Sunday, September 12, 2010

What I Learned Today #6 - It's not just you that you effect!

Speaking to my students the other day (my NEW students who I'm very excited to work with) an understanding came out that is really starting to resonate with me. It's something that I've said to students before, but I'm just now beginning to comprehend its full meaning. I often point out to students that what they do reflects on others, not just on themselves. Often, kids think that when they make certain choices (good or bad) that those choices only have effects on a personal level. However, the truth is that many more people are effected by every decision we make.

When we make choices (especially the bad ones), people around us begin to ask themselves questions. Who does this guy think he is? What's wrong with her? Didn't their parents teach them better than this? Who would want to be friends with them?

These questions have huge implications; what we do reflects on everyone who is a part of our lives. Our decisions make people challenge how well we were raised, how much they can trust us in the future, and to what extent they can befriend anyone who sides with us. I used to think of this only with respect to my students, but I realize that it's true for me and for every other educator. What we do, what we choose to say in a given situation, gives others the chance to make judgments about us.

I'll be sure (and I'll encourage my students to as well) that my choices and decisions are reflecting on me and my life the way that I want them to; after all, what I do effects more people than just me.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

First Day of School Poem

I wrote this poem to introduce my classroom to my students.


This is the NOW.
Not the then, not the soon, not the past or the future,
not the could have been or the might still be
This is the NOW.

Who you are right NOW is the reason I am here.

I’m not here to talk about
what you did
how you ranked
who you don’t like
why you don’t care
That’s not why I’m here.

I’m not in the position to decide
who you’ll be
what you’ll become
where your path leads
why you will succeed
That’s not why I’m here.

I’m here for the NOW.

“OK, so…what do we do NOW?” You ask. “What is this all about?”

Well…this is not about YOU
but it’s not about ME either.
This is about US.

It’s about respect; it’s about community; it’s about caring for each other;
It’s about … oh – blah, blah, blah, blah!

You’ve heard this all before!
NOW, we’re gonna own it.

This is about moving forward
not backward, not backsliding, not backpedaling,
not back anything!

This is where we’re
responsible for our actions
accountable for our choices

This is where things make sense;
where nonsense is not welcome.

This is about creating a place that has
what we need
what we want
and what we hope for


let’s do this
let’s be this
let’s become this
Because no one else is gonna do this for us.

This is ME. This is YOU. But…this is really US.

And it’s time to get started.




Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What I Learned Today #5 - Tests are like fine art?

While in a workshop today, a conversation started on how reading comprehension is not just how the reader reacts to the text, but what the author's intentions are as well. As I thought over this, it occurred to me that this helps to explain why students have difficulty with testing in ELA; I realize that when a student is responding to a test, they are engaging in a discussion with not only the authors of the pieces that are used, but also the creators of the test questions.

Every test is written by someone or a group of "someones". Those people, as they create the test questions based on the authors' works, are actually initiating a conversation about these works with the test-taker. The creator of the test has (on well-made tests) brought out essential qualities and understandings inherent to the authors' words and is asking the test-taker to join in that discussion by selecting reasonable responses in multiple choice form (though I still think that written response works best - tougher to grade, I guess).

This conversation between test-taker and test-maker should not be overlooked as we work with students. Success on tests (and in class) is not found by simply having a personal reaction to a text, but it’s also not just a matter of “saying what they want you to say”. It’s somewhere in the middle, nested in that space where a teacher is looking for a student to open her or his mind to new ideas and perspectives, but to also bring an element of self to the conversation.

This draws me back to something that I've thought about quite a bit: that reading is more similar to viewing art than we acknowledge. For instance, I can debate with someone the merits of a certain painting and I can describe my feelings about that work, but I also have to take into account that there was a painter, and that painter had an intention. The painter's intention led to the creation, and that is where true understanding lies. I take my own visceral reactions to the work, then combine those feelings with a sincere attempt to understand what the artist is trying to convey.

So, how do we read this way? When I approach a text, I am bound to have a personal reaction to it in some way. However, I am also searching the author's work for clues to her or his intentions - the infamous "author's purpose" test question. Like a painting, I balance my reaction with my analysis to create understanding. If students were taught to do this with text, test-taking would become easier. When coming to a new passage, the student would read it and try to find a personal connection to it, but would then allow the test-maker to engage them in a discussion of elements that might not have been apparent on first glance.

