Month: February 2014

Can an Introvert be a Good Teacher?

The other week, I was reading Joe Ciccoianni ‘s blog about introverted students. It is a great piece about how teachers should ensure learning opportunities and environments for introverts. Some students need more time for internal reflection; asking them to share “on the spot” can be limiting and damaging to them.

After reading his blog, I pondered not just introverted students who but also teachers. We typically don’t think of teaching as a job for introverts. Teachers are around people all day and interact with others nonstop. For a time, I wondered if I, myself, could be a good teacher as an introvert. I am not very bossy or intense; I was known as the “mellow guy” during college. Can a laid-back, calm, quiet introvert really be a good teacher? I have gazed at some of my co-workers in awe and respect and asked myself if they had something I needed to do the job effectively. One teacher in particular reminds me of the Energizer Bunny; she is always moving at a quick pace for hours on end with no apparent drain of energy. Let it be said that I am often jealous.

These insecurities dogged me for several years, but lately, I have come to accept myself in my role as an introverted teacher. Doug Robertson writes in He’s the Weird Teacher that “Teaching is an art because there are no rules.” If teaching is indeed an art, we must accept the fact that people will go about it in very different ways. Just like Michelangelo and Picasso are two very different painters, no two teachers will be the same.

I have also come to realize that I bring something unique to the classroom. Although I don’t have it in me to talk all class, every day, I can use that time to build student engagement instead. As an introvert, I think A LOT. (Trust me, consider yourself lucky you don’t spend any time in my head!) Although excessive thinking can be problematic when trying to fall asleep, I have learned to apply that to teaching to be a more reflective practitioner. In recent times, I have used moments of silence when presenting material to build suspense and interest.

I say this not to argue that introverts are better than extroverts; we all have different gifts and different talents. We have to use our abilities to create an engaging and exciting classroom. The ultimate goal is for the students to be passionate about the content. In the end, it is not important what personality we are given, but what we do with it. How do we use our gifts and strengths to connect to students and get them excited about the content? It is this answer, and not our Myers-Brigg score, that matters most in the classroom.

(H/T Joe Ciccoianni, Doug Robertson)

PlanbookEdu.com is Nothing Short of Amazing

I realize that I risk being hyperbolic, but PlanbookEdu is a terrific website. It is simply a website where you can enter create and edit your lesson plans.

Sounds pretty boring, right? Empty boxes. A google spreadsheet could almost do the trick. So what makes it so great?

You begin by entering the grades and subjects you teach, and the site loads your standards.

Standards Checklist

Then, as you plan a lesson, you enter the standard you are covering. Once a few letters are typed, several terms will come up. Or, if you are going sequentially, you can enter a couple of the numbers.

Listing Activities in the Box

Once the standard is entered, you can repeat the standard for up to a week. The display options include a full description of the standard (the option I prefer), or just the numbers. Once it’s entered, you write your activities in the box.

So far, it doesn’t sound that exciting. Standards and boxes. Here is where the real benefits show up: because the standards are entered from the account, the website keeps track of which standards you have covered, and which ones you haven’t. This makes it a lot easier to monitor your progress of the standards throughout the year. You can tell very easily what you need to cover without having to keep track throughout the year.

Which Standards Taught

However, the most amazing aspect of this is so incredibly simple that we take it for granted. If I want to read a blog by a fellow educator, or check my email to see if a parent has tried to reach me, I can do it anytime, anywhere. Why shouldn’t lesson planning be any different? In the ole’ days, I used to set aside a prescribed amount of time for planning out my next week. Sometimes the creative juices would flow, but not always. If creation came, great! If not, oh well, maybe next time. Now, I don’t have to be constrained by a time and place. Sometimes I am creative in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes first thing Saturday morning, and sometimes at 8:00 at night. With PlanbookEdu, I can design the best lessons possible. The other week, I was able to plan while waiting in line at the grocery store, and recently I was able to do it when I had unexpected free time during the middle of the day.

