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!

A Lesson in How Our Kids Are Different: The Clock on the Wall

Last Saturday night, I sat in Starbucks waiting to pick up my son from a college orientation. The store is not on campus, but close enough to have a mix of town folk and college students. Needless to say, the place was pretty empty but for a few of us who chose a quieter Saturday night.

As I sat in a “comfy” chair and read a book, I noticed a few things.

  1. I was the oldest in the store (lets just say I’m a “twenty-something” times 2)
  2. I was the only one without an Apple Computer (ok, they’ve been around for a long time, but still maintain the youthful associations)
  3. I noticed the clock on the wall (chime clock with Roman numerals) was an hour behind

I guess I could also mention that I’m only one who seems to want to drink decaf at night. Anyway, as it’s been about 3-4 weeks since clocks were set forward an hour for Daylight Savings Time, I debated whether or not I should tell the barista about the clock. Then it dawned on me: none of their normal customers need that clock for anything more than another piece of the decor.  For me it’s natural to look at the clock to be on time, but for those twentysomethings, a device clockserves the purpose. This made me think of the students who sit before me each day.

While I consider myself tech-savvy in a 1:1 laptop environment, I keep needing to remind myself that these high school students who I see and work with each day, are “wired” in a fundamentally different way than me. They process differently, they see tech as a fish sees water, and they expect school to meet their needs exactly where they are. Naturally, they don’t say this, but plenty of research on the brain and effective teaching and learning supports it.  As a teacher, I feel an obligation to be where they are so I can best get them to where they want to be. Frankly, if I always keep that in focus, I’ll never stop growing, and I won’t fall behind like the clock on the wall.

The Illuminati. Sleep disorders. Forced marriage. Just another day in high school.

Sleep disorders. Forced marriage.  Pollution. Sounds like a different kind of talk show, and not normally what you’d expect to be covered in a 9th grade course of study. But it’s exactly what kids are learning about—on their own. Welcome to DaVinci Day, our Genius Hour at Pennridge High School in Bucks County, PA.  These topics represent just a few of the dozens that students chose as part of this year’s DaVinci Day. In its second year, DaVinci Day gives students an opportunity to research and share an interest, passion, or curiosity. While not graded, all students are expected to document their progress and process which culminates in a TED-style presentation to classmates. We also host DaVinci Day @night to showcase student projects to parents and community members. Last year was an amazing success and we look forward to the same this year.

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In order to complete their journeys, students need to hone their topic, complete extensive research, and put together a 10-15 minute presentation that highlights their process, learning, and experience. Unlike a traditional experience, students are encouraged to see “dead ends” in their research and process as stepping stones to more learning. In other words, they embrace failure as a vital factor in success. Although the use of technology in our 1:1 environment is essential, the true value of the experience is the journey of learning. This is truly a way to help all students learn about themselves and the world in a completely individual way.

As a team of teachers, this became our Genius Hour as we set out on a course never taken in our collective experiences.  DaVinci Day also “informs” our instruction in the most authentic way as we quickly create lessons to help students be better researchers, information documenters, presentation coordinators, and ultimately, public speakers. Our motivation is enhanced by the authentic tasks the students undertake; student motivation is electrified as topics come from a part of themselves, a part they now share with class, community, and (blogs) the world.

It’s an exciting time of year as we continue to count the amazing moments of learning and discovery that characterize DaVinci Day.  Much of our story is available by following the links provided in this post, including our promo video

Our contact information is on our website. Also, follow our progress on Twitter as #PHSDavinciday takes shape.

ED Innovation is not about Technology

Technology is a tool, a vehicle that helps us build this revolution that’s necessary for the sake of our kids, and frankly, our profession. The revolution is about change and breaking away from old ways of doing things, especially the ways that are no longer effective (not that they ever were). When we talk about innovation in education, pictures of kids with laptops, i-Pads, and smartphones often come to mind. We also see teachers using a plethora of tech to bring new learning to kids and themselves. But, the real, substantial innovation is not in how we connect, it’s that we’re connecting now more than ever before. While edtech has allowed for the creation of such things as Twitter Chats, EdCamps, and other amazing gatherings, it’s the people, the relationships, the synergistic energy that is really fueling change.
I continue to stand amazed at the new friends, learning,and connections that I’ve made in such a long time. You are all awesome, and you help me lift my practice to places unimaginable. I’ve always believed that real change (the revolution) will come from the classroom and push it’s way out with great educators and leaders who disrupt the status quo and create new culture. I now know that while technology has expanded our sphere exponentially, it’s still the human relationships and welcomed infection of inspiration that comes from all of you that makes this revolution possible and real. So even in those dark times when the craziness of educational life starts to pull me down, I know that in an instant I can connect with the unmatched energy of my PLN, and find light. The technology tool is amazing because, like never before, it helps us capture the amazing energy of human innovation.

Being a “connected” educator means so much more…..

Being a “connected” educator means much more than hanging around Twitter Chats or other social media hunting for ideas and inspiration.
Connected means that somehow those relationships are helping you grow every day.
Today at #NJPAECET2, I realized the full power of connection with other teachers in this “connected” age. Years ago, if I was lucky, I’d go to a conference, make some friends and then slowly, but surely, lose touch. Because I lost touch, the energy and life of the learning was soon lost as well. Essentially, the conference and whatever I learned was a “one hit wonder.” Today, I connected in person with people I already know through social media; I got to put a face to ideas, and with the relationships strengthened, I eagerly look forward to seeing them again and again in the digital world. Reconnecting digitally helps remind me of what I learned in the first place and allows me to re-energize as I move forward, and this keeps the momentum and makes the experience continue and the learning worthwhile.

