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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Who Built Your Tree?

christmas tree photo: Christmas Tree tree.jpg
My family and I decorated our Christmas tree recently and despite the difficulty of convincing a 15 yr old to put down his phone and countering his arguments of disrupting his "weekend vibe" (essentially, listening to music, playing video games, and keeping a high maintenance girlfriend at bay) we kept our family tradition alive.

We have several boxes of ornaments and as our family gets...older...shall we say, the growing challenge is which ornaments we leave off. My typical solution is to buy a bigger and fatter tree. More ornaments, more tree. That suggestion is usually met with, "that tree is ridiculously big" to "do I need to remind of the green scrapes on the ceiling?" from my more reasonable and much wiser wife.

The traditional soundtrack of Burl Ives and Lena Horne propelled our decorating efforts as I paused occasionally to review the memories I was placing on our Grand Fir. As I went along, I began to think about how many different contributors we've had to our family tree. It's fun to watch the tree get 'built up' over the evening as the anticipation of the "big lighting" when it is finished.

There were ornaments that reminded me of family trips, special moments, and ones of our former pets that made me choke up here and there. There were many though, that were gifts from friends and family near and far. The wooden carving from Israel, hand-painted ones from various locales. Ones that looked good to somebody. The beautiful, thoughtful, goofy, and sometime bizarre all make it to the tree. I'll leave one of our ornaments in the box before I pack away one that was given to us. Even the way too heavy ones.

The completed tree is always beautiful and intriguing to look at. It never looks the same from year to year.

I started to think about how my students are similar to our Christmas tree. I get a new batch of students every year. Fresh trees, if you will. Over the course of our ten months together, I get a chance to add ornaments of learning to their tree. Some of the things taught will remain on display, while some will get put away.

The hard part is giving each of these kids a chance to find an 'ornament' that they are proud of. Something (a paper, a project) they want to display (share) or (topic) explore further. I know that everything that we do over the course of a school year won't be included in a child's tree. Not everything we do get them excited about learning, but I'm not the only one contributing to their learning. Their 'trees' get built up by uncountable influences as they move through life.

I just hope that some of what we do in Room 216 has value for them, so that they want to take it out of the box and make the world better place to look at.

Thanks for Reading and Happy New Year.

Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Basketball Classroom Management

photo by Eric Johnson

I'm a teacher. I coach. I did not become a teacher so that I can coach. I have no dreams of building a dynasty, no illusions of grand recognition, no vicarious thrills to be realized. I want to become a better teacher, not the next John Wooden.

A couple of years ago our elementary boys were in danger of not fielding a team, because of the difficulty of finding a volunteer coach. Understandable. Coaching demands a huge time commitment. From call-up meetings and registration to roster preparation, practices, games, and on and on. There is a lot to do to get a team on the court. Volunteer? There's not a very long line. So faced with the option of our 6th grade boys not having an opportunity to play, I halfheartedly agreed.

It turned out to be a lot of fun. The boys had fun and made a successful run to get to the championship game, although ultimately losing. Along the way, my co-coach (a fellow teacher) and I became friends and I realized that sports helped improve my student relationships and my classroom management.

Sporting relationships are different than classroom relationships, but both help Room 216's learning environment. Having an opportunity to relate to a kid through sports, especially one who might struggle with classroom environments, gives that student another chance to learn.

Our classroom is not the court or track. Sports practices are much more relaxed and informal than in our classroom. That's not to say that things are rigid and over-structured in our classroom, but shooting free throws is very different from understanding the differences between observations and inferences in science. However, if a kid can trust me to show her the proper form for running the 600m, she may just give me the chance to show her how to analyze a literary text. I'm more concerned about the latter, but if a conversation about stride turnover or a better back door pass helps me help them in the classroom, then I'm in.

It could be easily said that coaching and teaching are the same, and to a certain extent, I agree. The difference for me is that coaching can be too goal focused and teaching for me is more of a process with my kids. As a teacher, I want them to learn, be curious, creative, and think to the best of their ability.

I'm careful to keep the coach and the teacher separate. I don't hand out extra laps for missed assignments or classroom misbehavior and I don't talk about the previous night's game in math class. I don't want to alienate the other students in my class and I won't play favorites. Everybody is different and learns in different ways. I don't want to run the risk of 'losing' anybody.

I've found that kids that participate on teams that I've coached are more attentive in class, reign in their behavior choices a little better, respond to re-directions a little quicker and have a little bit more perseverance on learning tasks than they did before the season. All worthwhile results that occur whether or not they made their free throws.

And apparently my 'you're dogging it during suicides' or 'you're not boxing out' looks are the same as my "get back at your fraction practice" look. I might as well put both of them to good use.

Thanks for reading.

Follow me on Twitter @YouKidsTeacher

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why I Stopped Assigning "Morning Work"

photo: Eric Johnson (Tumblr)

Time is precious. Instructional time is important. Wasting classroom time, a crime. Well, maybe not that serious, but most teachers I know work very hard to make sure that every minute of their daily instructional time is used wisely. Everyday should be focused on learning, except for maybe field day and the day before Winter Break, no student is in a mood to learn anything on those days.

So, like most, I felt a need to incorporate 'morning work' into my class' routine. Morning work, a learning activity, is placed in the first part of the day. Its intent is to transition the kids from outside activity to classroom activity and learning. Once the students take care of their belongings, go through morning routines (attendance, lunch procedures), perform morning jobs (electrical stuff plugged in, computers fired up, etc), the students start their morning work. The work, usually tied-in to content we were covering in class that week, has always been part of my kid's morning routine. Usually a worksheet, the activity occupies the time between arrival, school announcements and the first class of the day. Until this year. 

