Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Wall

I decided my senior year to play football on my high school team.  I had already lettered in baseball, but I wanted to have the experience of playing on the gridiron "for real" rather than in just some pick up games at the local park.  I didn't get to play much, but I sure did try my best to impress the coaches.

Until one day...

At the end of every practice we would sprint across the width of the field twice for one set and we would typically do 3 sets.  I was one of the fastest guys on the team, except when I was weighed down with the pads & helmet, then I was in the middle of the pack.  It was midway through the year, and I hadn't played much, so I decided to give everything I had on the sprints, and I mean everything.

On the first sprint, I finished around third.  I think my friend Fred and Tony Siragusa (a guy who played on the Super Bowl champion Ravens team over 10 years ago, he was freakishly fast for a guy his size, no wonder why he made the NFL) bested me.  On the second set, I couldn't keep up with the leaders, and fell back to the middle again.  By the third set I finished dead last, something I had never done in a sprint EVER.

But I was noticed.  The backfield coach came up to me as we were walking in and said, "Looks like you hit a wall out there".  The coach noticing me in the end didn't matter as I didn't get to play more, and my desire to try hard at practices died.

In education, students will all eventually hit "The Wall".  "The Wall" is the point when things stop "coming easy" for you and you have to actually read, do homework, and study in order to do well in a class.

(Except if you were like the guy in my history classes in college who could write letters instead of notes in Dr. Vos' class, and the answer the professor's questions perfectly while continuing to scribble down his thoughts in the letter, or yea, letters for you in the younger crowd was what we did when we didn't have email or text messaging).

"The Wall" typically occurs around 7th grade and it is no wonder why parents and kids alike say that 7th grade is the hardest year at my school.  It's not that the teachers are making it harder than in the other grades, its that the students' minds are transitioning from being concrete to abstract thinkers as well as the material becoming more difficult to digest.

Some would like us to let up and allow kids to stay behind and eventually boost them over "The Wall".  If we did that, when they got to the other side, they would see how far behind they were from others their age and not be prepared for the next "Wall" if one comes up.

The only way to get through "The Wall" is to smash it.  The problem is that this comes from within the child.  Sure parents and teachers can motivate the child, but the child has to find some intrinsic reason  to break through to the other side.

I always like to think that the games I do in class are like tools a child can use to bring down "The Wall".  Sadly, I also know that there are kids who just enjoy playing with the tools without ever "wearing them down" by using them to attack "The Wall".

Usually, by 8th grade, the complaints die down.  Again, its not the 8th grade teachers or coursework are any easier, its just that enough kids have gotten through "The Wall".

You may not hit "The Wall" in 7th grade, but you will eventually hit one in your life.

Are we going to ignore "The Wall" and hope it disappears?

As a parent, are you going to ask the teachers to remove "The Wall" for your child or be their biggest coach & cheerleader as they attempt to run "head first" through it?

As a student, are you going to give up and let "The Wall" defeat you or will you defeat it?

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Teaching Festivus and Losing Christmas

Yesterday on the half day before the winter break, I taught a lesson on holidays.  We try to summarize what all holidays have in common.  Celebrating holidays seems to be something that is intertwined into the fabric of every culture.  They serve a special purpose, to help us remember an important event or information of our culture and/or just an excuse to bring us together to have fun; to unify us.  Sometimes that unity can be found in such silly things as just playing pranks on someone on April Fools Day.

There are four types of holidays are religious (Easter, Passover), patriotic/nationalistic (4th of July, St. Patricks' Day), secular (Earth Day, Arbor Day), and fun (Halloween, Hoodie-Hoo Day).  And all holidays seem to have practices and traditions.  The fun of the holiday lesson is when we then watch clips on Youtube that combine all the Festivus sections of the Seinfeld episode, The Strike.  For the month before Christmas, I have a foot long dowel wrapped in tinfoil on display in my classroom.  Most wonder what its purpose is.  After watching Seinfeld, they receive their answer.  The students have to identify all the aspects of a holiday that can be discovered about Festivus thorough out the episode.  (The sad thing is when I ask the question, "What did Jerry Seinfeld say was the purpose of Festivus?" and students say, "Who's Jerry Seinfeld?").

I'm hoping my friend Jeff will video tape his family's Festivus celebrations and post it to Youtube so I can show my class a typical Festivus celebration.

Outside of the classroom, I have time to reflect on the importance of holidays more deeply.  In this dark, winter season, it seems like we do need a reminder that there is light that shines.  Christians have their Christmas with the lights on the tree and the Jewish faith Hanukkah, the festival of lights.  The Hindus have Diwali that takes place in the fall, as the days get shorter.  Its not just physical darkness, but the darkness found in evil.  Humans desire that the light of goodness will outshine the darkness.  We see it in our religions, the epic tales we tell, and the hope we clutch on to in the worst tragedies.

Holidays not only serve to remind us, but also a reason to come together and celebrate.  A time to cherish each other and the relationships we have.  A time to let loose, have fun and enjoy life.  Holidays always seem to pull us together.  Even if our families are dysfunctional, at least they are our dysfunctions and add spice to the occasion.