Lifting the Veil of Silence

Spring is a wonderful time of year for most things, but not for school budgets, and certainly not for teacher associations in the midst of contract negotiations. It’s time to   stop doing things as they’ve always been done regarding school boards, education associations, and the role of the individual teacher as an advocate and activist.

I think it’s time to remove the veil of silence, including my own.  As teachers and association members, we’ve been encouraged to silently attend school board meetings en mas, and even strongly encouraged NOT to speak at board meetings during contract negotiations. This is not to mention the “suggestions” to essentially curtail our social media presence because of the risks involved. Educators should be encouraged to speak at board meetings as a matter of urgent advocacy for our students and our profession. Standing before a community and a school board, sharing what we do for students academically, emotionally, socially, and developmentally needs to be emphasized. Sitting in a board meeting with your arms folded in silence is essentially consenting to what is happening. There is no gold in this silence.

Recently, I attended two school board committee meetings, one for policy and one for activities. These were not the big issue/budget meetings that characterize the spring. There was one person (a parent) in the audience, with six board members and two cabinet administrators present.  There was no heated discussion of contracts, finances, or any politically charged issues—- but in this intimate setting, important relationships were being built. Along with my participation in the meeting, I personally spoke to four board members before and after the meeting on a wide range of topics. In the recent past, I’ve had conversations with vocal influencers in the community, who cover many sides of the issue spectrum. After talking to parents,  board members, and community activists, it’s very clear that in many cases the honest perspectives and concerns delivered from individual educators about professional practice and children is extremely  powerful, far more powerful than a silent group of unfamiliar faces at a meeting. These small, seemingly insignificant moments can change deeply held perspectives and beliefs. The big, raucous meetings, actually have little influence over decision-making; in fact, they usually serve to further entrench beliefs on all sides.

Along with purposeful, professional social media presence, this type of personal activism is necessary for the very survival of our profession. If we do not take consistent, active steps to communicate what we do for children and the community as professional practitioners, both individually and collaboratively, we willingly surrender to the plague of status quo. By engaging in this way we invigorate the present and future with new ideas and possibilities; this is far more energizing than simply trying to preserve the past.

Thanks for reading!

Find and follow me on Twitter @Czaphil or email at hilczaplicki@gmail.com

Listen to the Students!

Listen to the Students!

Regardless of the best efforts to re-imagine education, we sometimes fail to recognize and act on the obvious. Even in the best circumstances where leaders strive to create a positive culture, and teachers drive learning, we often overlook the best compass for true learning: our students.

Through a combination of writings, informal conversation, and reflective feedback, the very students who sit before me (and even my own children) give me some of the best PD in terms of what will help them to learn in a meaningful way. In one instance, a student wrote an editorial on lengthening the school day. In her writing, the student does not reject a longer school day, but does remind us how easily we can shut students down by how we handle their wrong answers. She writes, “Students are made to look stupid whenever they don’t understand a lesson or ask a ‘stupid’ question in class. Teachers embarrass the student in front of the class if a student doesn’t understand what is being taught. When teachers do this, it prohibits the child from wanting to ask questions because the fear of being wrong is greater than the student’s effort to learn.” When I read this, I began to scrutinze the way I handle student questions and “wrong” answers. I was also reminded of the full measure of our influence with students. I was paradoxically humbled and empowered at the same time. This particular student goes on to say  that, “Society needs to rethink the educational system. Learning should be enjoyable. Kids shouldn’t dread going to school, it should be a pleasure to have the opportunity to learn and explore new things.” Well said, and probably more valuable than most PD.

In more specific terms regarding teaching practice, a student was reflecting aloud on the difference between testing and project based learning. To summarize, he stated that testing is just about memorizing stuff that you just forget, but with a project, you actually have to learn something. Imagine that, a student  grasping the difference between a culture of testing and a culture of learning. Another student, who was initially resistant to a 1:1, project-based environment, admitted that with PBL she really feels like she’s “accomplished something.” People with bigger credentials and more influence than me really need to take notice!

Aside from student writings and discussions, there is an obvious shift in energy when meaningful learning is taking place. Students are awake, active, and engaged. As deadlines and presentations approach it feels more like the last week before a school play than the final days of preparation for a project on The Civil War. Students collaborate and new ideas begin to emerge taking the teacher-envisioned product to a new creative level. That’s when it gets rewarding. Students driving the learning and truly creating something new.

As an educator, being a perpetual learner is a necessity. While there is tremendous value in connecting with and listening to colleagues and other experts regarding how to grow and move forward, never forget to listen to the students. They will point you to true meaning every time.

Visit Genius Hour for more information on allowing student interest to drive learning. These great educators are building something truly special for kids! If you want the best information about Project Based Learning, visit BIE; it’s simply an amazing and inspiring site. I visit regularly! Finally, my teacher partner, Cara Gurysh, has some great insights on her blog, Thriving in Chaos,  from our day to day experiences with our own version of Genius Hour, DaVinci Day, as well as our PBL efforts in a 9th grade 1:1 environment.