I started off this year doing the same thing. The kids were greeted with work on their desks. Except this year, I had different goals. Last year was not one of my favorite years, to say it as nicely as I can. The culture of the classroom was...well we never reached a point of learning, respect, and fun that I desire for Room 216. I think I rushed things at the beginning of the year and never established our identity and community. So this year I was determined to spend more time getting to know my kids, fostering relationships, and establishing community and slow down.

One morning early in this school year, I looked around the room and something just didn't seem right.

The kids were all at work, everything was quiet, their work was diligent, but were they learning? Was the activity furthering their learning? Was the activity meeting my goals of a a community focused classroom? Were we using our time wisely?

I'm not a worksheet teacher. I'd rather give the kids the choice to demonstrate what they have learned without filling in a blank or circling the correct letter on a worksheet. Most worksheets are learning garbage anyway, but I realized that our morning work was almost exclusively worksheets. How did I not recognize that?

The next morning I changed. I took the work away that had been handed out a few days before and put it in the recycling bin. I don't think the kids noticed too much, it was still early in the year and the routine of our mornings weren't yet automatic. Heck, even if they did notice, I don't think they would have complained about the lack of work. Sixth graders ya know.

What do we do now? How do we spend our time? The kids now come in and take care of their stuff and most sit down and talk. They talk to me. They talk to their peers at their learning clusters. Some use the classroom laptops to blog, some read. Some of the kids use the time to do homework from other classes. Sometimes, we launch right into the day, usually science,  and use that previously cast away time to get right into the day's investigation. That 'extra time', is time we now reclaim from a crowded day. More time spent on collaborating and exploring.

What do I do? I don't spend my time making sure that everyone is working and on task. I don't have to explain an  assignment that has limited learning value. I relax. I 'work' the room and take the 'temperature' of the class to get an idea of where everyone is 'at'. I gauge how ready they are to learn. I also learn more about my kids. I get insights on what their weekend or evening was like. I understand who is or more importantly, who is not in a mood to learn. We learn a lot.

Time well spent.

Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Saturday, October 12, 2013

How Being Connected Can Help Your School

The tweet, sent out on a Thursday, indicated that my elementary school was staging a very large event the very next day. We were not attempting a run of the mill school drill. The largest elementary school in our district was going to rehearse moving 500+ kids (preschool, Special Needs, staff, everyone) over a mile to an alternative location in the case of a large scale disaster. Think meth lab explosion, train derailment (chemical spill), or dog food plant explosion. 

Twitter in not only a personal source of perpetual professional development, but is also a 'place' for me to share what is going on in our classroom, school and district. I had 'discovered' earlier in the week that Twitter was unblocked on our district's network after I opened up my laptop on Monday and Twitter refreshed. It took me a few seconds to process the absence of the standard, "this website is blocked because we don't trust you' boiler plate message that I encounter every once in a while. There was no announcement, the previously blocked site had a sort of soft opening if you will.

I started the conversation with the local news station (an ABC affiliate)  and friend of Room 216, Tom Coomes a Meteorologist with the station. I never thought of picking up a phone or sending an email. Too slow. Besides, I have maintained a relationship with this news station since I was one of their candidates for 'Teacher of the Year' a couple of years ago. The confirmation of the reporter, Amanda Starrantino, and her ETA all done via Twitter. She later posted the story on her Facebook page, which I later shared on our class' page. Great partners!

Actually, I'm very proud of our district's approach of openness and trust with internet resources. The dynamic policy allows teachers and students to balance the freedom of the internet with the obligation to use it appropriately. We don't 'block it and lock it'. Available to teachers and students in my district are resources blocked for many of my virtual colleagues, including YouTube, Pinterest, and now Twitter. My kids and I are fortunate.

(click picture to watch the story)

Having these resources allows me to offer more leaning choices for my kids, opportunities to teach digital citizenship, and have additional communication conduits into my student's homes.

Connected educators can also use these mediums to broadcast the great things taking place in our schools and classrooms. Who knows, you might just land your school the top story on the evening news.

If we don't take an active role in controlling the message surrounding education these days, others will. We all know what that sounds like.

Thanks for reading

Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

p.s My kids didn't like the official name of the days drill, so we changed it. And of course, we tweeted it out.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Who is a "Connected Educator" Anyway?

October is "Connected Educator Month" and I was honored to be asked by the IDOE eLearning Development office to model what a "Connected Educator" might look like for their promotion of the event.It was great opportunity to stretch myself in the video creation department, so I was happy to accept the invitation.

What Does 'Connected Educator' Mean?
"Connected" means so many different things to different people. For me, being connected is utilizing web tools, resources, and online collaborations to help me become a better teacher. 'Connected' also means that I get exposure to terrific methods of teaching, creative student learning products, and support from teachers around the globe who are trying to get better as well.

How Do I Connect?
I think that most teachers are a very giving lot, educators that share what works and what doesn't is invaluable. A source of perpetual professional development. I have great teachers in my building to be sure, but I can make almost unlimited connections through my favorite social media platform, Twitter.

After more than three years on Twitter, I can confidently say, the people I follow share things that matter. Whether their content comes to me through their blog, website, tweets, or their own re-sharing, there is rarely a time when I don't find something of value on the other side of that click.

#Chat it up
When I was a new teacher, #ntchat, founded by Lisa Dabbs (@Teachingwithsoul) and moderated with her fabulous devotion to her 'newbies' helped me realize that I wasn't alone. The Twitter chat let me 'talk' with teachers who were encountering the same problems that I was facing and work through solutions together. I've found tremendous value in #elemchat as well. There is one out there for you as well. Start with Jerry Blumengarten's (@Cybraryman1) Educational chat page to find one that matches what you need.