As a person that practices the Christian faith, I love Christmas.  Not just for the presents (both giving and receiving) but the spectacle.  The music, the tree, the lights, even Santa, it all draws me into the reason for the season;  when God came to earth to bring light to the darkness in the person of Jesus.  As Linus Van Pelt responded to Charlie Brown's question, "Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?"

 "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'" 

Several friends and I lament every year how the evangelical Christian churches we find ourselves in only do token "Christmassy" things in the month leading up to the day.  Maybe one carol when the congregation sings a week, rarely a sermon on Advent or Christmas on any day other than Christmas Eve.  One of my friends seriously thought about attending Catholic services for the month just before Christmas just to be reminded what season it was.

I have heard, "we don't want to practice the tradition of men", and then the very people who say that are blinded that they are establishing their own "traditions of men".  Holidays serve a purpose, they remind us of something important and unite us.  Can the importance of the traditions supersede the importance of what is being remembered in the hearts of some people?  Absolutely. So can the importance of a great speaker system and audio/visual display in your church.  Or that every bit of a service has to be perfectly orchestrated because for some reason the group of people who are heard quoted to say, "Im not perfect, just forgiven" believe we should be impervious to mistakes in a church service.

I think people need to hear stories over and over.  We so easily forget things and reminders are so important and add depth to what we believe.

I miss watching kids act out the Christmas story.

Christians complain that we don't like having to say or hear "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" while some Christian church circles shut the door on the Christmas season in their own buildings.

Lighting Advent candles at church is a good thing.  Singing traditional Christmas carols is a good thing.  Filling your church with poinsettias, wreaths, and a Christmas tree is a good thing.  It connects us to people who believe like us, on the other side of the world or from the ancient past.  It draws us to remember very important theological points of our faith, that God came to earth to live and rescue people who rebel and forget about Him.  It also serves to unite us together in this dark time and hopefully encourages us to help those who are less fortunate as God helped us.

And that's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Parent Teacher Conferences

My annual parent-teacher conferences begin on Monday.  It will be a truncated version of the conference due to the storm.  Parents will only be meeting with their child's homeroom teacher and receive a verbal report of their child in each of their other academic classes.  The parents will not be able to go see a specific teacher during that time (they can always contact them through email or phone).  I have to be honest, it seems more like a glorified progress report than a conference.

If you are going to a parent-teacher conference, here are some tips from the this teacher's perspective (and remember, my teacher views are my own and don't represent all teachers).

1) The younger the grade, the better the conference.  

There is a reason why most schools eliminate conferences in the older grades.  A high school kid can give their parents a better verbal picture of what is going on in their classroom than a 1st grader (assuming their child talks with their parent.  I'm getting into the habit of asking my oldest daughter everyday what she did in nursery school).

Also, since most younger grades are self contained and your child has one teacher and that teacher sees your child all day and only has 20-30 students under their care. They will have deeper and keener information than a middle school or high school teacher.  Please keep this in mind when your child advances grades.  It will be harder for each academic teacher to give the type of presentation of your child that a elementary school teacher can.  Some parents expect elementary school treatment for their middle or high school student.  The playing field has changed and your child is no longer playing on a baseball field with 60 foot bases, they've advanced to the 90 foot field.  Because of this...

2) Ask questions.

As a teacher, I appreciate parents who ask questions. I usually give general comments because I don't know what a parent wants to know. Questions allow me to focus the conference on what the parent wants to know about their child.

3) Take criticism of your child as constructive.

Most teachers are looking to be helpful and at times it can be difficult for us to say the hard things that need to be said about your child (because we understand that you love them and are protective of them as you should be).  I know personally I try to say it in a loving way.  Do not take it as a personal attack, take it for what it is, a way to make your child successful.

(Yes, there may be a few teachers who are jerks and find some kind of sick joy in criticizing your child just as their are a few jerk parents that I have to deal with which leads be to the next point...)

4) Parent Teacher Conferences are not for you to critique the teacher. 

I remember years ago being waylaid by a parent who came in with a list of what she had issues about each teacher's teaching style and methods (and she didn't say them in the most tactful way).  Zero percent of the conference was about her child.  After she was done spewing her complaints, I addressed each point to which she replied, "You don't have to become defensive."

To which I responded, "You come in here to complain about my teaching style and then tell me not to become defensive, as if I should just accept everything you had to say."

That's how the conference ended.  She went and talked to my principal.  I didn't lose my job, I was asked about one of her concerns, but it was quickly dismissed once he heard my explanation.

Contact the teacher beforehand, email, phone don't let it boil over at conferences.  If you really have an issue with a teacher is one thing, to take it upon yourself to be "the self appointed PhD of Better Education Crusader" is quite another.  Another don't do if you are a teacher yourself is say...

5) "I'm a teacher too, and I would..."

If you are a teacher don't EVER use this line.  Remember how much you don't appreciate it when someone says it to you.  I'm going to be honest with you, what goes through my mind when I hear a parent who is a teacher say this is,

"You may be a teacher, but it doesn't mean you're a good one"

which is basically what you are telling me.

6) The teacher's do not request a conference at this time.  

