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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.