Month: January 2015

My Greatest Strength?

This week’s #YourEduStory blog post asks, “What is the best thing you do at your site?”

This question makes me very, very uncomfortable. I do NOT like showcasing or broadcasting my strengths or accomplishments, in part because I believe that just about everything comes from a team effort. Even Michael Jordan might not have become a superstar had it not been for his highly competitive and supportive family. And even then, would MJ have won any championships were it not for supporting players like Scottie Pippen or Horace Grant?

I have a tough time answering this question because I feel like every day is a constant struggle against all my weaknesses and all my shortcomings. If I succeed 99 times in a day and fail once, I can guarantee that I will fixate on the failure and not on the successes. The shortcomings always last longer in my mind that the triumphs.

Perhaps the best thing I do at my school is to do just this. One of the standards of teaching excellence is being a reflective teacher. As a neurotic introvert, I am reflecting 24/7 and constantly adjusting and honing in order to build engagement and critical thinking skills. Although my lessons are rarely perfect, I am constantly tweaking and adjusting to inch my way toward perfection.

To paraphrase the great Karl Lindgren-Streicher: I know that I will never be perfect, which bothers me. But I will always keep striving for perfection.


Planning an EdCamp

For the first time in my life, I am part of an effort to organize an EdCamp, the first official EdCamp San Jose.

The other week, I met with the other co-organizers: Diane Wharton, MaryFran Lynch, Liz Davis, and Matt Cordes. (Todd Feinberg and Andrew Schwab are playing key roles in the use of the site and were unable to make it.) We discussed the logistics–and most importantly–what questions we need to address when planning the event. The organizers bring some amazing strengths to the table. MaryFran can anticipate many of the challenges we need to work through, Diane is willing to create tee shirts for the event, Matt can use connections to edtech companies, and Liz brings a wealth of information from her experience at EdCamp Boston.

It was wonderful getting to meet some of the people for the first time and discussing what we are going to do. I walked away feeling grateful to be a part of this wonderful team, knowing that everyone will make this a wonderful day.

I look forward to meeting with everyone again and am extremely grateful to be part of an amazing team.

The Journey

August 28th, 1995, was a day that I will never forget.

I had gone from class to class, listening to teachers discuss the syllabi, go over grading expectations, rules, procedures, introductions, ice breakers, and stories. I was completely bored out of my mind and was looking forward to 3:00.

I had just one period left before the end of the day. Several friends and I all had social studies in Room 25 with a new teacher, Mr. Haas. We frankly didn’t even know how to pronounce his name.

Once we entered, we heard a voice that commanded–not requested–us to sit. It was low-pitched voice that spoke sternly and forcefully without yelling. We knew to obey–no questions or comments. Mr. Haas didn’t go over the syllabus that day or discuss world history. He merely discussed the fact that many of us had gotten used to the game of school–working as little as possible and expecting A’s in return. He said that those people (of which I was certainly a member) would have a tough time in his class. I, along with many classmates, was frightened out of my wits.

The next day, he asked us to describe the room. I dutifully obeyed by counting how many tiles were on the ceiling and what posters were on the wall. When we finished, he said that thinking could take place on three levels: people who counted the desks and chairs, people who thought that this was a room, and people who described it as a history classroom with high expectations. He said that the first level was like a train, where our thought simply went forwards and backwards. The second level was like a car because it started to make connections and look beyond the obvious. The third level–which is what he expected from us–was like a helicopter. It was plainly obvious that I would have to learn to think more analytically to survive in this class.

After these first few days, I realized that although Mr. Haas seemed mighty scary, he was truly a once-in-a-lifetime teacher. He brought passion to every lesson; history mattered to him. He showed genuine rage when we covered Christopher Columbus’ massacre of the Arawak Indians. He raged against the ignorance of people who failed to realize that the Renaissance was a result of increased trade with the middle east.

Before this class, it didn’t dawn on me that I could major in history; I had always expected to major in business. He sparked a passion in me that changed the course of my life and resulted in my becoming a teacher. I hoped to become a Haas devotee, a person who would take the results of Mr. Haas and teach just like him.