I can't remember if my sister had this box checked off on my niece's conference form a few years back or if she questioned if she go to a conference for her.  Either way, my sister was concerned that by not going (my niece was doing very well in school and her and my brother in law had no concerns) it would send a message to the teachers that they do not care.  My response to my sister was, "Send her homeroom teacher a note telling them you don't require a conference at this time since you know the teachers are doing a fine job allowing her daughter to excel and would just appreciate a note if that changes."

Just my thoughts. Happy Conferencing!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

iPad App-Educreation

My sample Educreation lesson on the Council of Nicaea 
(yes, you will see I spelled it wrong on the video) in my Byzantine Unit.

I finally received my classroom set of iPads the week before the storm hit.  And then we were out of school for almost two full weeks.  When we returned, the Internet was down.  So I am now beginning to test drive my classroom set with the kids.

The free app that we are using to start is called Educreations.  It allows the user to create presentations on a topic as if the viewer was listening to a lecture from a teacher using a smartboard.  You can write on the screen and add text and pictures as well as your voice.  It is a class lecture without my ugly mug!

In order to get the students trained on the program, I gave them a tutorial and then allowed them 15-20 minutes to create anything on any topic.  Most took pictures of themselves, others realized by adding more slides, you can create cartoon motion.  After that, each group was assigned a topic based on our studies on the Byzantine Empire and they have to develop a minute long presentation for the class.

The next step will be that each student will be assigned a topic which other students can access and learn from.

The pros of the this program are that it is quick and easy to use.  It allows a teacher a fast way to post brief explanations of topics and then post them to a website so students can watch them if they are absent or if they need more time to understand the concept.  For the student, it is a fun way to demonstrate to the teacher their understanding of a topic or concept.

I could see math teachers not only posting explanations of problems online, but assigning their students a problem and have them not only write down each step, but verbalize what they are doing during each process.

The cons of this program is that you cannot edit your work.  Once you start recording, that is it.  Make a mistake in the last 30 seconds of a 5 minute presentation, and you have to record everything again.    The best way to attack this app is to think things through and/or write down exactly what you plan to do.

For example, the sample I posted, I threw together on a Saturday morning.  There are definitely changes I would make if I could, but it is good enough to get the point of the program across.

Another way to look at the lack of editing features is emphasizing to a student, that's life.  When you are presenting at your job, there isn't a "do-over" so do your best to prepare well.

Weighing pros and cons's a keeper.

(Here is the link

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Providence, Providence, See it laying down the cornerstone
The Hand of Providence - it's evident, For we could never make it on our own
Apportioning the power, Weighing all that it entails, Giving us the fulcrum, And a balance to the scales

Oh, the Hand of Providence
Is guiding us through choices that we make
Oh, the Hand of Providence
Is reaching out to help us on our way

-Michael W. Smith (Hand of Providence, 1988)

In George Washington's original Thanksgiving proclamation, he declares:

"(God's) favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war (Revolution)."  

Providence is God's intervention in the daily affairs of people.

God's Providence is what I'm most thankful for this and every thanksgiving.

God's Providence placed me in a loving family, whom I often questioned their decisions that seemed draconian at the time, that now as an adult can appreciate how it shaped me into the man I am today.

God's Providence led me to meet my loving wife who with each passing year, I come to understand more clearly she was the one that was most compatible with me and worth the wait.  I truly married my best friend.

God's Providence showed us another way to birth a family and led us to two wonderful birthmothers who gave us the gift of our daughters.  And God's Providence has allowed me to hear the sweetest word come out of the mouths of my daughters, "Daddy".

God's Providence guided me, despite my awkwardness and feeling uncomfortable in new situations, to discover a great group of loyal friends, be it from high school, college, Connecticut, or back again to NJ.

God's Providence brought me into contact with a tremendous amount of awesome kids that have bought into my style of teaching and has allowed me to enjoy my time with them and I have delighted in coming to know the unique personalities that enter my classroom each year.

God's Providence was forgiving to this lazy student (I believe 20+ years later I can finally confirm for my father what he knew all along) who saw The King's College library as a social hangout and was rarely preparing for his future career and only focused on present realities, to some how land a teaching position and then supply ample perseverance to work hard to develop the skills needed to survive in the profession.

God's Providence was the reason I had faith that I could get up an leave my original teaching position at Christian Heritage School in Connecticut without any job prospects in order for my wife to fulfill her dream to attend medical school in New Jersey and become a Physician Assistant.  I was confident that God would provide a job.

And God's Providence had a job as a computer teacher in a middle school in Chester waiting for me that quickly turned into the history position I now have and thoroughly enjoy.

God's Providence also led me to some difficult moments and seasons of my life, that He used to mold and shape my character.

God's Providence always seems to direct me to what I need.

God's Providence is what Thanksgiving is all about for me.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On Making Up School Days

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, my school district in NJ, like many others, used up all the snow days built into our calendar, and some days that were not.  Decisions are being made on how to make up those days to get to the state mandated 180 days of instruction.  Here are some of my thoughts about different ideas of how to make up these days from the perspective of a teacher (or at least this teacher, and I will actually give you what I believe to be the best option at the end)...

1) The state should reduce the number of days required.

