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Sunday, September 12, 2010

A New Beginning

About a month ago, I was ready to welcome twenty-six "new beginnings" to Room 116. Initially, I was disappointed that our new community never hit that mark. A week prior to school starting, our school open house offered an opportunity to meet the families that I would spend the next ten months with, but only about half were able to come. I don't want to sound disappointed by the turnout, but I really wanted to meet everyone, get to know every family. Meeting everyone prior to school starting proved to be an unnecessary goal that I also knew was too aspirational.

Nevertheless, the first day of school I met everyone that mattered, my new students. Well most of them, as some of the names on my list had a new beginning somewhere else. I'll never get to know their personal stories, quirks, or have an understanding of how they learn. This year started out with 24 new beginnings, plus my own.

First year, first grade. My personal new beginning was my successful transition to a career as an educator. It is hard to tell my story of why I am am here, without sounding like a crank or a loser to the listener. In short, I'm glad I'm here. Sometimes it is tremendously hard to change the course of one's life and I found this to be true for my start. One of the messages I have up in my classroom is "Work Hard, Be Great." The secret I keep to myself is that I believe hard work does not guarantee that something of substance, stature, and longevity will always be attained. However, if you work hard and give your best, in my eyes you are great.

My new student partners arrived with the expected nervousness and corollary quiet. We started to build our community right away with exercises and activities that facilitated getting to know each other. The second day offered much of the same, but with more emphasis on practice and procedures. The kids were working hard on their new skills and were truly off to a great start.

I started to think of how wide spectrum of greatness is, which caused me to reflect on what time-frame is included in a new start. It really surprised my thinking when I realized that time-frames both small and large can be included in the definition. Surely big changes, the efforts that require extreme effort, time, and significant resources are recognizable as new starts. Smaller time periods also qualify and with my new students they can occur multiple times in a schoolweek.

When a student chooses to engage in classroom activities, choose to follow hallway procedures, choose to take responsibility for their own learning, it is a new beginning. One that is no less remarkable than the 'big' ones, especially when you are six. Kudos to all of those great efforts big and small.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Education Town Hall

I attended WSBT's (South Bend's CBS affiliate) Education Town Hall with Indiana Supt of Public Instruction on Sept 8th.
My Question regarding his vision of a teacher evaluation system that is not based in seniority. My concern was, in a non-tenured based system, that teachers may be subjected to budget whim and not given credit for their expertise or longevity. My question comes at about -(10:00). I am working on a post regarding the event, in the meantime tell me what you think.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Class 116 Open House Survey

I am happy to have your child in my first grade class this year. They will achieve great things. Please take a few moments to complete a quick class survey, so that I can communicate more effectively with your household and create a better learning environment for your child.

Thank you, Eric Johnson

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Open House Welcome Prezi Slideshow

Here is a sneak peek at the Open House Welcome Prezi Slideshow. Click on the arrow to move to the next message. Of course there will be more to see in a couple of weeks, but I hope you like what you see so far.

This week I'm taking over all of my classroom supplies to our room. It might even take two-trips!! I'm hoping that the environment that I create will inspire you to learn. I hope you are as excited as I am.

Don't forget Community night on Thursday July 29th at 6:00 in the Commons. See you there.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Widening Their View

For me, July means the Tour de France, the greatest and arguably the toughest sporting event in the world . In my lifespan, I have followed this three-week bike race for a longer period of time than I have not followed it. It is a beautiful race to be sure, sometimes cruel in it's relentlessness, but always intriguing. The personalities and races within the race for sprinting, climbing, and team classifications provide a glorious three weeks of drama each year. It never fails to give me goosebumps or cause me to yell out loud at the drama that unfolds in front of me.

When I first started following the Tour, there was no local TV news and very little newspaper coverage of the daily races, as our national sport of baseball took up most of the daily ink. The limited TV coverage was provided with quick recap coverage and highlight shows and only shown on the weekend.  Thank goodness for ABC's Wide World of Sports, which gave U.S. spectators glimpses of sports out side of the big four, football, baseball, basketball, and for some, hockey.  Pre-ESPN and pre-internet, a devoted fan would have to seek out alternative outlets for information as to what was happening in a country that seemed very far away. I remember going to the larger downtown library to hunt down French newspapers to review results from midweek stage results. The results were a couple of days old, but they would get me through the week.

