Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Secret of Making Yourself a Better Teacher


We, and when I say we I mean Joe and Troy, my buddies from GT Innovators, presented a couple of sessions to teachers last week in North Texas. And one of the most well-received pieces of advice we gave to the educators in the room was, "Your only goal for next year is to be less worse than you were this year."

A few years back, right before school started, I walked out to the portables to check on a brand new second grade teacher. I found her on the floor, crumpled and sobbing in front of her unfinished bulletin board. Surrounded by piles of bordette and die cut letters, she sat crippled by overwhelming indecision. She had no idea what to do next, what was important, or what she was going to do in five hours when twenty-two seven year old's bounced in to meet their teacher.

At that moment we did not need to delve into pedagogical discussions about reading groups or the best ways to use 10 frames to teach subtraction. She needed a room put together, procedures for collecting materials and some time to put on her "Welcome to 2nd Grade! I'm so happy your in my class" face.

With the help of the support teachers and her team leader, we stapled that room into a work of art. It turned out to be a good night for her.

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Like many teachers she was overwhelmed with how much there was to do, how much she had to do and the ultimate realization of how much she did not know.

Realization is hard but what is harder is moving from realization to action.

The best thing I ever did for myself during my first year as a teacher was to forgive myself for my shortcomings in the classroom. And at the end of that first year, as I looked back on the two things that went well and 468 things that did not go so well, I realized that one summer was not going to be enough to improve on all of those shortcomings. 

So I came up with a plan that has served me well over the past two decades. Each year I would focus on one thing and make myself the best I can be in that one area. Even if that meant I taught one content area straight from the textbook while I worked on my craft in another area. I knew I could not become a great writing teacher and a great math teacher at the same time. There just was not enough of me to go around. 

Now, as the summer tumbles away, my focus for the upcoming year, as it has been for almost two decades, is to be a little less worse than last year.

If you would like to read more about some of the lessons that time and reflection have helped to improve please click for more resources.




Wednesday, June 24, 2015

3 Ways to Engage Students in the Research Process

The beloved research unit. Often saved until the last few weeks of school, thousands of students invade computer labs to plagiarize text that is loosely connected to their topic in order to comply and complete the last major grade (in some cases double major grade) of the year.

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How can we, as educators, step away from what are clearly outdated instructional modes to truly engage students in the research process and effectively adapt to the demands and requirements of the 21st-century classroom and world?

1. As a teacher, adopt a research philosophy by creating situations where students are curious to find answers to their questions in traditional databases, YouTube or the much maligned Wikipedia. Examples include scavenger hunts to find rhetorical devices, research the meaning behind literary allusions or finding movie trailers as examples of tone.

2. The often important, and much overlooked, strategy of putting the students in control of their topics. The most authentic research is born of students choosing their own topic and developing their own questions. This changes the process from merely reporting facts the dynamic act of real inquiry. Examples would include having students research different civil wars and then meeting in groups to discuss the patterns to the causes of civil war and the results over time to all who were involved in the conflict. Students choose the battles, discover the patterns and then choose how best to present their results.

3. The worst part of teaching the research process is having to actually read the papers students "write." Make sure the teacher is not the final audience. Our job as teachers is to make sure that student work does not end with our grade on the top of the paper. Examples may include public performances of persuasive speeches, screenings of documentaries, publishing work in community papers, creating a school-wide research journal or sending the work to an expert in the field to gain their feedback.


In a speech delivered at the University of Connecticut, Mortimer Adler said, "For the gifted person, the person who really wants to learn something, too much instruction is insulting." Our job as teachers is to insight curiosity, teach students how to investigate in our Google world and then show them how to share their work so the conversation continues outside of the four walls of the classroom.

For more in depth lesson ideas and full unit descriptions pick up a copy of Stand Up! Speak Out! The Social Action Curriculum for Building 21st-Century Skills available from Prufrock Press and Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Friday, June 19, 2015

Helping Shoppers Find the Perfect Pet

The question with our students who learn content quickly is what do we do with them next? How do we keep students interested in our class? The most basic answer is move the students from passivity to activity as soon as possible. Get them into the creation phase of Bloom's by applying their knowledge to new and unique situations.

An inspiring source might be this blog post from L.A. based humorist Jeff Wyaski who showed people the importance of reading the small print when he changed out the animal descriptions at a local pet shop.

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These images could inspire some interesting cross-curricular lessons for teachers. After a quick search of life science objectives, I noticed that understanding environmental influences on organisms was a vertically aligned objective that built over several years in the science curriculum.

So what can we do with those students that understand and remember the basic facts about organisms? How do we differentiate for those who have already mastered the objective?

The creativity and choice permutations seem limitless but you could start with the following framework:

Let students know they are opening up A Fantastical Pet Shop. A place where people can buy wondrous pets that will bring out the best in the owner's personality. The problem is we have no pets and when people come to the store we do not have ways to match pets to the owners.

Here is where it gets really exciting with possibility with cross-curricular connections to Science.

ELA connection:
You have a discussion about the metaphorical symbolism of animals. Dove's symbolize peace, owl's symbolize wisdom, bee's symbolize organization. Students create a new animal and write about the character trait their animal characterizes.

Students then draw a picture of their animal and create a description card that tells shoppers the essential information about their animal (bringing in the science objectives) and how this animal is the perfect match for a particular type of person.

Social Studies connection:
Students study the symbolic meanings of animals in different cultures. Students could research totem animals versus Native American animals versus animal symbolism from the Far East. This information would be used to develop a description of an animal that would meet the needs of many shoppers.

Use an existing animal but write a description that ties together two different cultural interpretations of that animals symbology. For example: Alligator - aggressive, adaptable, maternal, revenge-oriented and quick.  Students then write a description card for the alligator and the type of person who would be the perfect match for an alligator.

Open ended connection:
Hand out the pictures and descriptions from Wyaski, have the class discuss what they notice about the descriptions and the pictures. Students write down these observations on a graphic organizer.

Bring the students together and ask them to list the characteristics of what they notice from the pictures. Record these observations on an Anchor Chart.

Using these guidelines students will choose an animal that they like and create parody captions for their animal that include suggestions for who would be the perfect match for the animal.

Or, have students create their own animal and then follow the same writing pattern mentioned above. The creation of the animals could also include an Art connection as students draw their animal, or paint it, or make origami, or a sculpture, or whatever else you can think of.

This process is not complete without displaying the animals in the newly created Fantastical Pet Shop and then inviting other classes, parents, and teachers to visit and choose a pet they would want to buy. Then the students could keep track of which pets most people liked and the students could use the information to create new iterations of their creature.

No matter which option you choose, it is very exciting to think about what students can do once they know about organisms.

If you would like to read more about some of the lessons that time and reflection of helped to improve, please pick up a copy of Stand Up! Speak Out! The Social Action Curriculum for Building 21st-Century Skills available from Prufrock Press and Amazon and Barnes & Noble.