There is one other great advantage for me. I sometimes have work projected onto a Smart board, and I can’t access my computer. With PlanbookEdu on my iPad, I can access lesson plans while the computer is being used. Students can complete activities on the board, and I can look for reminders anywhere in the classroom.

Nonetheless, I will offer one warning with PlanbookEdu: it costs $25 per year to use it effectively. The website does offer group rates, and some districts and schools might be willing to make an investment. If they are, it is well worth it. For those of you with paper and pencil, this website will make your life a lot easier.

Put Those iPads Away!

First things first: I love technology. I was the first one with a Smart board in my classroom. I used it immediately and still use it to this day. I am the only teacher with 1:1 iPads in my classroom, and students use them in a variety of ways. They receive, complete, and turn in assignments on Edmodo. They create presentations with Flow Board. I post grammar exercises on the Smart board, they complete them on Socrative, and then I give them feedback.  They read pdfs and annotate them. My students use their iPads in almost every class period I teach.

We need to engage and excite students, and I believe that technology will be part of that solution. That being said, I believe that ultimately, we are educators of human beings, not technology consumers. If we are having a class discussion, it is too much of a distractions to have the devices out. It can cause students to disengage and lose interest in the class community. In addition, I feel that note-taking is best done in say, a notebook. I realize that countless teachers have used Evernote and Notability to help students take notes, but I have found that between words, they somehow find their way onto Angry Birds, Flappy Bird, or any other non-educational application. If they really need their notes on a screen, they are welcome to photograph their notebook later and save it to their Edmodo backpack.

Many teachers get around this by delivering lectures in the back of the room with an outline in the front of the room. That way, they can look at the iPads to make sure students are staying on-task. I’m sure it works for them, but when I talk to them, I want eyes on me. I can get a sense of their engagement levels, and I can switch gears or break up the lecture if need be. For me, the plain ole’ paper notebook works best.

This brings up an idea that will be crucial as schools attempt to modernize and keep up with the mobile revolution. It will be important for all of us to realize that we are called to be teachers who use tools at our disposal to increase student engagement and learning. iPads, Chromebooks, and other devices are tools. They are not the ultimate goal. Teachers and students are first and foremost human beings, and human beings need relationships. These relationships must sometimes come before technology.

Going about it the Right Way

A few days ago, I assigned  Howard Zinn’s section on Native American relocation under Andrew Jackson to my students. My class is 1:1 iPads, so I scanned it as a pdf, they read it, and annotated it as they read. I encouraged them not only to highlight, but to also write their emotional reactions to the material. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Howard Zinn, he is a very liberal writer, and he often takes aim with the U.S. Government and with the rich and powerful. Zinn is unapologetic in his writing, and I chose this particular article because it is very hard to read about the government’s actions with Native Americans without feeling some sense of outrage. If anything could excite students, this would be it.

After a few minutes, I checked in with them. I asked what had been examples of U.S. policy towards Native Americans. I saw a sea of blank stares. I asked what the government had done to Native Americans. A couple of hands went up, and that was that. My blood started to boil. A peek into my brain would have revealed these words: “How dare you not care?! Our government took away people’s lands and caused thousands of deaths?! Do you care about anything??” Luckily, the period was ending, so I was unable to voice my frustrations, thus saving me from myself.

When I continued the lesson another day, I tried to go about it a different way. I decided to build up to some analysis and opinion without trying to confront it directly. I activated what they had learned, and then had a discussion from there. I created a Padlet page, where students wrote one thing they learned from the pdf that they hadn’t known before. Suddenly, I could see their quiet passion on the webpage. Although they hadn’t vocalized their passion, they had it. All of them demonstrated anger and frustration regarding the injustice of the U.S. towards Native Americans.

I began calling on students to explain their rationales. After a few minutes, I asked if anyone had disagreed with the author. No hands were raised for a few seconds, until a very perspective young man dared to come forward. “Of course we all feel this way, because we have only been subjected to this one author’s opinion.” Without my even having to prompt the class, we had come round to the point of author’s bias in writing.

