Why Teach? Perspective from Someone Who’s Been There, and Back.

After going back and forth from the classroom to administration twice, I hope my perspective is worth sharing with teachers and all educators who struggle to find inspiration or meaning in teaching (especially as May gets underway). Don_t ever, for a single moment, believe there is any job or work in education that is more meaningful, influential, or fulfilling than teaching. (1)

I’m a secondary English supervisor. I work with close to 50 teachers, and am particularly close with my high school colleagues. Teaching was a second career for me, and I’ve been a building administrator, a hybrid curriculum leader, and (of course) a classroom teacher, but not necessarily in that order. Having returned to the classroom full time after an administrative job, my perspective on teaching is pretty simple. There is nothing in this business that is more meaningful, influential, or fulfilling, than teaching. Don’t get me wrong, being a principal or administrator of any kind in a school district or system is extremely important, and many times, the work is stressful beyond words as there are so many stakeholders to please at once. Those who do this job well, have my utmost respect.

The most important lesson I can impart to anyone leading, guiding, or supervising teachers is this: Never lose touch with the realities a classroom teacher faces each and every day. As Stephen Covey states in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand.” Having been through it, it’s easy to forget those precious, heart-wrenching moments in a classroom where a child is acting in the present, and a teacher is reaching back from the future to help them steer away from certain consequences that only wisdom can see. It’s easy to forget that while all the texts, materials, documents, and educational rules and guidelines exist to guide the experience, they actually come to life in the classroom through the living, breathing, feeling children, who sometimes bring a cacophony of experiences in with them every day. Finally, it’s easy to forget that the interaction between a teacher and a child is what matters most in a school.

Teachers, I get it. I see it. I know it. And although it may come across differently sometimes, I will never forget what it’s like to stand in front of students every day with the demands of the world on you to make a difference. Despite the demands, the rules, the issues, the craziness, you do make a difference…like no one else.

 

 

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Students Answer the Question: What Should School Be Like?

Group of cheerful students looking at the camera.

Recently, I asked students in my class to blog about what they think school should look like. The following bullets attempt to summarize what students believe school should be like.  The students I asked are 9th graders, generally at an honors level. I tried to capture as many ideas as best I could. Many ideas deal with teaching and learning, while some ideas address other topics.  Eye-opening to say the least!

  1. School should provide real-world skills
  2. Tasks should be authentic as opposed to a test
  3. School should be focused on learning not testing
  4. There should be choice for students to study what they want
  5. School should work to fix real-world problems (Kohn anyone?)
  6. High school should start later (they researched this!)
  7. Seating should be comfortable and variable
  8. Education should be personal and based on interests
  9. There should be more physical activity as part of class, but no more gym
  10. There should be room to be creative in many ways
  11. School should be fun
  12. Focus on learning, not grades and tests (and worksheets—many mentioned worksheets)– so you can make mistakes that won’t hurt you
  13. There should be less homework because how can we be involved in activities (like everyone tells us) when we have hours of homework every night?
  14. School should help you be the best person you can be
  15. There should be more interactive and engaging activities in class that involve discussion

I should also note that almost every student talked about the disconnect between standardized testing, most classroom tests, and the stress and strife caused by both. They stated that this doesn’t really relate to learning.

I learned a lot, I hope you did too!

7 Reasons to Do Genius Hour: Our Lessons from High School

For the third year in a row, a group of amazing teachers at Pennridge High School have undertaken the monumental task of crafting a Genius Hour experience we call DaVinci Day. Inspired by Genius hour and many other movements and initiatives that place passion, purpose, and creativity at the heart of the student experience, DaVinci Day allows student interest, curiosity, and passion to drive the learning. Each student (we’re close to engaging 180 freshman this year) spends regular time throughout the semester pursuing their area of choice through various forms of research and action. This culminates with a TED-style talk in various classes where each student presents their journey. Some students, usually most of them, attend and present at our DaVinci Day @Night where we invite students, teachers, parents, and community to listen and learn. To say the least the experience has been, and is, unbelievably rewarding for teachers and students. So much is shared, so much is learned, and so much is gained beyond the measurement of any test or grade. The following reasons to do #Geniushour are not so much persuasive reasons as they are the repeated lessons we’ve learned by doing our version of Genius Hour in high school:

