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Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Grand Exposition of Learning

The bulletin board outside of our classroom is a 4'x10' space that we use to highlight student work. It is a large area that requires some creativity to display a student's learning. I have always tried to be unconventional in my approach with the space and almost always go big. I like to blow out the borders of the aluminum framed board by pretending they are not there. The last display reflected our concluded spatial knowledge unit and used oversized continents, maps and compasses. It was a big hit with students and parents alike.

The expectations are high each time the old stuff comes down and the canvas is prepped for the next project.The self-imposed problem is how do we top or match our last display. I usually complete the new board on my day off. I like to go from nothing to wow, when no one else is around. I can work messily , turn the music up, and sing without interruptions or embarrassment.
One of the online tools I had saved in my Delicious quiver was Block Posters. The free website allows users to create wall sized posters from their uploaded images. Our recently concluded Water Cycle was the perfect opportunity to give it a try. I chose a student piece that incorporated unit vocabulary and was a good representation of what we learned as a class.

I scanned the work and re-sized it to fit into the website image limit of 1mb. The website accepts formats JPEG TIFF GIF RAW BMP JPG PCX etc. Once uploaded, step two is to slice up your image, choose the orientation, and the final size of the poster. Once the user is satisfied with their setup, they choose continue to get the link to download their file. The PDF file can then be printed, but you must be sure to print so that the image takes up the entire piece of paper. A mistake that I made, that required some paper cutting duties in the library.

Once printed, you piece the prints together in a puzzle or mosaic to form the enlarged image. 
Mine came out at aobut 7.5' by about 5.75'. I added some more student work on the periphery, displayed the standards that we taught and let the exhibit speak for itself.

Block Posters has a lot of potential for teachers. You could use the site to create larger reference posters, class photos, tracking charts, and anything that a teacher might want to 'Go big' with.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Hi, My Name is Eric and I'm a Charter School Teacher

The title of this post sounds, at once, apologetic and confessional. I'm a teacher and it feels pretty good to say that out loud or write it down, to an extent that I lack the talent to express fully. I work for six and seven year olds, an age that I feel, is one of the most critical ages for a child. The learning gaps between one learner and another that are formed in vocabulary and reading before a child hits second grade, may never be made up. I think that's pretty important and a role I take very seriously. My kids get my best effort each day and I expect their best effort as well. I've watched, benefited from, worked with, and admired great teachers as I have made my way through life. It is my hope that I can humbly be considered within those conversations that center around teachers and the positive difference they have made in the lives of students. I don't think I'm much different from most teachers in this way.

Even-though I know why I teach and why I chose this profession, recently I've felt the need to qualify, maybe even defend, where I teach. A public charter school. I think the real demarcation point for the change in the tone of the conversation, both online and in personal interactions, was around the time of Michelle Rhee's appearance on Oprah, Zuckerberg's 100 million gift to NJ, NBC's education nation, and the release of the movie "Waiting for Superman". The momentum of those combined events seemed to divide teachers into factions. Those divisions may have already existed and maybe I just didn't notice or pay much attention to the lines between traditional school systems and charter schools. Either way, I noticed a change.

I almost always have to explain to a non-teacher what a charter school is and the similarities and differences between traditional public schools and charters. I'm well versed in my 'elevator' pitch, so that the information about my school is clear and concise, so as not to confuse the listener. When talking to a traditional teacher, there is frequently an awkward silence that results from the disclosure when I relay the type of public school in which I work, and find myself breaking the ice that quickly forms.

There are questions about unions, evaluations, tenure, student admission, parental involvement and administrators. I try and take the opportunity to explain all of the good things that happen in my classroom and school and the wonderful environment that I can create with some of the freedoms that I have in my charter school.

Once I can get the other side of the conversation talking again, two questions seem to always be top of mind. First, "aren't you worried about losing your job due to a bad evaluation or adminstrator?" or similar. No. I don't plan on ever getting a bad evaluation and after getting kicked to the curb three times over the last 5 years, through no fault of my own, I no longer worry about things I can't control. Also, my experience is that no matter how good the organization or work environment, there is not much you can do to protect yourself from a bad manager. The second question, more like a comment really, is "I don't think I could work under the pressure to perform" that they perceive to be present at a charter school. Maybe not, but I bet we're not under as much pressure as you think. Make no mistake about it, everyone of my kids is expected to grow, in fact I get bonuses based on their growth, and we assess their learning in a number of ways. We don't use the data to exclude, punish, or separate, but rather as tools to help drive our teaching and to get these kids the instructional content they need. Over the course of the conversation, the teacher across the table or at arms length, grows to understand me and my school a little better.

The online conversations aren't always as polite. Charters, especially the teachers, are not at war with the other public schools. You'd never know this, however, as 'charter school teacher' as taken on a perjorative slant in online conversations, blogs, and tweets in the last six months. I'm not out to put an end to traditional public schools. I don't want to break up your union. I don't want you shown the door if a bad manager/admnistrator feels you're ineffective or too expensive. It would be  nice if people could be as polite and considerate  in the online world as they are face to face.

I want a great learning environment from my students. I want data that helps me understand what my students need from my instruction, so that I can tailor it to their learning needs. I want to be evaluated fairly and frequently and given support so that I can become better. Eighty percent of the students in my school qualify for free or reduced lunch. A number of my kids don't get the support of their education that I think is sufficient. I have 25 different life stories that come to me each day, and not all are happy ones. A charter school can't fix these things and neither can a traditional school, but I bet we are both in this profession to make a difference.

My name is Eric, and I'm a teacher in a charter school. I'm not that much different from you.

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