The lesson I took away from this class is that sometimes the passion and the excitement are there, but I don’t always go about unlocking it the right way. Perhaps I try to get right to the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy, without trying to build the pyramid from the bottom up. If I take the time and ask the right questions, I can tap into the excitement.

Enough with the Information!!!

When we were do student presentations, I often hear the following feedback: “They had good information.”

What does such a statement mean? What is information? Is it facts, dates, and faces? Is there any big idea behind the information? What is the meaning of the information?

Unfortunately, students feel the need to present laundry lists of facts before the class. What’s more, they praise such valiant efforts. As an educator dedicated to meaningful learning, it is my job to redirect those efforts to the central idea behind the facts.

I recently did this with presentations on the Renaissance. Instead of allowing the students to create slides and present them, I set the following guidelines: they were only allowed a few slides, and few words on those they did create. During the process, I even made one group scrap most of what they had created.

Why, you ask, did I set these boundaries?

I find that the bullet points become a crutch. Students create them, print them out on note cards, and read them word for word. Group after group presents them. The rest of the class becomes disengaged, and learning comes to a standstill. Students fail to own or master the material. As a teacher, it is my job to break this pattern and create livelier environments with more engaged students.

Limiting the number of slides or bullet points forced students to learn the material and focus where I direct them, in this case the values of the Renaissance as seen in certain works of art. They can (and should) present information, but they should present it in a meaningful way. I am not interested in hearing the place of Raphael’s birth, unless it is argued that Urbino made him a better artist. Who cares about Michelangelo’s humanism unless it is shown in the David and the Sistine Chapel. This doesn’t require memorization, but it does require students to see the deeper meanings of great artists and their works of art.

In the end, the project was a huge success. I saw groups who had previously struggled rise to new heights, and I saw more insightful comments on the meaning of the projects, instead of endless comments on “information.”

The Joie de Vivre of Teaching

It was turning out to be one of those days.

We were reading aloud Macbeth in class, and I could feel it. I was being as passionate as I could be. I was stopping students to point out the meaning of Shakespeare’s words. I was showing how hardcore Lady Macbeth was. I was pointing out how Shakespeare was showing how hardcore Lady Macbeth was. And yet, I could feel it.

You know what I’m talking about: those times when you are giving it your all, and yet, you can almost see the life being sucked collectively out of the room. I was calling on students, asking them questions, but it was like they where in another planet.

In previous years, I probably would have raised my voice. “Pay attention! C’mon! Can’t you see what he’s trying to say?!” Today, by the grace of God, I realized at the moment that such a move would be completely futile (like it’s always been for me).

I decided to completely change gears. I had them work with partners on a T-chart, with Macbeth on one side and Lady Macbeth on the other. They had to explain what each character was like, and use quotes to support their statements.

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What I found completely surprised me. The kids were completely engaged. They were looking for good quotes, and what’s more important, they were reacting to the text. They were saying things like, “How could Lady Macbeth be so evil?” “Why doesn’t she just kill the king rather than make her husband do it?” “She’s crazy!” I was completely blown away. After they completed their T-charts, we had a great discussion and discussed gender expectations then and now. It was one of my greatest Literature lessons of my life.

I think that the moral of today’s story is that sometimes the lesson needs to be completely scrapped and redone. I believe that part of teaching is the feeling of the classroom. Passion and excitement must be felt by teachers and students, and when that’s lost, the learning stops. Sometimes we need to recapture the excitement and spontaneity to make a lesson truly meaningful.

Perhaps someday, I can make every lesson as good as today’s.

Google Tasks Will Save Your Life

Teachers are asked to do many things.