This constant sharing and resource stockpile has resulted in great depth of available expertise and tools that I can use to help my students learn and demonstrate their learning. Tools that allow them to take hold of their learning and be creative in how they show what they have learned. I guess you could say that not only am I connected, but so is our class.

A Personal Learning Network or PLN is a network of people that you can develop over time. A PLN is about relationships and trust.You don't have to be the building 'techie' to create or grow a PLN, you just need a desire to learn and a willingness to learn from others. Your PLN can be as big as you want it to be, but  whatever the size, it can be invaluable. Read this excellent post by Tom Whitby on PLN's from a few years ago.

A Connected Class
I've used technology to connect in differing ways to my students and their home partners. I use Facebook, Remind 101, Google sites, Kid Blogs, and Edmodo among others to let home partners be a part of our classroom. Parental engagement is so very important to my student's success, so tools that flatten and simplify communication are essential.

My blog is a place for me to talk about what's important to me and share some things that have worked for me in my classroom. I'm amazed and humbled that people like to read what I have wrote. The reflective part of the writing process can be excruciating and painfully slow, but worth every minute, I put into it.

Get connected. You'll be glad you did.

Follow me on Twitter @YourKidsTeacher

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Setting the Foundation

Just around the corner is our School's open house. After a long Summer, many of my new class of 6th graders will peeking into Room 216 for the first time.

Open house night starts with sack lunches prepared by our amazing kitchen staff and a picnic of sorts as people spread out across the playground. It is a great time for family members to get together and tour the school together. It's the first glimpse I have into the home life of my students. I can observe the interactions between the parents and their kids. I can get an idea of how large their families are, where do they fit in with their siblings and how well do they seem to get along. I might see the structure of the house (a two parent household, are there other caregivers involved, etc). The night doesn't give me a complete picture, but gives me enough information to start to understand the kids that I will be spending the next 10 months with.

The evening's positive energy is high. The kids are excited as they make there way around the halls, then into our new room. The teachers have typically spent the last week or so getting their rooms ready for those all important first few days of the new school year. The educational infrastructure has been created and put in place so that the next morning when the first bell rings, our kids can start learning. Kids always want to find their desks and see who is in their collaboration cluster. Many of the kids are anxious, a little nervous, because of the unknown. So am I. A new start can be scary when you're 12 or ....well.

It is interesting to see which kids introduce themselves and those that are introduced by their home partners. Which students are already comfortable in their home away from home. The students already at ease are usually the ones who I've had in science fair,  coached or rooted for on various teams, or just a frequent high-five recipient. Other students move about the edges. Maybe they are trying not to be noticed or are just a little shy this early in the relationship.

Invariably there is one or a few home partners who want to provide me with a breakdown of their student's weaknesses. I politely listen, but to be honest I'm not storing much of the conversation in my long term memory. I will get to know their child's strengths and weaknesses soon enough, and it takes a lot longer than a passing conversation with warm cookies in our hands. (my wife is awesome by the way)

On this occasion, I'm more interested in the home partner. I want to get a sense of what school was like for them, because their attitude and interests have certainly impacted their student's attitude. Does the home partner contribute to an us vs. them attitude with their child? Questions I try and slip into the quick conversation:
  • What was your favorite subject? Why? (grades or the learning)
  • What books have you read recently? 
  • Who was your favorite teacher? Why?
  • What do you do for fun? What are your interests? 
  • Did your family have the chance to do something fun or exciting this summer.
The questions aren't meant to define, but to gauge how high the home partner's wall is. In other words, do they have a negative predisposition to school? Do they like learning? What expertise can I leverage for our classroom? What kind of support can they or are willing to give to their student? 

I need to capture the natural energy of the event and start to build the relationships that will contribute to a vibrant learning environment. The last thing I'm going to do is put another brick in the wall between them and their own learning experience by handing out a bunch of classroom rules and expectations. I want them to walk away knowing that our student is going to learn and grow in Room 216. I can't communicate that with a handout or permission slip. 

I want them to know that the learning might look a little different than when they went to school. It will not be in a straight line and might look a little messy. Their child's proof of learning won't be demonstrated by properly filling in a standardized bubble sheet. Their child will have choices. Their child's work will be published, displayed and shared. They won't have homework.

I want them to trust in their student and in me. I try and get them to help me to lay the foundation for the year and not build higher walls. We're going to do great things and I want them along for the ride.

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above photo by Eric Johnson

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Don't Become a Teacher

(photo by Eric Johnson)

I recently had the privilege of sitting down and talking with a Dean of Education, a Director of Graduate Education, and an Indiana Principal of the Year at a small reception hosted by my Graduate Degree Alma Mater. The purpose of the reception was to give Graduate alumni students a chance to re-connect, share ideas, and talk about their careers since receiving their Masters Degree. (MAT, M.Ed.)

Whether it was the timing or the weather that evening, the event was unfortunately not well attended. The event was not a total loss however, as it provided an opportunity for me to talk one on one with people who have very real interest in the direction of education. All three of these professionals were concerned about the flow of talent coming in to the profession and the increasing scarcity of top tier professionals within the field.

The Dean and the Director both talked at length about how this current academic year was the lowest enrollment in many years. The Dean had the perspective that the situation was a temporary lull and that they were prepared for it to extend up to 5 years. He felt that they would just have to find a way to "ride it out" and be prepared for the upswing in both undergraduate and graduate enrollments as educator retirements increase over the next ten years.