Nowadays, I can watch live TV coverage for about 3-4 hours a day with live internet commentating in full swing an hour or so before that. Multiple sources can provide the devoted fan Tour content via blogs, smartphones, twitter, and video delivered to your choice of hardware. However, my experience is virtual, I'm not really in France running alongside the riders as they try and make their way up steep 10% grades for kilometers on end. (Yes, I would almost certainly be that guy) It doesn't diminish my experience though, I am still participating, still interacting with my world at large. The technologies allow me to widen my world view, and enrich my life by taking part in something that I might not ever get to do in person. I learn about French history, food, architecture, customs, art and more, and my world view gets just a little bit wider.

I taught at a neighborhood school last year, meaning that there were no bus' that delivered the students to the door, as they either walked or were dropped off by their parents. Sadly, many of the student's world view were limited to the streets surrounding their home. In a class full of kids that were in pain (psychological - another post, another time), one of the saddest comments I had relayed to me was "Mr Johnson, I've never been to a zoo." I extended the conversation with the student to learn that he never had been to a museum, a parade, concerts, pro (local-team) baseball game, or similar. Unfortunately, this fourth grader's experience was not unique in this class. Revealed in subsequent class discussions was the fact that a number of these kids were not exposed to diverse experiences that can help them lead richer lives.

Similar to the vocabulary gap that forms in early child development between children who are read to and those who are not, I was concerned that these kids were at risk of a cultural gap. My small solution was to dedicate learning time each week, both independent and complimentary to regular curriculum, to something that they had never seen, nor likely to experience firsthand. We would take virtual tours of great museums, art galleries, view thought provoking or intriguing pictures from cultural celebrations from around the world. Our class would then either talk about or compose responses to what we had just seen. Once in a while we would create our own images, create building floor plans, or imagine a celebration for something that was meaningful to them. We used technology to bring the world closer and open it up.

I was very pleased, and consistently amazed at the students observations and comments. They would offer insights and opinions that were generally respectful to strange (to them) scenes and customs. (e.g. India's festival of Colors or Holi MSNBC Week in Pictures or CBS News ). The learning activity spurred more learning and was soon an anticipated part of class. As usual, I learned more from them than I what I was able to impart. I felt that by the end of the year, we were able to close the gap a little more.

Here are some of the places we visited and things we saw:
MSNBC's week in pictures - One of my favorites, with terrific consistency. Great pictures every week from around the world. Sorted by topic, Explore, Science, Hot Topics, Special, News, Entertainment and not to be missed Animal Tracks.

Virtual Tours - U.S. Government A seemingly endless index listing of photographic and video virtual tours of United States Government sites, including National Parks, Museums, The White House, etc. Wonderful. Also check out PBS' Virtual White House Tour, which can help students understand some of the history of the building.

North American Bear Center: We adopted Lily a two-year old Black Bear and watched her hibernation and birth of her first cub. Somewhat by happenstance a den cam was placed into the den of this bear and it was later discovered that she was going to have a cub at some point during the long cold Minnesota winter. We checked in almost daily. We were captivated, as were a lot of others, when the first shrieks of "Hope" -the cub- were heard. Students brought in their own research on bears and subsequently other animals to share with their classmates.

The Hermitage is one of the world's great museums. Located in St Petersburg, Russia. The State Hermitage houses more than 3 million artifacts and this Hot Media site powered by IBM is a simply marvelous way to bring these items to your classroom. The 360 degree and zoomable views allow students to key in on what they would like to see. The Chidren and Education Section contains activities and extension learning resources. The boys in my class really liked the "Time of Knights" stories.

Eye Revolution allows virtual peeks of some very cool varieties of landmarks and objects, ranging from a bunch of London sites to Shanghai to Chicago's skyline. The company sells these 360 degree services, but their demonstration projects are worth sharing with your class.

If you have some sites to share, leave a link in the comment section. Thanks

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Monday, July 12, 2010

I didn't think of that...

I am usually not welcomed on the weekly grocery store trip with my wife. It's not that my superior packing skills aren't valued when I deftly make every inch of our reusable bags count, it's because I slow things down and complicate the process. In teaching vernacular, my omission has more to do with me not staying on task. A 'normal' trip is extremely efficient, rooted in her rote knowledge of the aisle layout and the repetition that years of shopping the same store have brought. Lists are made, coupons are prepared, and goods are gathered. Get in, get out, no one gets hurt.