  1. This is the truest form of student-centered learning. When given the chance to pursue anything they want, students amaze us. After their own realization that we’re serious, they dig in. They study an array of topics that range from taking action against modern slavery to helping each other cope with stress and anxiety, and everything in between. Where is that in the curriculum?
  2. This transforms our classrooms to give students what’s really relevant. As teachers in different disciplines, we find that students now want to truly do great research, create meaningful presentations, and become skilled presenters, because this is so important to THEM. This is not to mention learning things like resilience, tenacity, grit, and empathy along the way.
  3. When passion drives, creativity flourishes. Students continue to amaze us with their ingenuity and problem-solving. There is no other place in a normal curriculum for the powerful questions asked as part of this journey, and no other way to find answers than by sparking passion and creativity in kids.
  4. When the learning is meaningful, grades don’t matter. DaVinci Day is not graded. It is shared, expressed, evaluated, celebrated, and painstakingly worked on, but not graded. If you want to see intrinsic motivation at work in a grade-hungry, GPA-driven culture, just try it. Again, it’s transformative!
  5. DaVinci Day is not a competition, so the collaboration, empathy, and genuine interest in each other’s work places positive pressure on each student to do their best. As part of our classes and curriculum, we study the usual range of math, social studies, science, and English. Even with our best efforts and practices, engagement can be mixed. I’ve never seen students pay attention and show genuine interest like I have when they share their learning and stories.
  6. DaVinici Day is a catalyst for accelerated skill mastery. Want students to be better writers? Ask them to blog about their pursuits. Want students to research deeply? Let them find what inspires them. Want to help students build confidence? Let them discover themselves by pursuing their own passions.
  7. We’ve found the “it” for transformative practice. Of course, the answer was simple: let the kids drive, and everything else seems to fall into place. As teachers, we’ve learned to leave the stage to the stars, and support, coach, mentor, and teach in ways we never considered when we stepped into this business. Naturally, we guide them and help them do their best work, but ultimately they succeed on their own merits and desires. We’ve yet to be disappointed!

If you get a chance, check out our DaVinci Day site, and more importantly check out the Genius Hour site (our greatest inspiration)– Thank you Angela Maiers!

Innovator’s Mindset

Great thoughts from an educator on the move!

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I’m currently attending the PETE & C conference in Hershey, PA.  This conference deals with using technology in education to improve instruction.  Today’s keynote speaker (Tuesday 2/23)- George Couros was truly inspiring.

He shared several inspiring points three of which stand out to me as a teacher who is searching for innovation in my own classroom:

  1. Education should be a transformation- students should leave your class changed–their trajectory should be different than when they walked in.
  2. Grades do not tell the story of a child- there is so much more to the story.
  3. Controlling technology- like taking cell phones, and issuing consequences shows that we don’t trust our kids to be responsible and they know that.

Thank you George for changing my trajectory and giving me some inspiration to go back and work to change that of my students!

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For Great PD, Create a Culture of Learning, not Teaching to the Initiatives

Professional Learning is Culture not “Teaching to the Initiative.” Some ideas for creating a culture of learning.

Like any industry or field, education is ripe with new initiatives. While some are external in nature, many are based on the decisions and priorities set within each district or building. Most initiatives begin with the best interests of students in mind, and I’m certainly not writing this to evaluated the effectiveness of various and sundry educational initiatives, but there is a common thread that separates successful, sustained initiatives from those that get “bindered” and shelved after about a year. The difference is the professional learning environment within the district.
In too many cases, professional learning or development is just another part of the plan per each initiative, as if securing a day or two in the beginning will propel the initiative to sustained success. Although planning for professional learning is essential with anything new, there is a big difference between “teaching to the initiative” and creating a culture for learning so that new initiatives just grow within the fertile environment. Whether you call it a PLC (in the best sense of the term) collaboration, or simply professional development, the existing culture determines the success of an initiative way more than the plan or credibility of the initiative itself.
With this in mind, consider the following ideas or thoughts in order to move forward towards a culture of learning. I’m no expert. These simply come from a combination of my own experiences and personal learning; I hope you find them useful:

1.Being reflective is essential.
Regardless of your role or responsibilities in the classroom or beyond, developing a habit of documented reflection encourages individual growth, which in turn encourages culture when that reflection is shared. Try blogging, journaling, #twitter chats, and simply talking to colleagues. Just make sure you focus on your next step so as not to get stuck. As a leader, reflect out loud and share the journey.