Our Indiana State legislature, following a growing trend, passed legislation that devalues an advanced education degree.  The change in the law does not require public districts to automatically to pay teachers a "Masters bump".  The Director of Graduate of Education stunningly stated that with the change "why, other than intrinsic reasons or if you were already close to getting 'it', why would anyone get a M.Ed or MAT?" I sat there, as he went on, and internally just went "wow!"

There certainly was some intrinsic motivation as I pursued my Masters of Arts in Teaching. At the base of the effort though, was that by obtaining an advanced degree was the opportunity to learn how to get better at my job. I wanted to get better at teaching. The change in the law however, was the factor that definitely made me accelerate the pace last summer. I took 9 graduate credits in 62 days, to get 'grandfathered' into a higher salary band before our district's contract ended at the end of this school year. My wife shared the driving on our 4000+ mile road trip out west last summer, while I banged out papers in the passenger seat or early in the mornings, to email to my professors who graciously allowed me to honor a 10 day family vacation commitment in the middle of the semester. 

The principal related a story about how he couldn't find a qualified high school Physics teacher. He struggled to find someone who was an expert in the challenging content (for me at least) and held the license necessary for the job. He ended up placing a science generalist in the position with the understanding that he would need to have patience as this teacher built his expertise over time.

In talking further about the decreasing numbers of enrollment and talent pools, all three agreed that current teachers are often the worst marketers for the profession. There were many stories where a perspective education student was advised "Don't become a teacher."

That advice might be coming from an increasing personal frustration from their jobs. The the seemingly ever growing restrictions on creative teaching and the corollary 'accountability' placed on those outside of education. There are a lot of reasons why someone shouldn't become a teacher. Teaching is hard. Teaching well, harder. I don't think one should become a teacher, unless a candidate has considered a few things.

Teachers are largely unappreciated. Teaching is the one job that everyone thinks they could do. They can't. Outside of the parents of the children in your classroom or your peers, most people don't hold what teachers do with a high level of regard. If you're looking for external validation and praise, don't become a teacher.

A teaching candidate should have a good understanding of the non-teaching elements of being a teacher. Superior organization skills are major requirement of the job. Committees, team meetings, multiple deadlines from multiple inputs, grades, assessment windows, intervention conferences, and on and on. There are a lot of non instructional tasks that demand your time. If you aren't ready to give time and attention to all of the tasks that have little to do with instruction, don't become a teacher.

Teaching is a grind. It takes a focused, year round, purposeful effort. I don't know of a teacher who has ever said that they have ever reached the end of their development. Teachers are a reflective bunch and are always looking back at what they could have done better. The great ones find a way to examine their past and apply meaningful adjustments to their future instruction and student relationships. The aforementioned Director always liked to tell the story of a newly enrolled administration student, after completing his first year of teaching in a tough school, said "that he had seen it all." The Director's reply was "oh really, have you ever chased a naked man through the halls of your school?" While there's no course that teaches the fineries of that situation, if you don't want to be involved in a state of perpetual professional development, don't wish to get better, and possess an inflated sense of self, don't become a teacher. The field doesn't need anymore know-it-alls. We need collaborators and change agents. We already have too many politicians and funderpundits trying to force their agendas on those in the field and who know a better way, but just have smaller wallets.

If you think teaching is a great way to pad your résumé as the required community service requirement in your life's career plan, you might want to look elsewhere for your bullet point. Most teachers will tell you that they didn't feel mostly effective until they had taught for five or six years. A two year stint isn't enough to reach a level of competency that our kids need. The profession needs people who can commit their talents long term. If you think you'll have this "teaching thing down" in just a couple of years or you want to quickly move on to 'bigger and better' things, don't become a teacher.

But ...
If you want to become a teacher,
to help children reach their potential,
share your ideas freely with peers,
embed yourself in the community where your kids live,
take a long view towards getting better in your field,
and put in long hours with little recognition except maybe a crayon drawn picture at the end of the school year that says you were their favorite teacher,
then sign up, because our kids need you and I want you in my building.
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Monday, July 15, 2013

Not Suprising

I read this post by Lee Kolbert (@Teachakidd) while watching the Bastille Day Stage 15 of this year's Tour de France. I tweeted out the post and stated "that I couldn't wait to read the comments" she had asked for in the conclusion. I like Lee's writing and despite her encouragement to not "wait for the others, Lead", Mont Ventoux held my attention. Thank her for her post and for fighting against the nonsense that lead to the graphic.

I liked her post because it fired me up and got me thinking. It reminds me that aside from our peers, parents of my students, my students, and my wife & son, that teachers are not valued very highly. 

I hated this post, because it reminded me of the same thing. Like I've said before, 

"Teachers are like cops. You don't know how valuable they are until you need one"

We (the profession) have a very serious perception problem in regards to what teachers actually do. I certainly don't speak for the entire profession, but most teachers I know and work with are fairly humble by nature. They do great things in their classroom and are often times the only ones who know about it. The default position is not one of self promotion, but of nurturing. There still exists a wariness, within some school buildings, of someone who broadcasts what they are doing in the classroom. Someone who is blowing their 'own horn', in other words. 

I've take the position that we don't share what we are doing for our kids, who will? I'm going to share what I'm doing and what I've found I like. If that is not your thing, I'm okay with that. 

However, if we don't drive the conversation, someone else gets the microphone. Teachers, administrators, and other educators should have control of the conversation about what they do. If you are not communicating what's going on in the classroom, who is? 

My class and I are certainly not perfect (read this by @Michellek107), but I'm not going to let someone else confiscate what is going on in our classroom.