I find the variety of goods, both complimentary and substitute, very intriguing. It is mildly amazing to me that the supermarket carries all these diverse types, sizes, and flavors to satisfy the differing tastes of my neighbors. I often wonder as I traverse the aisles, do they really sell all of this stuff? The breadth of choices in mustard alone are staggering. Some of this stuff is pretty irresistible, which has lead to my exclusion.

When I come along, items that were not on the well thought-out list mysteriously end up in the cart and are gradually revealed as the 'authorized' items are placed on the conveyor belt. The items that I have selected could be classified into the impulsive, curious, or sub-conscious decision silos. Inevitably, I get 'the look' and then a quiet acceptance of my weakness that concludes the checkout process.

A recent trip yielded an unusual result from an impulse buy that was not mine. My wife and I were making a detour from the straight line grocery route through the general goods section. Palletized goods are now placed in every retailer's aisles creating a way for them to display seasonal goods and special buys. When we rounded the corner from the main entry, my wife spied an impulse buy that could not be resisted. Brightly colored pool noodles were soon plucked from their cardboard presentation boxes, even-though we don't have a pool. They became minor thank-you presents to our friends who graciously let my son swim at their house. The noodles are 7ft long hollow foam tubes that can be used to keep a person afloat, create big splashes, or whack a fellow poolmate. I soon realized that these noodles were unwieldy and awkward to carry through a crowded store.

I variously tried different ways of getting them to their final destination without knocking anything over or inconveniencing anyone. First, I tried carrying them at different angles, but rounding corners was a challenge. The leading end would get there before I would. Carrying one each arm was not well received by my fellow shoppers either, as I took up more than my fair share of the aisle. I sought the utility of the cart, but that was not a very good option either. Their length was not accommodated by the cart's relative short basket. Placed backward, a turn required releasing your hands from the cart. Placed forward, the excess length acted like a lance for a jousting knight.
I resigned myself to the fact that there was no good way to transport the lengthy items through the store, so I just managed the best I could, until I rounded the papergoods aisle. There was a 10 year old'ish boy that had found a creative solution to our shared problem. Shopping with his mother, they too had chosen two pool noodles, but his solution to the frustrating problem I encountered was remarkably different. 

He had simply placed the length of the noodle vertically through the gaps in the child basket and routed the end to rest on the floor of the beverage tray at the bottom of the cart. Ingenious! I didn't think of that.
His solution solved the jousting , cornering and steering problems with one simple solution. It occurred to me that creativity was at work. His solution was both original and useful, the definition of creativity. I'm sure that his mother didn't tell him how to place the noodles, or place limits on his thinking. The boy just realized that he couldn't drive the cart, a highly valued activity when I was young and apparently for his as well, and carry the items at the same time. I was impressed.

Creativity is sometimes elusive and hard to capture, but I believe can be taught and integrated into traditional activities. Teachers must be willing to let go of the control that can place limits on child's learning. Let the child take control of their own learning with simple outlines of a problem. We should also regularly structure cooperative and collaborative groups that use the diverse thinking of individuals. We can unleash student creativity to create something original and useful, if we just trust ourselves enough to let them.

for more please read: The Creativity Crisis
also Check out: Lego Smart

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Monday, July 5, 2010

A Real Experience

I recently had the opportunity to spend the day with a few middle school aged kids on a day trip to Chicago. The plan was to visit the Chicago Printers Row Litfest and, if I could persuade the Bieberized girls, to stop by the Chicago Blues Fest. I've always maintained that Chicago is the best Summer city in America, influenced by my midwest familiarity with the variety of the, mostly free, events that are part of the warm weather celebration that take place in the beautiful city of big shoulders.

I was going either way. For the first time in a very long time, I didn't have any commitments that would hold my attendance back. Work could no longer demand my presence, as I was trying to secure my first teaching job in a gloomy atmosphere of dramatic state budget cuts and corollary teacher layoff notices. My son, who would be coming along this year, wasn't playing summer baseball for the first time since t-ball. The yard was mowed, the house was clean. I was going.

I first attended the blues fest in the summer after my 16th birthday. The first weekend of June, its traditional place on the calendar, fell just a couple of months after getting my drivers license and it became my first big roadtrip. It was to become an annual tradition for a number of years, variously with a singular friend or acquaintance that could share gas money and tolls. Over the years I was fortunate enough to see some great blues giants, Robert Cray, B.B. King, Ruth Brown, Koko Taylor, and on what seemed like a frigid night in Grant Park, John Lee Hooker, to name a few. This time, the highlight was to be 95 year old David 'Honeyboy' Edwards who is probably the last genuine practitioner of Mississippi Delta styled blues. The chance to see a living legend was slotted in very nicely to an mid afternoon spot.

