a colleague for their hard work, or for helping you, or just for being on time. 

It matters.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

First Day Homecoming

I'm home!!

Back in the day...after I completed my middle school student teaching placement, I vowed to do my best to avoid teaching middle school again.  Ever.  Of course in real life, we take the job that is offered, so newly married and expecting my child, I took a job teaching eighth and ninth grade French.  Well the undeniable thing about middle school age students is that they grow on you...perhaps like a fungus, but nevertheless  it's a truly unique experience.  After several years, our district shifted the ninth grade to the high school, and I became a traveling teacher.  I adapted.  Several years after that, due to a scheduling change, I was teaching exclusively at the high school.  I adapted.  Now, again several years later, another scheduling change, and I will be four classes out of five back at the middle school.

The first two days before students begin their school year are reserved for professional development.  The first PD handout to catch my eye as I walked into the middle school cafetorium was a Thinking Map with "Teacher as Facilitator" at the center.  That was the moment that my apprehension fell away, and I truly felt like I was back home.  I am thrilled to be back in the midst of a group of teachers and administrators looking at the learning process in this way.

Now although I was pleasantly surprised, I admittedly was not entirely looking forward to these two days.  Although billed as PD, what they usually are, in total honesty, are a series of long meetings that accomplish little.  Still, several years ago, having sat through countless hours of minimally valuable PD, I made it a personal goal to walk away with at least one new and useful tool or concept to run with.

So that is my challenge to you.  Your school-sponsored PD may not give you a feeling of homecoming like I had this morning, but at your next PD gathering, make a point to find at least one new and useful tool or concept you can add to your teaching bag of tricks.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Examine your Assumptions

I recently watched Sir Ken Robinson's 2010 TED talk in which he encourages educators to "disenthrall" themselves from what they take for granted.  This clip begins with a quote from President Abraham Lincoln:

I was reminded of this clip earlier today.  In the process of giving some well-deserved kudos to Todd Whittaker and John Bernia, I commented that I had come to Twitter with quite a jaded opinion of administrators.  John asked me why.  This is one of the reasons I feel blessed to have John as a member of my PLN.  He challenges me to think and question.  Shortly after tweeting a brief response to John  about having been evaluated for four years by an administrator who has never set foot in my classroom (more on that...) I had the luxury of a twenty minute drive.  (If I could find a safe way to blog and drive, my life would be so much easier! -- My best thinking happens in the car.)  As I drove, I pondered John's question.  A lot of bitterness was taking hold.  I revisited my early Twitter days, and I am ashamed to admit to the number of times I rolled my eyes and said to myself "administrator" when I would see a tweet posted by a man in a tie.  Talk about assumptions!

I don't want in any way to imply that I have only worked with "bad" administrators -- on the contrary.  I actually tend to understand (often more than many of my colleagues, ironically) that when building principals put pressure on teachers to raise test scores, they are responding to pressure from superintendents, who are responding to pressure from the state, and so forth.  I have worked with several administrators for whom I have immense respect, despite the fact that I may not always agree with them. Still, somewhere along the way I allowed myself to slip into an "us" "them" mentality, even though consciously I know how counterproductive that is.  So thank you again to John and Todd, Patrick Larkin, Bill Burkhead and other administrators in my PLN for sharing their passion for continuing to learn and grow, but mostly for continuing to challenge and question their tweeps.

Going forward, I will be teaching 4/5 of my day at the middle school with three administrators I have not worked with in that capacity.  I am entering this new school year with optimism, and hopeful to develop positive professional relationships.

So given all of this, I need to remember the title of my own blog, and identify my realm of control.  To the end of breaking out of the "us" "them" mindset, here are my goals:

1.  invite the two assistant principals at the middle school to join Twitter

2.  join the communication committee at the middle school

3.  actively invite administrators into my classroom

Here is my challenge to you:

Challenge your assumptions.  Disenthrall yourself from what you take for granted.  Go for a drive and think about how you would finish one (or all) of these sentences:

administrators are                                                                

students are                                                                         

parents are                                                                          

Friday, August 19, 2011

Beyond the Rhetoric Part 1

I've been slowly putting together a series of posts for this blog called "Beyond the Rhetoric".  They were initially going to be the introductory posts for the blog, until I exploded my pen in the Promethean workshop and, the previous post if you want the whole ugly story.  This post wasn't even going to be part of the series until I read Dan Brown's post "After the Save Our Schools Blown Opportunity, Where Do Progressive Educators Go From Here?"  Family commitments kept me from attending the SOS march, and quite honestly, I do not usually participate in highly organized productions such as this because they seem to me to be machines of rhetoric rather than vehicles capable of meaningful change.  Yes, most of the message is good, but what do they really accomplish?