I take opportunities to make sure people within my reach know that I just don't work 9-3 and  August-September. I hope that at some point, perceptions will change. It's hard though, because the feeling that teachers are less than professionals is so entrenched. I almost always feel defensive and somewhat whiny when making my case. Even to friends.

What are some of the things I do in my classroom that people would find surprising? If you are not surprised, you're probably an educator.
  • I rarely sit down when kids are around. 
  • I spend about ten minutes in the morning on the playground where our grade lines up to try understand where each kid 'is at' that day. Getting a gauge on the room, if you will, so that I have an idea of their mood as they come in to learn.Chatting about what's going on in their lives, outside of school, while we're outside of the school. 
  • People might find it surprising that for a number of my kids, the time they are in our class is the safest they feel all day. Many live in chaos. You cannot learn in chaos, which is why even-though we may be noisy sometimes and a little messy, we're focused on exploring and learning. 
  • I help give them a voice, because they are so often ignored, shut-out, or out shouted at home.
  • I already know most of my incoming student's names, because I spend time talking, high-five'ng, and interacting with every student in the building. Because you never know.
  • I give them a snack when they are hungry.
  • My wife has bought my students clothes and shoes.
  • I sacrifice time with my wife and son sometimes, because I volunteer coach for basketball, track, science fair, etc. I'm a volleyball booster, choir concert/play videographer, and open house tour guide among other things.
  • I teach my kids how to talk to each other and express ourselves without trying to tear someone else down. 
  • I've taught blogging, digital citizenship, and keyboarding skills to 1st graders.
  • I meet them as strangers on the first day, but cry when they leave me at the end of the year.
  • At the end of the year I send a handwritten  note to every student who spent time in my class over the last ten month to remind them that someone is rooting for them. 
  • I send birthday cards to former students.
  • I listen to them.  
  • I read, research, write, present, and try to contribute to a community of my fellow educators, because they inspire me to get better at this thing that I do.
  • I make my kids feel they are part of our Room 216 family. Always.
What do I do that the public would find surprising? Almost everything.

Thanks for reading.

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Friday, March 29, 2013

Break Hunger

In years past, spring break meant trips both long and short to take in sights and activities not offered around home. This year at least, break means getting in some training rides and attempting to complete some household projects. I'm more successful in getting in my training rides.

Any multi-day break always means that our class' fishes, Skittles and Twizzlers, have to be transported home so that they can be fed regularly by house caretakers, or to substantially reduce undesirable round-trips to Room 216. I guess it would be easy to just drop something into the tank and come back in 7 days to happy fish, but I like making sure they are taken care of.

It was during my training ride today, that I listened to the podcast of Real Time with Bill Maher's Episode #275 from March 15th. The episode held my interest because of the appearance of Michelle Rhee, the former D.C. Superintendent; Author: Fighting to Put Students First; and CEO/Founder, StudentsFirst; . Bill's sister is a teacher and while he acknowledges he's not an expert, he said "I hear from her" on matters of education. Some of the people I follow on Twitter advertised a 'Maher takedown' of Rhee. The conversation did not live up to that label, but it certainly held my interest during my ride through SW Michigan wine country.

Rhee is to say the least, a polarizing figure, but intriguing as well. I listen to her views with healthy skepticism. In my opinion, she's trying to build her resume' for something 'bigger' and using the 'vehicle' of education reform to get her there. During the show Rhee had a great point though, "Whenever we're  measuring the progress of students in schools, we have to take into account where the kids are beginning. You can't set a goal for all schools and all kids at the same level for a given year, without taking into consideration where they're starting."

The show's real surprise however, was the discussion with Tom Colicchio on children and their families struggling with hunger. The celebrity chef and co-founder of the Gramercy Tavern in New York City was involved with the documentary film A Place at the Table. Using the stories of three individuals, the film shows how these people deal with "food insecurity." In other words, how these folks get through the day wondering where their next meal is coming from. Or when.

From the film's site:

Ultimately, a Place at the Table shows us how hunger poses serious economic, social and cultural implications for our nation, and that it could be solved once and for all, if the American public decides-as they have in the past-that making healthy food available and affordable is in the best interest of us all.

Tom Colicchio was compelling as he stated his case for action and for not looking down on people struggling with hunger/poverty. He stated, that "85% of the families that receive SNAP benefits or food stamp benefits, have at least one member of the family working. And 70% of them are working full time. These aren't 'takers.'"

No, they aren't "takers", but they are in my classroom, my school, my neighborhood. They're in yours as well. One in four children nationwide. You can't learn if you are hungry, and I often worry where my kid's next meal is coming from when they walk out the doors at the end of the day. How I'll help them focus the next day's lesson when they're bellies hurt?

Eighty percent of the kids in my school qualify for Federal free or reduced lunch. I don't worry as much about them getting good food during the school week, because our terrific lunch staff of five ensures that 500+ kids get a good breakfast and lunch each day. For some of my kids, I'm positive that those valuable meals are sometimes the only quality thing they get to eat all day. I've written about one of those students before. Still, I worry. I worry about them during the extended winter break and even-though there are programs, I fret during summer break. Many of my kids live in chaos. Working parents with alternating schedules, multiple siblings competing for the same attention and resources, seemingly ever changing households, and emergency expenses. Instability.

I don't know of any programs for spring break, but I know we can't just drop a feeder block into the tank to take care of this problem. Our kids deserve better. My kids deserve better.

Here are just a few resources and organizations that can help.

Thanks for reading.

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Stupid Yellow Bracelet and A Confiscated Color

 Photo by Jacky Naegelen REUTERS

I originally wrote this piece for the http://thebigslice.org/ Taking Back Lance's Armstrong's Yellow Bracelet It really has nothing to do with "Education, Kids, or the Technology that brings them together", the usual topics for my blog. However, the life lessons of honesty, courage, and living your life with integrity certainly apply. 