The Printer's Row Litfest (formerly called PR book fair) features hundreds of booksellers, both large and small and sometimes quite specific, and dozens of author events. Particularly interesting was a talk scheduled early in that day by Sebastian Junger, author of a Perfect Storm and his newest WAR, about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal valley.

I thought the challenge would be to get these kids to turn down another day with laptops, video games, full-on texting, and TV for a day away from the virtual world. One with real experiences and actual interactions with something not plugged in or powered by a battery. The barrier proved to be one of my own making. I had mistakenly placed a limitation on these kids. Once again, children taught me more than what I taught them.

Initially, the atmosphere in the car was raucous. I had brought along highway bingo boards and there was much debate on what constituted a "tree grove' and other elements that would form a line of victory or omit a square of 'fail' (apparently the word of the day). The 'old fashioned' game was a hit and I was happy that they were not texting their marked off squares to each other. Next up was car Madlibs another activity that did not require laptops, nor iTouch. The interactions were real, the fun immense.

I was taken aback by the kids enthusiasm upon arrival to the Litfest, they were genuinely engaged in all of the offerings that surrounded them. Most interestingly was their interactions with the authors that were present, some actively pushing their books. Having a conversation with the person while handing you their work was an unexpected thrill for the kids and a memorable one for me. The authors talked with enthusiasm of how their work might fit into the young readers interest. Especially engaging and earnest was Nick Valentino author of Thomas Riley. Dressing the part, Mr. Valentino willingly took time to talk to my boy and pose for pictures, sign and stamp his book with passport stops that presumably involved his title character. It was unique and genuine. Only once did I feel that I had to intervene with these author interactions, when another science fiction author was pitching just a tad too hard to his non-target audience, with which the kids did not have the tools to politely turn down the hard sell.
Appropriately enough to our next destination, weather was blowing in and it was time to take shelter as  Sebastian Junger, the author of "the Perfect Storm" was holding a talk at the recently revived Jazz Showcase, a fabulous room, with a vibe that the kids might not experience on their own for a few years.  Mr. Junger held a wonderful talk about his experiences over a 15th month period with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal valley. He carefully focused his non-political talk about the brotherhood and brave actions of the soldiers with whom he shared a makeshift outpost that was home to some of the worst fighting of the war. (MSNBC reported last week that the actions of the first living soldier to be nominated for the country's highest military honor, the Congressional Medal of Honor, fought in the Korengal valley). I was proud of how polite the kids acted, listening intently and courteously, to a topic that might not have been top of mind in their sometimes singular world. They chose to turn off their cell phones, took flash-less photos and listened quietly, which is more than I could say for some of the attending adults. We waited around for our copies to be signed and talked briefly with Mr. Junger as he graciously posed for a snapshot.
We meandered around the remaining tents and tables of books. The kids reaction to every new find was wonderfully ebullient. They gleefully engaged poets, short story authors, and activists in what was seemed like an endless array of topics and genres. I rarely saw a cell phone or overheard an expressed opinion of boredom. The kids were too busy experiencing all that was offered.

We ironically got some New York style pizza, no time for the local deep-dish variety, and headed to see some live music. Real instruments, real musicians, and no Autotune. Stops included the newly remodeled Buckingham Fountain, Blackhawk Jerseyed lions at the Art Institute and pleas to visit the Sears Tower (I haven't warmed up to the new name) brought us to the huge Saturday afternoon crowd in Grant Park. Blues delivered by a 95 year old man proved to be a hard sell to 12 and 13 year old's, but the trip brought real interactions and life memories that will surely last longer than their high score in Mario Kart.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Save 'YourKids' Brain

One of the things I worry about over the summer is that 'YourKids' will suffer from the "Summer Slide",  the erosion of learning that can occur over a busy summer of travel, camps, and of course too much TV and video games. Here are some interesting and engaging activities to keep 'YourKids' learning.