What I failed to recognize, however, was that I simply could not be Mr. Haas. Just like a 6 foot point guard can’t play like Shaquille O’Neal, I couldn’t make that rage and intensity show up every day. As an INTP, I don’t have the reserves of social energy that others possess. Mr. Haas also enraged or was inspired by the same ideas year after year, a feat that I simply cannot replicate. It took me over twelve years of teaching to fully come to terms with this reality.

Ultimately, it was with educational technology, something that Mr. Haas likely eschews, that helped me find my voice and the potential to kindle passion and excitement in students. I have learned to show enthusiasm in short bursts and then send students in their own directions. I can never be Mr. Haas, but I can make sure that I find ways to give them that same passion I felt in his class.

In the end, we all have to follow Shakespeare’s advice: “To thine own self be true.”

Get Those Students Moving!

As an ELA teacher, I often face the challenge of having students stare at screens all day. Their books are available on Curriculet, and they can work on graphic organizers that I supply for them on Google Drive. Thus, how do I avoid falling into the “stare at screens all day” trap?

My latest discovery is to have them engage in station rotation.

Recently in ELA, I had them examine some major themes of Macbeth (evil, superstition, gender roles) and I gave each group a poster paper with various characters or ideas (Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, setting). Students had to write down events or quotes from the story that connected their topic to the major themes. They had three minutes to do this. After three minutes, they had to go to the next group and do the same for the next character or idea. They did thus until they had circulated throughout the room.

This way, they were all engaged in each topic, but one at a time. They also had a chance to see what other students had done. Perhaps most importantly, they were able to engage with the text, but to do so in a manner that got them up and out of their seats.

In social studies, we are learning about the Alien and Sedition Acts, a major government overreach by the John Adams administration curtailing individual rights and liberties. I had students come up with an alternative plan for John Adams to deal with the war between France and Great Britain in the 1790s. After they had created their plan using a “forced ranking,” which is a gamestorming strategy ranking the most effective strategies possible, one student from each group stayed at the group to articulate the strategy, while everyone else went from group to group listening to each group’s strategy. Once again, they were able to hear everyone’s ideas while also getting out of their seats and moving around.

The more I can get them up and out of their seats, the better.

Change is in the HOW

As part of the #YourEduStory Challenge, we are honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. by blogging about how we can make a difference in the world. What is the difference we wish to make?

I am taking a different approach with this. I think that we as a society tend to focus too exclusively on the leaders of movements while neglecting the foot soldiers and other contributors to a cause. We easily think of George Washington and Paul Revere while we forget about innumerable poor colonists who died horrible deaths due to smallpox and gangrene. We think about Abraham Lincoln, but neglect the 600,000 soldiers who died during the Civil War, on top of the millions who served and fought bravely.

In the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., we remember his inspiration and the difference he made, which is right and just. He is one of the greatest moral leaders this world has ever seen, and he willingly paid the ultimate price for a cause he believed in. But we must not forget others who turned his vision into a reality.

One such leader was Walker Wyatt.

In 1963, the Civil Rights movement had hit a standstill, and it appeared that the movement just might fail. The movement succeeded not just because of King’s lofty rhetoric, but also because of the nuts and bolts organization of Wyatt Walker. In 1963, King and Walker went to Birmingham, where events would eventually trigger the passage of historic pieces of Civil Rights legislation. Walker’s actions in Birmingham were absolutely critical to the success of the Birmingham Campaign and the Civil Rights movement as a whole. He knew exactly how to provoke the police into overreacting through his meticulous planning of marches, sit-ins, and boycotts. His actions provoked officials to use high-pressure hoses on the protestors and to arrest hundreds of peaceful citizens. These images were then shown on newscasts throughout the nation, thereby ensuring that the civil rights movement would inspire sympathies around the nation. Within a matter of months, Walker’s actions in Birmingham and in other cities would lead to the successful passage of Civil Rights laws.

To borrow a phrase from Simon Sinek, King provided the WHY of the Civil Rights movement, and Walker provided the HOW. Both roles are essential for successful movements to take place, but we sometimes forget about the people who make the vision become reality.

As teachers, we have the unique role of having to both articulate the WHY and design the HOW. We must clarify to students exactly why the material is relevant, the larger purpose of education, and we must do our best to inspire students to learn. That being said, we cannot rely on mere inspiration. If we spend all weekend thinking about the lofty ideals of education, we will not be prepared on Monday morning for the students sitting in our classrooms. In fact, I believe that many teachers burn out or fade away not because they have never been exposed to the WHY of education, but because there is not enough training and support in how to translate those ideals into concrete lessons that live out those visions. As a result, many teachers give up on the hope and turn then to the textbooks and the resource books.