Lance Armstrong the cyclist, not the cancer survivor, activist, or seven time Tour winner, caught my cycling spectator's eye when he won the Junior National Road Race Championship in 1991. The road to becoming a professional cyclist is littered with youngsters that had early success racing, but couldn't quite keep up with the big boys when it came time to get paid for spinning pedals for hours on end. So Lance's first big win, in and of itself was nothing to get excited about, it was how he won and how he handled the success. It was clear that he was not done winning. He had that something that many elite athletes possess...they have it. It is the thing that separates spectator from competitor.That it is hard to pin down, but we all know it when we see the attributes. Joe Dimaggio and Ali to name a couple. Barry Bonds and Michael to name a couple more. You don't have to be arrogant, dismissive of others talents, or a jerk to be the best in your field, but those qualities sure seem to be present in most of those who achieve that high mark in their sport. Lance, partly due to his young age, was characterized as brash. Whatever the moniker, he had it, and he had my attention.

Lance went on to become World Champion at 21 and he earned the right to wear the coveted Rainbow Jersey on his uniform for the rest of his career at an unheard of young age. He won multiple Tour Stages, European semi-classics, and everything on this continent, seemingly at will. He brought me to tears as I watched him win the Tour stage into Limoges', pointing to the heavens, just days after the tragic death of his Motorola teammate during an earlier stage. I believed in him.

He signed a big contract ($2 million plus) with an established French team, Colfidis, and was later unceremoniously dumped by the same while he was undergoing treatment for his aggressive testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Over time, word started trickling through the cycling press that Lance was recovering and was going to survive. Reports had him training, but most cycling fans were surprised to hear he was preparing to come back to racing. I remember reading the web reports with disbelief as Lance finished 4th overall in the 1998 Vuelta Espana, Spain's Grand Tour. I tore off the cover of Velonews (a cycling magazine that covers European races) that covered the race and taped it on my basement wall next to my bikes. The cover featured Lance pedaling out of the saddle, soaked with rain, covered in grit. I looked at the photo before each of my rides.

Shortly after the Vuelta, it was announced that he would compete in the following year's Tour de France, an unbelievable attempt to be sure. I had seen the photos of how cancer had ravaged his body, I had read the stories of how old ladies passed him on the road during his rides at home during recovery,  and where in the middle of six-hour training ride in the rain in the North Carolina mountains he realized that he still loved riding his bike. Competition in the world's toughest, fastest stage race seemed impossible. I believed in him
After the Le Puy du Foy Prologue in 1999, I ran like a child from the living room into the kitchen where my wife was washing dishes in the kitchen to yell, from 3 feet way,  that Lance was in Yellow! During Stage 2, I watched the ruthlessness of his team's attack on the slippery causeway Passage du Gois, a causeway in France that is only traversable at low tide, when a crash caused a split in the peloton (the French name for the large group in a race). Lance capitalized on the misfortune of his competitors as they hit the deck or got caught behind the carnage with no way to move forward. Lance's team went 'full gas,' in cycling terms, to put a time gap on his competitors that they would never make up. It was maybe the first glimpse for many Americans of what the Texan would do to win a bike race. The aggressive tactics were chalked up to "that's racing", but we came to understand with time and hindsight that the guy that so many looked up to, only to later let us down, would do almost anything to win.

There were whisperings of Lance's cheating at his first Tour after returning from cancer, and the first glimpse of his go-to tactic of intimidation and ostracizing anyone who went against him. However, it seemed very unlikely that someone who had just gone through a life threatening illness would do anything to jeopardize their health, or so his fans and defenders quickly responded to counter the insinuations. How could you put that into your body after what you had just been through? It didn't make sense. It still doesn't. He couldn't really bring his kids to the podium and share a moment of glory that he achieved by cheating could he? He wouldn't say, (paraphrasing) "why would I cheat because I have to look my kids in the eye," would he? He did.

Cycling was supposed to be the sport that was doing more than any other major sport in finding and tossing out the cheats. The governing body (UCI) was catching the cheaters in all the disciplines of the sport. Olympic Champion Philip Meirhaeghe in mountain biking, numerous road racers (Mueseeuw, Rasmussen, et. al), and even championship riders in Cyclocross,  a fringe sport of a fringe sport (3x world champion-DeClerq). The fact that so many were getting caught, made it easier to believe those who were telling the press and the fans that they were clean. I believed them.
During his racing years, there was an interview with Tyler Hamilton (Tour rider, teammate of Armstrong, and 60 minute interviewee/lid blower-offer) where he talked about refusing to turn on the air conditioner on his car trip back from a race in Spain because he felt that it would wreak havoc on his respiratory system. The guy who later was found putting someone else's blood into their body wouldn't turn on the AC?! Who would have believed it?

It's easy to put yourself into a self-imposed media blackout during the Tour. Essentially you just have to stay away from one cable channel and you're almost assured of not getting surprised with any results. It even a pretty safe bet that opening a newspaper or watching ESPN won't jeopardize your VCR/DVR efforts. You don't even run the risk of overhearing race results at the water cooler at work, because not very many people follow the sport. So in 2006, I had taped Stage 17 of that year's Tour. The day before, American Floyd Landis (former teammate, sometime characterized as a friend Armstrong) self-destructed on that day's stage and fell eight minutes behind and seemingly all hope of winning.  I got up at about 4:30am to watch the previous day's stage, before I went to work, without a clue as to what had happened. In a dark house, with just my sleeping cats and hot coffee to keep me company, I watched Floyd Landis' epic solo break away.