Reading Rewards can help keep 'YourKid' keep on track with their summer reading and also helps them share their recommendations with others. Lets call it an online book club. An easy signup is required and  asks for parental verification. Parents approve 'friend' connections and can monitor all communication that their child has with their friends. Once verified, kids can easily add books to a virtual library - "My Library" -  using an ISBN# or book title. Once a child has finished a book they can write a review and recommend it if they choose. Once connected to friends, they can see what their friends have liked and recommended.

Kids then track their reading by recording the length of time spent reading and earn a reading reward mile for every minute spent reading. The parent can approve up to 90 minutes/miles a day. If the parent feels that the child might have 'fudged' their claimed reading time, they can deny the reward or adjust to a more appropriate period of time. As a child earns miles they can choose to cash in the miles to play games, read jokes, or save them for bigger rewards. Reading Rewards provides some rewards, but the website allows for parents or other sponsors to provide rewards that are individualized to the reader in their own personal store. Sponsors can set the point totals required for redemption and can put any prize they wish. 750 miles for taking a bye on washing the dishes, or 1000 miles for an mid-week trip to the comic book store. Whatever might be valuable and worth working for can be placed in 'YorKids' store. Pretty neat stuff. 

Also, the support I received from the site for my questions was fabulously quick and helpful.

Also check out Reading Rockets. One of my favorites.

'YouKids' may be asking a lot of questions about the oil spill in the Gulf, as this disaster keeps unfolding in breadth and scope. A PBS station in the Gulf Coast has done a great job in creating a starting place for parents and their student. The site includes vocabulary, answers to questions that might come up and activities for the family. From the WSRE website: "Visit the Teachers, Parents and Kids Section on wsre.org/OilSpill for special information including terminology that kids are hearing from their parents, teachers, and news sources; and links and information to help kids understand the science and environmental concerns behind an oil spill.Oil Spill Resources""

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics  has a number of free non-member resources listed for parents to help students keep the 'math chops' over the summer. Including Figure This, a website that has problem solving practice that won't require parental math wizardry to get the kids through the problem.

Also check out NCTM's: Calculation Nation

The Fodey Newspaper Generator is a fun, short, creative writing exercise that my students love to engage in. The site allows kids to write a newspaper headline, byline, and snippet of writing and then creates a partial newspaper image. Kids love to create stories and fun headlines. I like the creativity that the activity usually unleashes, creating some memorable writing. One of my favorites came from St Patrick's Day "Leprchaun Gone Bad" Good stuff.

PBS Writing Contest (The contest is over, but you can still create an interesting story or mashups). Very cool.

For some brainless fun go to Kideos. The site seeks to find online videos that are thoroughly entertaining for kids and completely worry-free for parents. Videos are reviewed by an adult board for appropriateness and then grouped by age group and interest category. If you can manage not to laugh at the "Cat Flushing Toilet" video you're probably having a really bad day.

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Saturday, June 5, 2010


Charles Barkley famously said "I'm not a role model", continuing "just because I can dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids" That was always fine with me, I always thought athletes were admirable for their athletic feats, first and foremost. I never held them up as someone who I would like to become, save Ron LeFlore or Ali. Fortunately, that was a good choice, because a number of athletes have let us down over the years. Poor behavior is a result of poor choices. No one is perfect, but you have to do the best with what you have. Sometimes your choices is all that you have. It is a conversation that I have with my students daily, weekly, throughout the school year. I tell them, as well as my son, that your character is what you do when no one is looking.

A perfect game in baseball is a rare event to be sure. Until this season, only 18 had been thrown in the history of the Major leagues. Not surprising when you consider what has to occur for a perfect game to be recorded. A pitcher and his team have to retire all 27 batters from the opposing side, no one can reach base. There can be no hits, no walks, no errors. Twenty-seven professional baseball players try their best to get on base and no one succeeds. All of the batters take the long walk back to their dugout. The pitcher doesn't make a mistake. Rare indeed.

So when I had heard that there was a blown call that cost my Detroit Tigers a perfect game the other night, I cynically expected to watch bad behavior exhibited in the replays. See George Brett, Lou Pinella, et al. Major League Baseball players and coaches have demonstrated on countless occasions that they know how to behave poorly. Kicking dirt, throwing tantrums (and bases, and hats...), yelling, swearing, and charging have happened not on an elementary school playground, but on a professional field of play. Bad calls usually impact fairly inconsequential games, not history. However, Jack Dempsey, the 1972 USA Olympic Basketball Team, Brett Hull and the 1990 Missouri Football team might have a case for the latter.