We are asked to present material in an interesting way, which means more preparation beforehand. We are asked to do project-based and performance-based assessment, which entail more time-intensive grading. We are asked to write across the curriculum. Oh, and a parent emailed you a question about his son’s grade. While you’re pondering a response, you are asked to fill out paperwork required by your district. By the way, progress reports are due next week, and you still have ungraded late work in your bin. Say, when was the last time you changed your bulletin boards? Oh, look! There is paperwork in your box to hand out to the students, and it must go out this afternoon. Have you collected all the permission slips for next week’s trip yet?

Does this sound familiar?

I struggled with this for many, many years, until I discovered Google Tasks.

Google tasks is a way to create a to-do list linked with your gmail page. All your items are automatically saved, and you can clear them when you are finished. Unlike sticky notes, they will not create a pile of yellow paper on your desk. Unlike a note on real paper, you will not find a page with a series of crossed out items with a few stragglers left behind.

Now why is it “life-saving?” Because you can synch it with your cell phone and tablet. You can type in Google Tasks for a search in the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store to find a series of working apps. Have you ever gotten all the way to the faculty room, returned, and then suddenly realized that you forgot to do something that could only be done… in the faculty room? With Google Tasks, you can check your list anywhere to make sure you don’t forget when you are away from your classroom.

I am sure that you can do something similar with iPhone/iPad programs. My point is this: regardless of what platform or system you use, in today’s world of education, many of us need something.

For me, it was a life-saver.

My Story

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Twelve years ago, I decided to become a history teacher. I felt the call to inspire students with a sense of the importance and joy of learning history and how the subject can be relevant to their lives. My dream was to teach with passion and instill that passion in students where they would demonstrate their strong feelings toward the subject.

Then I started teaching. As you can imagine, the idea did not quite match up with the reality. I did love teaching, and I loved the content of what I was teaching, but I didn’t feel like I was instilling passion into my students. As time dragged on, I lost some of my initial enthusiasm for presenting material. The Reformation, which was fun to present at age 25, didn’t seem as exciting at age 32. I also felt that I was being too lenient on the grading, so I turned to more objective types of assessment, which meant that I was assigning fewer essays and more fill in the blank tests. I had been doing fewer and fewer collaborative projects and activities.

Several years later, I noticed that contrary to my expectations, it was not getting any easier. The students were not very compliant about doing work (notes, questionnaires, etc.) I found that I, myself, was losing complete and total interest in what I was teaching. Showing the class the excitement and relevance of history became reading notes that were typed on my screen, presentations became time when the kids did one thing after another, and grading became merely entering numbers into a website. I felt very distant from that time when I had wanted to become a teacher.

Desperate for help, I read books about teaching and classroom management. By luck (or as I prefer to see it, the grace of God), I remembered when I had seen a book in my then-fiance’s apartment eight years earlier by Robert Fried entitled The Passionate Teacher. I decided to give it a read. I’d give it a go and see if it had anything to offer.

Words cannot express the difference it made.

I suddenly realized that I had been leading my students and me down a rabbit hole of boredom and disengagement. I needed to show students why the material was important and challenge them to think critically. It reasserted what I had known but had slowly forgotten: it’s okay not to hit every standard or cover everything in the book. I felt reinvigorated and renewed.

I also knew that it was not going to be all fun and games. I was going to have to get rid of fill-in-the-blank assignments and tests and return to in-depth writing assignments. I was going to have to redo notes and Prezis I had created. I was going to have to change the entire way I had taught. It was not going to be easy, and to this day, it is still not easy.

One thing that is hard to communicate to people who aren’t full-time teachers is the sheer quantity of work we have to do. In an ideal world, I would spend days and weeks designing and creating the best units, but like millions of teachers out there, I am pressed for time. The challenge I face is to not rely on this fact as an excuse for mediocrity, but to somehow find the time and the energy to be the best teacher I can be. I also have to accept the fact that many of my newer units will be far from perfect, and some elements of the “old way” are still in my teaching. This will be a long–perhaps a lifelong–process for me.

Wish me the best of luck.