The day after Landis lost his yellow jersey, he came within 30 seconds of taking it back, with just a few days remaining in the race. I was in tears. It was astonishing and was one of the greatest sporting exploits I've ever seen. Robbie Ventura, Landis' coach during his 'winning Tour', who currently has a job commenting on cycling for TV (please shut-up),  had fans convinced that the "thing that I just saw" for his rider's 'unbelievable' exploit  was due to Landis' efforts of constantly pouring ice water over his head.  Ventura stated, that by keeping his core temperature down, Landis was able to keep his up his peak output (450 watts) for longer.  Days later, Landis was caught cheating as well. That moment in a dark house, with tears in my eyes, was stolen. I couldn't believe it.

There are lots of moments that have been robbed, dimmed, or tainted since the dam opened up over the rampant cheating that occurred within cycling throughout the 90's and early 21st century. Moments when I invested my time, money, and spirit to watch  extraordinary things on a two wheeled machine and a chain. I still remember the wins on Sestriere, Alpe du Huez, and Paris-Roubaix by riders who I followed, but the memories have lost a little luster. I'm a little bitter that I gave part of my heart to these guys. A little foolish to have stood up and cheered their exploits. A little embarrassed to have defended them for so long. The governing bodies have taken all the titles away and given them to the next placed rider or in some cases pretended that no one won. The races were run, the races were won, and during that era it is clear that most of the riders with a Pro-Tour License (the highest Professional UCI category) were part of a doping program. How far are you going to go down on the list of finishers? 10th? 50th? It seems pointless.

Lance, after steadfastly denying his cheating, while at the same time intimidating or humiliating his accusers, went on the DOprah show to confess and explain himself. Sorta. I can't think of another orchestrated confessional that failed as miserably. He went from bad to worse to hated in just a couple of hours. He told Oprah that the hardest part of this whole process was telling his kids that everything that they know about their father's racing success was based on cheating. I believe him.
There are times that I still slide on my Livestrong bracelet, but it no longer serves as a visible indicator of support for Lance. It has come to symbolize something personal on a couple of levels. The first, the silicone yellow band helps to remind me that I love riding my bike. I certainly don't need a visible reminder,  I've been riding/racing for over 20 years, but after a long ride it reminds me that I did something I love and sought the happiness and fulfillment a bike ride can offer. When I'm wearing it, it also helps to remind me to lay off the donuts.

The now mocked, once ubiquitous band, also reminds me of a co-worker with who I made a personal connection with during the 2003 Tour de France. That Tour, for me was the most exciting in years. Lance was making all kinds of mistakes and he seemed to have some real competition for the overall win. Bob, was the electronics manager in the retail store that I managed, so he was usually the closest employee to where I had camped out near the wall of TVs that, somehow, was showing the live race coverage from France. Everyday Bob came over, at first by obligation, so that I could explain what was going on and how the day's race might unfold. I tried to explain the unexplainable to the uninitiated. I'd follow Bob out to the store's patio where he would take his smoke break and I'd would try to impart all of my knowledge about the Tour and all of its races with the race. Very quickly though, Bob was hooked. As the race went on, I didn't even have to turn the TVs to the Outdoor Life Network's (now Vs.) live coverage of the race, because Bob had already taken care of my job. He would come in asking how Lance's competitors might make up their time deficit. I gave Bob his first Livestrong bracelet. Bob's career progressed and he moved on from my unit, but whenever we saw each other we always talked about who was going to wear yellow that year.

Quite a few years later, in July,  I received an email from Bob's wife.  She introduced herself and asked if I'd give Bob a call. They had been watching the Tour the day before while he was awaiting his latest chemo treatment and mentioned my name. The previous month, he had gone to the doctor  for a persistent stomach ache. A little more than a year later I was hugging his wife and shaking the hands of his three children at his funeral. He was 51. I don't wear yellow anymore because of Lance, that connection only reminds me of the diminished memories of worthless battles on a bicycle. I wear that stupid little bracelet because there is one that cannot. The yellow is theirs. Mine.

The Tour de France was raced long before Lance Armstong clipped into his pedals at the Grand Departe' and it will be here long after his 'wins' have been stricken from the record. The Tour will continue and his 'heroic' efforts a footnote in a dark era of the most grueling, beautiful, breathtaking sporting event in the world. Despite Lance confiscating the color yellow over his seven year run of Tour de France victories, yellow was never really his color.

Thanks for reading, Adieu.
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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I May Not Matter to Some, but...

I've had this one in draft for a while. I've stayed away from posts like this for a few reasons. One, there are a lot of people who write about these issues much better than I feel like I could. I read, I ponder, and share other's work when I find value. I thought I should leave the heavy stuff to them. Two, contributing to discussions about education reform and the players is not what I want this space to be about. Three, I just couldn't figure out how to write what I wanted to say without sounding like I was having, like my Mom used to say, a pity party. I'm not. It's more a statement of purpose. An affirmation that I know what's important to me, even if I'm not important to everybody. Besides, this is my space and I'm going to change its definition for just a tad.

I'm a husband, a father and a public school teacher. I haven't been doing this for a very long time, but in just a few seemingly accelerated years, it is clear to me that I love what I do. To paraphrase the knight guarding Christ's chalis in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, "I chose wisely." Even my wife, who knows me better than anyone on earth, doesn't fully realize how much I enjoy the creativity and autonomy when I do what I think is best for my students, and the fulfillment I feel when I get it right. It is difficult to describe to non-teachers how difficult, demanding, heartbreaking, and thrilling the profession can be.