Armando Galarraga had retired 26 batters when he faced Jason Donald in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Donald hit a ground ball that was fielded by the first baseman, which required the pitcher, Galarraga, to cover first base for the out. An easy flip of the ball, tag the base, history made. The ball was caught in time, the base tagged in time, but Jim Joyce the first base umpire, called the runner safe. Emphatically safe. History canceled. This is the point at which the fireworks could have started. Instead, Galaraga exhibited a quiet, wry, knowing smile, while Cabrera quietly put his hands on the top of his head in disbelief. Jim Leyland the Tiger's coach came out to talk to to Joyce to see if what just happened, happened. Galaraga went back to work. The next batter, the 28th, was retired routinely. Game over. Detroit fans booed, the players yelled at the ump. The city provided a police escort to the umpire team as a precaution.

This is point that the story can benefit students and gives a tear shedding example that doing the right thing matters, even when it is hard. Sure character is defined, for me, as what you do when no one is looking. What about individual character when the white hot spot light of infamy is shining your way home?

Jim Joyce reviewed the play as soon as he got to the ump quarters. The Tiger players watched the replay before they took their showers. It was clearly a bad call. It wasn't even really close.

Jim Joyce knew he blew it. He was beside himself and knew the impact of his mistake. He admitted his mistake. He owned it. No excuses, no denial, full accountability. He said "I just cost that kid a perfect game" (AP) He then apologized and gave Galarraga a sincere hug that was an unspoken request for forgiveness. Galarraga accepted it.

The next day Galarraga said that he understands how Joyce might feel, and recognizes how difficult it must be to admit a mistake of that magnitude. Predictably, there was a lot of opinions of how the Commissioner of Major League Baseball should handle the situation. should he correct it?, should he let the game stand? The two key men involved had already decided. They would use grace, humility, empathy, and perspective.

MLB baseball realized what could happen the next day when Joyce was scheduled to be the plate umpire back in Comerica Park, the Tigers home, and gave him the option of taking the day off. Joyce went to work. It was an extraordinary choice, the hard way, to be sure. A great example to students that sometimes you have to do, what you have to do. Like math or poetry.

The Tiger fans chose to do the right thing and gave their applause, in recognition of Joyce's admission and his choice to show up, when his name was announced as part of the umpiring crew. Their reaction was reflective of  Midwest work ethic and kindness. Leyland, designated Galarraga to present the game's lineup card and set up an emotional reunion. They exchanged a handshake and Joyce gave a Galarraga a pat on the shoulder. Shortly afterward during warmups, Joyce had to wipe away tears and let out an emotional blow of air that  a man employs to ward off full blown crying. Fortunately for a lot of us, we didn't have to worry about the cameras.

The lessons for students, because as teachers we teach life lessons as well, is that doing the right thing is sometimes hard. Humility, grace, forgiveness, and empathy might not ever get one of my students a corvette, like the one that GM gave Galarraga, but those traits will help them become persons of great character. I might have a hard time remembering the other perfect games this season or of ones in the past, but I will not forget the wonderful choices that Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce made. Perfect.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pack Your Hefties

Education is in the news with ferocious frequency lately, and the coverage is usually not to highlight the great things going on in classrooms. The local newspaper does a nice job of recognizing individual classes or singular school efforts, but the print can't beat back or mitigate the top of the hour stories on how many teachers’ are being lost to budget induced layoffs.

Recently, during the last week of school I helped two talented, motivated, forward thinking teachers pack up the character of their classroom in advance of their last day. The two first year teachers were informed by inter-office mail of the final decision of their layoff during the last instructional week. They didn't say as much, but I think that both of their plans were to get the room strip completed so that they hit the road as soon as the last contract day ended. The district walked away from them and they were leaving as soon the students left for vacation. Garbage bags were filled, copy paper boxes were taped up, and poster stickum peeled from the walls. Spouses, friends and parents were enlisted to help clear the walls and cabinets. In my former career, we'd call it "Vanilla Boxing" - take it down to nothing; in hiking - "leave no trace".

If they were trying to avoid tears, it didn't work, as there were plenty to go around. Peers, parents, and students couldn't believe that these teachers had to leave. One student astutely stated that their teacher "just got here". Some administration and union representatives refer to the situation as "Last in - First out", and the situation must to change if the education of your ‘YourKids' is going to improve.