Won't happen in NJ because Governor Christie has already said "No" (of course he did, how would his education record look if he ran for higher office and he is attacked for not making kids go the full 180 schools days, and its not a concern for his family because his kids go to a private school where there is no school day requirement).  And then you have state assemblymen and senators who see school as free child care so they will want to keep the 180 day limit (heck, I wouldn't be surprised if they used this crisis to increase the number of days).

Only going to school for 175 days is not going to destroy any child's advancement educationally.  If we were missing 5-10 days every year, that would be a problem. However, what happened this year to the state of NJ was extraordinary, and in light of the problems I will address in the other preposed fixes I will state below, decreasing the number of days required should not be so quickly taken off the table.

2) Add days to the end of the year.

Some parents wrongly believe that if you add days to the end of the year, it will just give teachers an excuse to have another week of "parties" in their classroom.  I take great offense at this belief because it questions teachers' professionalism.  If you extend the week by another five day week, the original last week would become the new week before the last week.  It would NOT be like teachers will be saying, "Yea, I now have TWO weeks to do nothing with these kids."  Trust me, most teachers want to teach up until the end, it allows us to maintain classroom order.  The last day of school tends to be the longest day of the year for me because it becomes more about crowd control as students say good-bye to their classmates and teachers for the summer.

The reason the last week is filled with "parties" is not just to celebrate your child's passage to the next level of their education, but it is for processing out your child.  I typically have to have my final grades in at the end of the last day of school so report cards can be mailed out to parents by the next week.  Last year I had about 5 students make up their last quiz the last day of school.  If we all taught up to the end, then the last day would be filled with tests or other evaluations, and then we would have parent's complaining we were piling on before school gets out.  There are also books and other materials to be collected and lockers to be cleaned out (I should take a picture of the trash cans in the hallway when this takes place).

The problems with adding days on include having to move the date of graduations, parents having to change vacation plans, and let's be honest, there will be some parents who will just not send their kids anyhow those extra five days at the end (more in elementary and middle school, high school exams would be the incentive to keep those kids in school).

3) Taking away Federal Holiday like Martin Luther King's Day, President's Day, Memorial Day or Good Friday.

Not a bad idea, might get some parents offended.  For example, the town next to the district where I teach decided to have school on Good Friday a few years ago.  This caused a fire storm, and the school district redacted the date.  I'm going to be honest, you can have school those days, but the population attending will be so low, it won't be worth teaching anything anyhow because you're going to have to teach it again the next day.

4) Saturdays

Yea right.  Like you would have wanted to go to school on Saturday.  Plus, kids have sports, artistic performances, Hebrew school, and other endeavors that they enjoy that are planned on those days.  Making parents and children be forced to decide which to do is wrong.  There is value to going to dance lesson, soccer practice, or just hanging out with your family (especially that) There is more to a child's life than school, and you can actually be educated in other ways than in school.

5) Take away Spring Break

I have had years where Spring Break was taken away or reduced.  Here is the fact, kids are not products on an assembly line.  Any teacher will tell you it is a long haul from January to April (typically the month of Spring Break) for the student, and it gets more difficult to teach them by the end of March and early April.  A mental fatigue occurs in them.  Give them the break;  it does rejuvenate them to finish well.

You could take away one or two days, but parents will still plan trips regardless.  One year, my school took away two days from Spring Break.  The first day I had about 10 kids in each class (out of an average of 23).  The next, I averaged 4.

6) Add an hour to each school , every 4 days will produce an extra day.

Can't do it according to the NJ State Dept of Education.  A day is a day no matter how many hours.

7) Only cancel school in a blizzard (to save having to add another day)

Safety should always be the primary reason for a snow day.  Superintendents shouldn't become more bold in not canceling school just because they "can't afford" another day off of school.  What they can't afford is a bus or parent getting into an accident because they had to get their child to school in dangerous conditions.  When I taught in CT, 1995 was a bad year where we missed a lot of days of school for snow and had multiple delayed openings.  Late in the year, our Headmaster decided not to have even a delayed opening on a morning that a rain from the night before had frozen over.  It was awful getting in and I wondered why we couldn't just have a two hour delay.  My kids in homeroom complained how dangerous it was as many showed up late.  One of my student's who walked in late laughingly told us, "I just saw (name of School Board member) yelling at Mr. (Headmaster) for not having a delayed opening."  He was in a car pile up. (The road where the accident was you came down a hill to a stop sign.  Cars slid, hit each other, and forced the lead car on to the major road that the school was located)

Final Thoughts

Breaks are invaluable. You are only a kid once, and a kid can learn as much in one day in my classroom as they can by building a tree fort over the summer.  Also family time is MORE important than educational time.  The greater the parental support, the better the chances the child will perform well in school.

Just adding days to add days to say you have 180 does not guarantee they will be days of a lot of educational value.  If parents don't send their kids to school, the day becomes a waste anyhow.  (If a teacher goes through the lesson, they will lose time from advancing to the next lesson as the majority of kids will be "catching up" from the day they missed.)

With all of that if Governor Christie asked me to make the decision for him I would say...