Therefore, this year, I will not pledge to follow in King’s footsteps, in part because I can not hope to live up to such a great leader. Besides, I already know what values I place in education: engaging, inspiring, and empowering students. My effort this year will center on the nitty-gritty of turning those ideals into reality for students.

If I succeed–by the grace of God–I will have contributed something to the world.

Socratic Success

This year, I tried out a new activity with Socratic Circles, whereby students would generate questions, and they would discuss them in the inner circle, but the outer circle would analyze through a backchannel called Todaysmeet. We tried it, and it was instantly successful.

However, the real success came when I did it recently. I asked some students to come up with questions, and they instantly figured out that it was Socratic Circle time. They showed genuine excitement and were anxious to do it.

Once we got started, I was blown away by the level of critical thinking students were displaying. They were analyzing the gender differences between Macbeth and his wife and came to the conclusion that traditional roles were reversed. They also noticed that Macbeth seemed like a brave warrior in the field, but couldn’t stand up to do the right thing.

Although there are always challenges along the way, I have found student-centered technology and flipped learning to be the best approaches to ELA instruction. I’m looking forward to trying even more ideas in the months and years ahead.

One Word (or Maybe Two)

I am taking part in the EduStory challenge of blogging once a week, and this week’s topic is to come up with one word that will inspire me in 2015.

I considered the usual suspects: hope, inspiration, engagement, etc. But these just didn’t do it for me.

Finally–it just clicked. BOO YAH.

I know, I know. It’s technically two words. But you know what–this is MY blog post, and I am using TWO WORDS! HA!

Seriously though, I want everything I do this year to echo and resound with Boo Yah. I want my students to do awesome things, and I want the environment to echo greatness. I want the enthusiasm and genuine emotion to be palpable, where everyone comes to be excited about learning, and students do amazing things. If I can only achieve part of this ambitious goal, it will still be a success.

So here is to a BOO YAH 2015. May the year be filled with pure awesomeness.

Proof of Learning

Henry Adams once wrote, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” This quote demonstrates how little we really know what kind of a difference we are making in students’ lives. Are they really getting it? Are they getting it, but not caring? Much of what we do is shrouded in mystery. We never really know how effective we are.

This year, I have been able to prove that my students are learning grammar. I changed some of my grammar approaches, where instead of making students memorize grammar terms that they would never need to know in the future, I have been giving them see series of sentences, and they have to find the grammar error. I began with one or two skills and have been adding skills as we go along. I am not dropping previously taught skills; I am keeping them and adding new ones. In this sense, the questions my students are answering are always getting more rigorous than the ones before. It is also leading to long-ten instead of short-term memory, as we are not “moving along” but are building a foundation.

At the beginning of the year, my students performed very badly on the first formative assessment. About 20% of them earned passing grades. However, because of the repeated practice and individualized and small group help, almost all my students earned passing grades on the first attempt of the the latest quiz. It is inconceivable that my students would have performed so well at the beginning of the year, but their hard work had paid off, and I now have concrete proof that the grammar program is working.

Every once in awhile, it is nice to prove that things are working.

No Resolutions!

As 2014 ended, I saw the word “resolution” appear in my Twitter timeline a million times. “I resolve to try new edtech tools.” “I resolve to blog more.” “I resolve to lose ten pounds.”

It then dawned on me that I did not have any resolutions for the year. What should I do? Blog more? Use more tech tools? Read more books? Turn off Chrome tabs when it is time to focus?

Theses are all good things, but I hesitate to make any resolutions because of an old saying: “We plan, and God laughs.” On January 1st, 2014, I was not yet on Twitter, I was not blogging, I had never been to any sort of a CUE conference, and I hadn’t even heard of an EdCamp. It was through serendipity that my eyes were opened to educational technology, an event that would permanently change my life.

So this year, I resolve to not make any resolutions, to be ready and awake to what is before me. I resolve to keep my preconceived notions of what I ought to do from giving me rich life experiences. I will not become so enamored with a goal that I miss the beautiful scenery that surrounds me.

In short, I resolve not to have any resolutions.