However, anytime a teacher, especially a public school teacher, tries to communicate concerns or tries to impact a conversation about education to non-educators, the quiver of dismissive cliches' gets unloaded pretty quickly.

In this video highlight from the Boca Raton Presidential Debate in October 2012, the candidates start debating who loves teachers more. Bob Schieffer, finally tries to settle the issue in an effort to get the debate on track.

"I think we all love teachers"  For me, the better affirmation would have been, 'I think we can all agree that teachers matter' Wishful thinking to be sure, because the truth of it is that

I don't matter to...

  • Who want to shake my hand and tell me how important I am, but then cut funding in numerous and creative ways that make educating my kids more and more difficult. You can't get more with less. Schools are not factories and learning is not a product.
  • Who continue to dilute mine and my peer's expertise by reducing licensing requirements for both teachers and administrators. It's not enough to simply know the content or how to manage people and products in other fields. It's one thing to know how to add fractions, it's quite another to be able to show someone in a way that is interesting, long lasting, and in a way they can recognize and properly apply the concept in real world situations.
  • Who, check local listings, are piece by piece trying to dismantle public education through various schemes. Funnel Public money into parochial or for profit charters, sure. Chip away at collective bargaining and the "power" of unions. You betcha. 
  • That by sneaky methods, rarely used parliamentary procedures, or the outright brandishment of majority power, try to diminish the power of Teacher Unions. Say what you will about unions, but who will be the voice for 'YourKids' when laws are made that impact their learning.
  • Demonize teachers who have earned and benefit from pensions from their long years of service, or fight for better wages. They are not 'thugs', Governor Christie. We are not selfish for wanting our worth for the services we provide.
  • That hold the view that experience matters little in student achievement. It does. Not everyone can teach. Students deserve experienced teachers. Freshly minted college graduates who need to build their resume and then bolt when they got the bullet point, are not the answer to kids who need a long term commitment to their neighborhood.

The Public at large

Teachers are like cops. 
You don't know how much you value them until you need one.
  • Who characterize teachers as lazy. "You don't work summers" "You get off at 3" "You just spend your days coloring... blah, blah, blah.
  • Who don't want to vote favorably for that millage, because they don't have kids or they don't recognize that an educated workforce makes their community a better place to live in.
  • Who thinks that tenure means 'bad' teachers can never get fired. They can. Better evaluations are part of the answer. (Washington Post) Most of what they've have been told are myths.
  • Who think that student learning can be standardized or assessed. It can't. 'Data driven' is an obscene distortional phrase and incredibly shortsighted prism of progress. In what other profession is perfection or 100% the acceptable goal? Data guided is more appropriate, use what is uncovered in diagnostic testing to fit the instruction to the child. Every kid can grow, everyone of them can learn, but not at the same rate and not necessarily at the same time. Kids aren't perfect and neither are teachers.
  •  Who compare test results to countries who don't come close to matching the home life, demographics, or SES that come into my classroom each day. It's the poverty stupid. I'm not failing  and you don't live in Finland. Let's come together and help OUR KIDS be the best that they can be.
  • Who think 'merit pay' is a good incentive to get teachers to work harder. It won't work, because most are already working just about as hard as they can.  (National Center on incentives - Vanderbilt University) If I spend much more time preparing lessons, analyzing gains, assessing, etc then I'm at risk of losing much more; I stand to lose my sense of self and even more precious time with my family.
"Change" Agents (Those with the money and desire to be a celebrity by using 'Education Reform' as their launching pad.)
  • Who believe that anyone can teach and that the momentum of experience is not a significant factor in teaching effectiveness. I can't think of another profession where expertise has been so devalued by the conversations by outsiders.Teachers add value to students lives. (The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers, Harvard University ) Experienced teachers, even more so. (http://educationnext.org/great-teaching/#)
  • Attacking, no other word for it in my opinion, the 'public' in public schools. I'm not against private institutions, but I do have a problem with privatizing what should remain public or placing public decisions in private hands because your wallet is bigger than mine.  Public schools are great for what they produce, not for they what they exclude.

But, I matter to:

My students
  • Who know that I try my best each day to create engaging lessons (minus maybe spelling) that feed a desire to learn and become a greater person.
  • Who despite my sometime craziness and inability to keep track of my coffee cup and glasses, realize that I'm on their side. They know that I  want to help them unlock themselves to find unique thing about them that will amaze the world. 
  • Who know that even though they may have passed through our door for the last time, I'm still rooting for them. 
My class' Home Partners
  • Who realize that Room 216 is a safe place for their kids to come and learn. Where they have a opportunity to express their learning in different ways. A place where, if they choose to, they can become an active partner in their child's education. Read their blogs. View their learning artifacts. Peek in on the fun.
My boy
  • Who sees his dad trying to impact other kid's lives in a positive way. Not just in his.
  • He knows that I could have very easily stayed in a job that pays me twice what I make now, but that I'm easily twice as happy. He's amazing and I matter to him.
My wife
  • She's made sacrifices to help me pursue something that's meaningful.
  • She sees former students run up to me when we're out, say hello, maybe give me a hug, and she knows that I'm making a difference.
  • She's been a Science Fair 'widow', a basketball coach 'widow', a volleyball booster 'widow', and professional development 'widow' to name just a few of my absences that she takes in stride.
  • We still like to hold hands, still make each other laugh, and she remains the best road trip partner I've ever had. (Even though she doesn't really believe in GPS and prefers maps. She once got me to the start line of a major bike race in whiteout conditions, by two-tracking through 8" of Northern Michigan freshly fallen snow, because the roads were too iced up and closed.)
  • She's amazing and I matter to her. 
I matter to them, and that's what matters to me.
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