"Have schools add days at the end of the school year (decision must be made early enough that parents don't plan summer vacations and gives districts more than enough time to change graduation nights).  It will cause the least amount of disruption to the school year.  If a school can not make up the days by the end of June, then wave the rest of the days.  Kids need the summer to be kids and do kid stuff and learn kid things."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Teacher as Artist

I'm a Beatles fan.  Imagine if the Beatles record company in 1964 told the Fab Four, don't experiment, keep on writing songs like "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."  They would have flamed out by 1966 as music changed and listeners became bored.

Instead they were allowed to pursue their artistic visions and experiment with music and sound.  I've heard it said that John Lennon and Paul McCartney challenged each other to write a song about their childhood in Liverpool.  McCartney wrote the upbeat song "Penny Lane" and Lennon wrote the psychedelic "Strawberry Fields Forever".

Two different approaches, two awesome songs.

A few years ago, I was talking with a former student of mine from Christian Heritage School.  He had entered the noblest of professions, he was a Social Studies teacher in a public school in Georgia.  We were talking "shop" when he told me how the department of education had planned out the topic he was to teach for each day.  What he said next was chilling, "(Kevin) if you taught down here, you would not be able to do any of the creative things you do in the classroom."  The pacing the state had come up with for all history teachers to follow would not allow the time.

For the past few years, my school has had to split the Geography class between two teachers due to student population numbers.  It brought about parent complaints.  We were both established veteran teachers and no one was critiquing our effort or ability.  The complaint was that the other teacher and myself taught the class differently.  So instead of allowing us to teach to our strengths, they wanted us to teach the same things the same way.  We were being asked to stop doing the things that made us the effective teachers we are and to adapt to similar ways for the sake of uniformity.

One of the greatest benefits I have had in my teaching is to serve under two principals for 17 of my 21 years, who were both big supporters of my methods in the classroom, but more importantly allowed me the opportunity to fail in trying different things in the classroom.  With this freedom, I have developed a variety of skills, simulations, questioning techniques, etc.  I take pride in the job I do.  Sculpting a lesson and seeing the finished product, the student's understanding of the material and task at hand, can be exhilarating.  Sometimes I step back after something I planned and say "Masterpiece".  Other times I step back and say, "Garbage".  Yet in 21 years, I never rest on the masterpieces I created or let the garbage I produced frustrate me.

Show me a teacher that teaches with passion for their topic, who spends time creating out of the box learning experiences, and I will show you a classroom of students who are engaged and willing to learn.

Allow a far off state department of education (with whom you will have no contact with) dictate the lesson and approach of the classroom, and I will show you a bored and unmotivated teacher and bored and unmotivated students.

And if you think test scores tied into a teacher keeping their tenure will prevent the teacher from being unmotivated and bored, remember the words of Peter Gibbons in the movie "Office Space"

"That's my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired."

It would be like the poet who is regulated to writing formulaic poems for a greeting card company.

Don't allow your state departments of education to shackle teachers by dictating what lesson is taught on what day.  What is the point of of all this uniformity?  How will it improve your child's educational experience?  How it will prepare him/her for the real world, where they will have different bosses or clients who are not uniform in the approaches?

Aren't we to embrace diversity?  Embrace that different teachers bring different skill sets into the classroom when they put together the "notes" of their lessons together.  I guaranteed your child will bring to ears the many symphonies they are experiencing in their classrooms.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Making Your Vote For President Count More

Every 4 years you hear a cry from people that their vote does not count for president depending on the state in which they live.  These same people falsely believe that the solution to their problem is to scrap the electoral college and go to the popular vote.  For example. I live in New Jersey, a state that hasn't voted Republican in a presidential election since 1988, so Republicans believe their vote is wasted, just as I'm sure Democrats in Kansas believe their vote for president is wasted since the Sunflower State hasn't voted for a Democratic candidate since 1964.

In fact my former governor, Corzine, signed the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact that would assign New Jersey's electoral vote to the candidate who won the overall popular vote.  It only begins when enough states join the compact to make their total electoral vote count over the 270 minimum needed for election.  In this way they believe every vote would count more.

Actually your vote would count LESS if we went to a popular vote system.

Think of it like this...

In my state, NJ, about 3.5 million people will vote for president.  My vote was worth 1 in 3.5 million.  However, if my vote was thrown into every other vote throughout the country, it is now worth 1 in 120 million (give or take).

If we went strictly to the popular vote for president, candidates would focus on the wants and needs of states with large populations and dismiss those states with small ones.  New Hampshire and Iowa despite their small populations, were important states to both campaigns this year, with a popular vote system they would be ignored since neither state has a city in the top 100 in terms of population in the U.S.  Rural needs and concerns would be dismissed.  The electoral system forces candidates to address the needs of all citizens, not just those in New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

The electoral college recognizes that various sections of the country think differently and have different desires and focuses.  (I believe its called diversity).  The writers of the constitution understood this, Governor Corzine and those like him do not.

If you really want your vote to count, then you should desire your state to switch to a system such as Maine and Nebraska.  In case you do not know, the number of electoral votes your state has is your congressional districts plus 2 (for your Senators).  Maine and Nebraska allow each of their congressional districts to control one electoral vote.  The average number of people in an congressional district is about 700,000, so now your vote is 1 in 700,000 (and probably worth more since some of that 700,000 are too young will not vote so let's say 1 in 500,000 to be safe).  The two extra electoral votes (for you Senators) goes to the candidate who gets the most overall vote in the state.