Using seniority or tenure as a sole determinant for teacher staffing decisions is not new, history has helped to help entrench the practice. Starting in New Jersey and later adopted in part or whole by a number of other states, tenure sought to mitigate the effects of political networks and cronyism from taking undue control of school staffing decisions. For a long time it has worked. The system stabilized schools, helped to allow teachers to teach without fear of administrator whim and helped teachers become more effective over time. Tenure had a place and purpose for the time period in which the system was created. However, it is time for teaching tenure to be eliminated.

There are several problems with the current teacher tenure system:
  1. Tenure does not allow an administrator to consistently upgrade their organization. Senior teachers are automatically retained without regard to community/student impact, effectiveness, or professional conduct. Egregious examples aside, child molestation, physical harm, and inappropriate conduct, tenured teachers almost never have to pack their hefties and get out. The principals are effectively powerless to remove a poorly performing teacher. One tenured teacher once bragged to me that they never planned any lessons, just daily “agendas” and threw together whatever they could to fill the instructional time. “Thank God for specials,” (gym, art, music) because he/she didn’t “have to teach” during those times. The class was lifeless, dead, unengaged. The teacher's next evaluation would take place in two years.
  2. Tenure casts experience in a bad light. Teaching experience is a good thing and should be valued highly, but when teacher retention is based solely on when they punched in, it diminishes outstanding efforts. The shine is taken off the bell, if you will. A longstanding teacher should be recognized for their excellence, not simply longevity.
  3. It does not help to ensure that protected teachers invest in themselves to try and improve. Bad teachers (I'm not going to define in this post) that have tenure will still continue to get paid, while good teachers don't get paid enough. Too much servant in public servant. If motivation to become a better teacher is not intrinsic, a guaranteed job won't help. If someone knows that they have to improve and contribute or they might lose their job, that extrinsic motivation might make up for the omission.
  4. It raises the barrier of entry significantly higher and reduces the ability to recruit talented teachers from outside the education sector. The old saying goes "Good Teachers will always teach. True, but you can't rely on that any longer. The barriers to entry and corollary sacrifices for becoming a teacher are already high. Teaching license requirements, high tuition, student teaching (volunteer labor), costly continuing education requirements, and low starting pay are all factors that may prevent recruitment of the best and brightest. If a prospective candidate figures out that the career has limited continuity, regardless of ability, quality, or impact, what are the chances students will ever see them in their classroom? Why would they make the sacrifices? Would the best and brightest stick around waiting in a frozen timeline of uncertainty, waiting for their service time to get above the cut line?
  5. Nationally, the five year retention rate for teachers is about 50%. In other words, 50% of teachers leave the profession within five years. Turnover is costly, not only negatively impacting budgets, but also in terms of human capital. I would not be surprised if a majority of those that left the profession, left in frustration over the inevitable annual stress of the "do I have enough seniority" dance. Once a teacher leaves, so does the district/school's investment made to that point.
  6. Finally, the bar is not high enough for a teacher to be given tenure. You shouldn't be given what is essentially a lifetime position until you can demonstrate that you are good at your job (also another topic for another day). Mentoring program completion, substantive evaluations, parental and student surveys, test scores, and metrics for community impact need to be part of why a teacher’s is allowed to stand in front of kids. Education is a process not a product, but can you think of any other field as important where time in the chair counts for so much?
Clowns don't work for solely for grins and giggles and no one pays the bills with hugs. Neither should teachers. If education wants to recruit the types of people that will help change the lives of children for the long term, the antiquated guarantee of lifelong employment must be eliminated. Too much talent will continue to be lost if mediocrity is continually retained. It is time to clear the trail.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

About Me

Mr. Johnson is husband to Lisa and father to Colin. I enjoy spending time with my family and we love to go out to eat, go to movies, and share some favorite TV shows (Amazing Race, and Modern Family to name just a couple). We live along the St Joseph River in northern Indiana and canoe frequently.

I am currently a 1st Grade Teacher at Xavier School of Excellence. I am a member of : NCTM - National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and NSTA - National Science Teachers Association.

I am a native of Michigan , and a Spartan since I was little, I graduated from Michigan State University, currently pursuing my Masters at a local Liberal Arts College. I am a cyclist of over 20 years competing in Mountain and Cyclocross races around Michigan and Indiana. If you see me training, give me some room as you drive by, and give me a wave (don't honk - it startles me) If you ride a bike as well, always wear your helmet.