2. Be creative and make time for professional learning and collaboration (even without a big initiative)
This is where habits and behaviors are formed. Be sure to encourage everyone to simply identify an area of potential growth, and identify the next logical step for their learning and practice, regardless of the topic. Big visions happen with small, consistent steps. Encourage sharing and conversation where everyone helps someone else take their next step.

3. Allow room for topics and conversations that may not be part of the grand picture
While tech integration, critical thinking, and creating a learning revolution may be where you want your community to go, the little things mean a lot in terms of building confidence and culture. If time is spent discussing desk arrangement and anticipatory sets, let it roll. This may be of immediate value to someone who needs the confidence to grow in bigger areas.

4. Make room for follow-up and revision
In my experience, this is where great ideas get lost. Creating time and space for follow-up and revision may be as important as the initial rollout. Similar to creating curriculum maps, all initial learning and ideation benefits from a structured re-visit after there’s been time for people to execute and process the initial learning and ideas. Again, this begins as an individual endeavor, but ultimately is most effective in a collaborative environment.

5. Fail forward
I’m really trying to avoid cliche here but If you learn to embrace, encourage, and learn from failure, you’re sure to move forward in a more valuable manner than if you wait for the right planetary alignment to proceed. Naturally, this step or idea circles back to my first point about reflection, and around we go. The best time to start anything is now, flaws and all.

To All Music and Marching Band Friends. A Little Love for All You (We) Do.

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This poem is dedicated to all my marching band friends, and to all those who support and sustain the art of music in motion

Together

The “bench” is empty.

There are no first, second, or third stringers.

From the newest freshman who can barely keep up, to the most seasoned senior, everyone is on the field, every moment.

No subs, no pinch hitters, no back-ups.

Expectations for performance are the same for everyone, every day.

The clock doesn’t stop.

Ever.

There are buses, and trucks, and equipment, and more equipment.

And carts, and electric, and generators, and video, and lights, and med-kits, and ice, and play-through-the-pain, and discipline…and discipline.

And there’s wind, and some rain, and the cold, and the heat.

Uniforms are old-school. Made of wool.

Summer, fall, winter, spring.

Then there’s practice.

Hours and hours before school even begins.

When everyone else is still in summer-mode.

Learn to walk, again. Run, jump, breath. Together.

Eat, play, move. Together.

Sit, stand, focus. Together.

Days, Nights, Friday, Saturday. Together.

Graceful, punch it, soft, hard, hit-it, toss it, catch it, breathe deeper from way down, precise, in-synch, feet, hands, toes, heels, heads, chest, shoulders, stomach. Together.

Eyes with pride. Together.

Change the move, read the chart, two more steps, reach, stretch, fix it, stop. Together.

One more time. One more time.  One more time. Together.

Ready. Ready? To the ready. Get ready.

Drum majors, is your band ready?

You may take the field and perform

Together.

What Are You Writing?

At a recent English Department meeting, I shared my goals (as supervisor) with my teachers. I’m obligated to three goals for the department. One of these is for teachers to reflect, connect, and simply become a writer by starting a blog.  As English teachers we read often and deeply, but when it comes to writing, it’s not as consistent and dependable.  In order to teach and model writing as an important part of literacy, we need practice working our own way through the process. We often share what we’re reading as adults with kids, but this is not usually the case with writing.
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I realize there are many more and perhaps richer ways to write than by blogging, and I certainly don’t want to discourage the emerging novelist or poet in our ranks.  This just seems to be an easy, informal way to step in the role of writer on a more consistent basis. Also, many teachers have their students blogging as part of class. At least in my case, writing along with my students has been and continues to be an enriching experience, not to mention the connections made through social media as we try to spread our learning.  My biggest challenge is to write on a consistent basis ; that’s the purpose of this post. For lack of a better term (forgive me Cliché Police), I need to put my money where my mouth is and get writing. My last post was almost six months ago and I guess if I want to encourage both students and colleagues, this is long overdue.

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I’m blessed to work with a great bunch of people who really want to get it right for kids. I see this as another step in that process. So fellow teachers of this high school English Department, the gauntlet is down (whatever that means): HAPPY BLOGGING!