I'm not saying that taking a standardized test is the same as viewing a Picasso, but it pays to note that in both cases there will be reaction that must be balanced against the creator's intentions. And when a student approaches a test this way, he or she is much more likely to be able to engage in the conversation that the test-maker has begun.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What I Learned Today #4 (What I like might not be what THEY like)

This past weekend I had a chance to go to Boston with my family. We had city passes that allowed us to go to multiple attractions, and we chose the Aquarium, the Children's Museum, and the Museum of Science. We had a blast as a family, and the kids really were excited (in truth, I was excited, too - this was my first time in Boston).

As we went through the various museums and exhibits, something became very clear: if something caught my or my wife's interest, the kids inevitably didn't want to spend time with it; however, the two of them gravitated toward things that we didn't think they would be interested in. This explains why the kids didn't particularly like the electricity room at the museum or want to spend time with the penguins at the aquarium, yet insisted on looking through every exhibit in the mathematics exhibit and wanted to listen to the complete presentation at the top of the giant tank (Don't get me wrong. I'm excited that they were into these things; it was just surprising).

But thinking back over our fun weekend made me consider the fact that this situation might be happening with my students. They might very well not enjoy the activities that I think they will like, and I may be missing activities that my students would really get into just because I don't think they will. In other words, what I've learned is: What's fun for ME might very well not be fun for MY STUDENTS.

Okay, so this is only a minor revelation, but I think that these are the little things that could make me a better educator. How many lessons, activities, and books have I passed over because I thought they wouldn't be fun for the students? How could I have known that for sure? These assumptions might be leading me away from creating an environment where the students are truly enjoying their learning.

This is not to say that I am now planning to have my students plan every task (I don't think that a year solely consisting of vampires, werewolves and Halo 3 would necessarily be valuable) but it's fair to say that I could bring their interests in a bit more often. A small tweak to be sure, but one that could vastly improve the delivery of my lessons.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

What I Learned Today #3 (Pluto and Plasma - Admitting you're wrong)

They Might Be Giants recently released a CD/DVD called Here Comes Science (the third in their "Here comes..." series). My wife and I have loved this band since college, and now our two children have become huge fans as well. For a long time, they have performed a great song called "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)". My family loves singing along to this oddly catchy ode to the sun's atomic properties.

However, with the release of this new disc, the band has issued a retraction (in a manner of speaking). While the original sun song is still present, there is now an additional song called "Why Does The Sun Really Shine? (The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma)" that follows it immediately. The second song updates the scientific facts, discussing the nature of the fourth state of matter (plasma), and tells the listener in its lyrics to ignore what you learned in the previous song. Sample lyric: "Forget that song/They got it wrong/That thesis has been rendered invalid" Check out this link for a more detailed explanation.

In addition, they've recorded a great song that discusses the true nature of our solar system, indicating Pluto's new status along with other named dwarf planets. Taken with the songs about the sun, these choices by They Might Be Giants have led me to what I've learned today as a teacher: When you have taught something wrong, don't just admit that you're wrong; start to make things right.

As a teacher, I have certainly taught things wrong or provided inaccurate information before. Many times, I don't figure this out until after my work with those students is done (usually as I prepare the material again the next year), but I often catch my mistake while I'm still working with the students. It is at that moment that I need to make the choice: Will I ignore the mistake, admit to the mistake, or work to fix the mistake? Each choice holds its own merits, but the lesson from this children's album points to best practices in education, namely:

What to do when you make a mistake (courtesy of They Might Be Giants):

1) Admit to the mistake immediately. This may involve the students losing an illustion that we are infallible, but that can actually lead to a better situation in a classroom. Students who see teachers that are willing to admit mistakes become more likely to admit their own mistakes.

2) Explain why the mistake was made. Rather than just saying, "Forget that, it's wrong!", point out what was wrong about the previous information and why people might have believed that at the time.

3) Correct the mistake by replacing the wrong ideas with the right ones. Too often, we ask kids to disregard information that we taught them, but it's still lodged in their memories (and it will often emerge inconveniently after we thought they knew it was wrong). By replacing "wrong" information with "right" information, we won't just address the issue; we'll make sure that it doesn't come back.

So, this fall, I am going back to school prepared to admit my mistakes and to help my class learn from my mistakes (as I learn from them myself). However, I wonder how many students around the world will be taught that there are 9 planets in our solar system, revolving around a nuclear reactor of a sun, just because it's easier to teach that (and use the "My very educated mother..." phrase) than to update our knowledge.