Now candidates would really have to work for votes and focus on a broad appeal.  It may even give third party candidates a way to steal an electoral vote or two.

But more importantly, you vote would count more.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Lost a Sale, But Not a House

(First post that isn't about education)

This summer we put our house on the market and last month my wife and I got our hopes up.  We had a buyer who seemed genuinely excited about buying our 100+ year old farmhouse.  Our realtor was pestered by their realtor to get our answer first to their offer, and then their counter-offer.  They eagerly wanted us to find another house to move into in order to settle on a closing date.  Everything was moving along perfectly.

And then the home inspection report came.

They wanted us to reduce our price by about 16% due to severe structural issues in the basement.

It was as if someone punched me in the stomach.  They couldn't be serious.  We had a trusted friend do some work in the basement to prevent bounce (the beams, which are old tree trunks, are too far apart and there was some spring to the floor) and to provide extra support due to a heavy entertainment center.  Was there something with the foundation I wasn't seeing?

Did I let down my wife in choosing the house?  We knew we were buying a project 10 years ago.  I told our home inspector at the time, "I know this house has many issues, but is it going to fall down?"  

His response was, "This house has been standing for over 100 years, its not going anywhere."

It was a long first night for Alisa and I as we grew more and more despondent over buying this old house in the first place.

The next day our attitude changed from sadness to anger as logic replaced emotion.

Alisa and I went into this process knowing that we did not have to sell the house.  

In 24 hours we went from figuring out ways to calm the buyer's fears and give them what they wanted to not wanting to offer them one cent.

We looked over the home inspector's report.  It was as if he believed that everything done to the house was completed by me (and for anyone who knows my mechanical skills could tell you, that is laughable). Among the inaccuracies was the statement that the replacement windows are supposed to have the ability to tilt in, and they do not (I have tried every window in the house since and have not found one window that cannot tilt in for cleaning). And then there was the lack of details of what was wrong with structure gave no clue why they were asking for a 16% reduction on our house.

We then considered our friend who has been in our basement and we realized that if there was something terribly wrong with things down there, he would have pointed that out to us.  (In fact he did point out an issue with the support under the front door and we had him fix it.)

Our home inspector, our friend, and my brother-in-law (who has done a lot of work for us here) never warned us about issues with the structure because there wasn't any.

For under $200,000, these people were getting a 100 year old 7 room, 2 bathroom, farmhouse that isn't perfect (there's a reason why its under $200,000).  And what you are getting is a house that in the last 10 years had the following done to it new roof, siding, insulation, all new windows, and new water pump.  We bought it with a newer furnace and updated electrical so all major systems were in excellent condition. 

But was their home inspector right and everyone else wrong.  Did we have serious structural issues?

We decided to hire a structural engineer to allay our fears.

His response can be summed up with the line he repeated just in his initial inspection of the basement, "My gosh this in good condition considering the age of the house."

After an hour he called me down to the basement, he suggested a few fixes (well under what they were asking), complemented our friend's work saying he did what was supposed to be done, and declared the house structurally sound.  

And at one point he stated, "This house has been standing for over 100 years, its not going anywhere." Sound familiar.

We presented the structural engineer report and countered that we would pay for half of the fixes.  They still wanted their number.  After the laughter died down on our side the deal fell through.

The past few weeks have been a roller coaster for us.  But God is good.  He helped us to avoid rash decisions and showed us somebody with a better understanding and love for this house will come along.  

And through it all, I gained a deeper appreciation for the house He has given me.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Back to School From the Parent Side

Last night I attended my daughter's Pre-K Back to School night.  She attends a Christian nursery school a few miles from our house that also houses a K-8 school.  After blogging recently about Back to School Night, I couldn't help but critique the presentations and see if I could walk away with any new knowledge of what to and not do at my own B2SN (Yes, I over analyze EVERYTHING!)

Whole School Presentation by the Principal:

Obviously a veteran of B2SN.  She used a PowerPoint presentation effectively.  It wasn't fancy with tons of images and designs, but what was very good was that she didn't include much verbiage (I hate when everything a speaker is telling you is on a handout or PowerPoint and then they say what you can read word for word).  She bulleted the important points on the screen and added depth with her oral presentation.

She spoke calmly and with an affectionate authority about the kids and what happens at the school.

The only problem came late in the presentation when as she took in a breath a parent felt it was her opportunity to  ASK A QUESTION (I did not mention this in my original blog about B2SN, but it has happened to me also, the brief pause gives someone, probably an A-type personality, to force a question into the presentation).  The question in itself was for a point of clarification and would more than likely have been asked at the end of the presentation.  The next question wasn't.

Since it was now open season for questions, another woman complained that her child did not get the snack with her school ordered lunch one day.  If it was an ongoing problem, I could see asking it in front of the whole group to see if other parents had the same problem.  All this question does is gets other parents worried about something that they shouldnt be worried about.  If this was a major issue, a phone call to the school should have happened the next day after the incident.

The principal's response was basically (paraphrase here) "Mistakes happen".  She said it pleasantly yet strongly in a a manner that one could not take offense.  I was VERY impressed by the principal.