When you have two opposing sides with opposing positions, and both sides continue to publicly build the walls of rhetoric ever higher, ever louder, the only thing accomplished is further isolation and the promise that no change will come.  This premise was clearly illustrated by the fact that SOS march organizers turned down an invitation to meet with President Obama's Education advisors before the march.  They chose rhetoric over conversation and potential compromise.  What did they really accomplish?  Is the situation any better for students as a result of this march?  Isn't that what this is supposed to be about?

On a smaller scale.  When we complain to and with our colleagues about various situations in our departments, in our buildings, in our districts, we create our own rhetoric.  It can grow, and bring down morale.  My challenge to you is to choose one area of your professional life that you are prone to complain about, and be proactive -- that may mean changing something on your own, working with colleagues to make a change, meeting with admin or union leaders, but make a change.  One small change can change your outlook, raise your morale, and lead to bigger things.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why We Need to Individualize Instruction

I've decided to start a new blog, not because I need one more thing to do, but because my other professional blog is intended to discuss technology in the foreign language classroom, and the more time I spend with my PLN, the more I find myself wanting to write about broader ideas about changing the way we go about "business as usual" in education.

My first post is an attempt to answer the question why do we need to individualize instruction.  The answer is becuase I'm still "that kid".  You know the one I mean.  I sat in a workshop this morning -- Promethean Boards:  The Basics.  I got bored.  If you've read any of the posts on my other professional blog, you're probably wondering why I would bother with a tech course entitled "The Basics" -- it's just asking for trouble.  Here's the backstory.  I am one of the few teachers left in my district without a Promethean Board.  So I made it my mission to find ways to use other technologies to do what I needed to do.  Then we were told that this fall everyone would have a Promethean board in their classroom.  So, in an attempt to play nice, and since our admins have been known to randomly stop teachers at random in the hall to ask "Have you used technology today?" I decided to learn how to use the Promethean properly, and signed up for the workshop.  Thank God for the internet, because I could have learned all the material covered in the workshop in about 20 min.

So I headed to hootsuite and followed a half dozen hashtags.  I filled out my paperwork, and exploded my pen (that's when I truly realized I was "that kid"). I browsed Promethean Planet.  I read a few blogs about using IWBs in class (incidentally finding many teachers of the opinion that they are merely expensive overhead projectors. -- See my other blog in a few weeks for my opinions.)  I also helped the teacher next to me who -- despite step by step instructions for everything we did, repeated at least once each time -- still just didn't get it.

This is in no way a knock against that teacher.  She's probably a math teacher, and I can barely count to ten -- on my fingers.  My point is that we all have our strengths and weaknesses -- just like our students.  This workshop did not meet my deeds, nor did it meet my colleague's needs -- she will likely be unable to replicate most of what was presented on her own.  I don't think the presenter was at all aware of the disparity in our learning, because we were all presumed to be beginners.

It is true that we may have started at ground zero, but we all came from different backgrounds, with different comfort levels regarding technology, and different learning styles -- just like our students.  As a professional, I was able to use the internet to quietly and independently expand my learning.  Johnny Brilliant in my class, however, might alternatively use his boredom to text his friends to coordinate a flash mob in the admin suite at noon when the educators from Japan are due to visit.  My colleague, as a professional, was willing to ask me for help, while Nora No Food in the House might get frustrated and just shut down.  We aren't all the same.  Neither are our students.

My challenge to you:  Try flipping a lesson on one small concept.  Create a 5-10 minute video or podcast for students to consume outside class.  Come prepared the next day to teach each student individually where they are.