The PreK Classroom

First, I followed my own rules, I DID NOT ask a question or have a parent teacher conference with the teacher on B2SN.

We then went to the classrooms.  All the parents had to sit on seats a foot from the floor.  (Yes, my knees ache today)

My daughter's teacher mostly stuck to a "Specifics of the Class" presentation with some "Big Picture" talk about what the students will be learning for the whole year.  She didn't present much about herself (years experience, family, education background, etc.) but I guess she sent home a welcome letter (Alisa saw it) with that info.  I realized for me, I do want to hear a little about my child's teacher's road to the classroom since she will be spending so much time with my kid over the next year.  It would be nice to know about her, the person.

The teacher had a nervous laughter when she presented.  It wasn't distracting but actually added to what she was saying, because being nervous shows she cares that she doesn't mess up presenting herself to the parents of those valuable possessions we are entrusting to her on a daily basis.

I also appreciated that she not only told us what she did, but WHY she does it.  A good teacher has a lot of activity for their kids, a great teacher knows and can easily explain why she does it.

At the end of her presentation she said how she missed each one of our kids when she was out sick the day before and prayed for each one of them throughout the day.  It was the only thing she said without looking at the notes in her hand which added to the authenticity of the statement; it wasn't just said because you say those things at back to school night, she said it because she meant it.

When we left, she had us go in the hallway and there were hanging pictures by our children and we had to guess which one was ours, names were on the back.  It was a nice activity to end the night and allowed us to mix and laugh with the other parents as we all guessed wrong.

A teacher who loves what she does, loves the kids she works with, and plans way to make them grow in grace and knowledge is a great teacher in my book.

Way to go Mrs. Rodriguez!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Wave of Energy

The biggest difference between teaching in High School and Middle School is this:

High School kids can think more in the abstract, you can play devil's advocate, say outlandish things, and eventually you'll provoke thought and response to your statement that can last a whole class period.

Middle School kids are full of a never ending amount of energy.

I was reminded of this yesterday when leaving the faculty lunchroom.  Our door opens up on to the same hallway the kids use to come inside from recess.

I refer to them coming back in as THE WAVE.

If you exit the lunchroom just as the kids are beginning to come in, it will feel like you are surfing on the crest of a wave and the energy from behind of 100+ kids are pushing you through the hallways to your classroom.

If you exit the lunchroom at the end of THE WAVE you will see the energy and force up ahead as it pounds the shores the 7th grade hallway.

If you happen to exit in the MIDDLE of THE WAVE...BEWARE!  The full force of their energy will reverberate in your ears or push you from side to side as they bump you in the tight hallway.

You will turn the corner to your classroom, and kids will be at their locker and their friends huddled around them creating a RIPTIDE feeling.  You see the door of your classroom only 50 feet away but it will take a lot of work if you want to walk straight to it.  Walking side to side is the only safe way.

Bodysufring, teaching, yea, not much difference.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Back to School Night Part 2

I received a good amount of responses to my blog about Back to School Night (B2SN).  Now as I prepare for my own B2SN, I would love to hear feedback on what you believe should be my approach.

There is a poll on the right side of my blog where you can vote and tell me where I should spend a majority of my time during the 10 minute presentation.  Also, feel free to leave a comment on the blog or my Facebook page (if that is how you wound up here) explaining your answer if you wish.

Here is how I see B2SN:

There are three elements to every B2SN presentation

1. Specifics of the Class- the nuts and bolts of your class.  How do you grade?  How much homework?    What supplies are need for your class? What do you do when your child misses class?  How do you contact me?  What major projects are there in your class?  etc.

2. Big Picture Overview- What do you teach?  Why is your subject important?  What methods and strategies do I use to reach your child?  What do I want your child getting out of my class?

3. Personal Resume- Who is this guy who will be spending time with my child over the next year?  What are your qualifications to teach?   What experiences have you had that will make you a good teacher for my child?

I do touch on each of these three in the few minutes I have.  Which one should I focus on in the presentation and which ones should I leave to the handout I give each parent?

(I try not to just read off of the handout, I dread when a presenter does that to me. It is ok to add flavor or explanation to your handout, but I can read off of it just as well as the presenter)

Thanks for your help.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Dear Katie, (Volume 1 No. 2) The Honeymoon Period

From time to time I plan to encourage my niece Katie in her pursuit of being a teacher.  She is currently a Sophomore in college.  These blogs will take the form of a letter.

If any of my teacher friends have any topic you would like be to write about or would like me to paste your own post on here for her or anyone else to read, by all means, please be my guest.

Dear Katie,

This morning I went next door to my neighbors at the General Store to get some coffee.  They asked me how my students were this year, and I told them it was hard to tell.  I have only had them for about a week and they are still in the honeymoon period.  They are sizing up who you are, how much they can get away with, if they are going to enjoy or ignore your class, etc.

After better have a strong idea of what you want your classroom to be or it will be what THEY want it to be.

(I wish I understood that 20 years ago, my first few years would have went smoother)

Since I am a middle school teacher, I do not hand out a laundry list of my rules and expectations.  I establish just two rules with my class:

Do What is Expected of You
Respect Others and their Property

I ask for examples of both ideas in the classroom and appeal to their "maturity" by saying I should not need to have a laundry list; that they're too old for that.  If they were just to ask themselves if they are following these two rules, they would NEVER get in trouble.

From day one, build relationships and get to know your students.  Teaching is not all about the subject you teach, but the students you will get to know.  Who is that kid in your classroom?  What motivates her?  What struggles does he have?  The more they know you want to know them, the more they will want to know what you know.

When you do have to discipline a student be measured in your response.  DO NOT OVERREACT on a small infraction.  

One thing I wish I knew early on, do not raise your voice unless it is absolutely necessary.  A disapproving look can work just as well.

Sending a kid to the office should be your NUCLEAR OPTION, do it when there is no other recourse of action or a major infraction.  It will have a greater impact when you need to do it.  I had an assistant principal once tell a kid I sent to the office, "I know this has to be bad, Mr. Cullen NEVER sends anyone to the office."

However, if you are first starting in student teaching or your first year, you should have a itchy finger in using it.  For example, one day we were talking with friends and the wife was going to begin subbing the next day so she asked me how I handle classroom management, so I shared with her the above ideas.

"So Kevin, you're saying I shouldn't send any kids to the office", she said.

My response,

"Oh no, send the first kid who disrespects you to the office. I can hold off because I have built a rapport with my students over the year, but if I were you as a sub, and your first day at that, send the first problem to the principal and the second kid will wonder if its worth it to act up."

So your first day in the classroom you may have every kid hanging on your every word because your new.  Don't let that fool you, its only the honeymoon.  When the "marriage" passes out of that period and reality sets in, hopefully you have set up structures in your class to get you through your first major "test".

Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin

Monday, September 10, 2012

Back to School Night...Don't Be That Parent

Last year I attended my first Back to School Night (B2SN) from the other side of the desk.  It was for my daughter's pre-school and I hate to admit it, I became one of those parents who talked during the presentation.  (Full disclosure, I was talking out in the hallway, all the parents couldn't fit in the classroom).

For my friends who have children in middle school and above (or at least in a grade where they are no longer in a self-contained classroom and rotate through several academic teachers each day).  For the inside scoop of B2SN for elementary school, you would need to ask an elementary school teacher.

Here are the ins and outs of B2SN from a middle school teacher's perspective:

1) Teachers will filibuster the whole time frame.

Typical presentations are about 10 minutes long, and most teachers will talk the whole time.  We don't want questions.  Although most questions are innocuous and for clarification or information (What projects are you planning this year?  How much homework do you give?  etc.)  every so often though you have a parent that has a bone to pick, and sometimes its not necessarily something you can answer either because you don't have access to the information or it's confidential.  However, and its is thankfully VERY rare, some parents are out to make the teacher look bad.  You probably will not have time for questions.  If you have a legitimate question, just email the teacher.

2) B2SN is not Parent/Teacher Conferences

After my presentation, some parents will line up just to introduce themselves to me.  There is no problem with doing that and it is a nice gesture.  Just remember that I will probably shake the hands of over 100 parents that night so don't be upset if I run into you in the office a week later and don't remember who you are.

Don't ask me "Guess whose parent I am, my child looks just like me?"  I probably will fail that, I don't notice small details (my wife can confirm this as true).

But the big thing NEVER to do is use B2SN to have a conference about your kid.  First, with teaching over 150 students I am just finishing getting to know your child's name after 2 weeks, let alone their strengths and weaknesses.  Also, it is a little awkward to talk openly about your child with other parents all around and if I discuss your child, well, it will cause an avalanche effect as the next few parents will want to talk about their child as well.

My school announces over the intercom that B2SN over so parents get the hint and stop any spontaneous conferences.  My principal has even had to go rescue fellow teachers b/c of parents that won't leave.  DON'T BE THAT PARENT!  You will become fodder for discussions in the faculty lunch room.  Again, if you have a concern, email me.

3) It's the Social Event of the Month

Yes, you will see people you have not seen since the end of the Little League season.  Just do the teacher a favor, at least be seated by the bell, and keep your talking low.  I always wanted to address the parents talking during my presentation.  I should wait until its a parent I already have a good relationship with.  Giving them a "detention" could be fun.

4) What I will discuss.

I'm never quite sure what parents need to know, so I stick to what someone in my church who had kids in my school told me.  He said, "I just want to know who will be teaching my kids."

First, I will pass out an information sheet with all the minutia of the class (contact information, grading system, etc.)  Then I tell you a little history of who I am, why I'm a teacher, how long I have been teaching, my family etc.  I try to make the presentation enjoyable.  I have played the Theme to Welcome Back Kotter and The Who's "Who are You" in the background as I talked, I have had a student present to the parents who I am and how I teach (thank you Megan), and one year created a slide presentation in the old MTV "Pop Up Video" format (my students wouldn't get it, but I'm sure some of their parents did) After that I will tell you a little about the course, what we will be learning, and how I will go about educating your child.

I conclude with telling them they can reach me at the following phone number 24 hours a day, 867-5309, but they should ask for Jenny.

And I won't leave time for questions : )

Saturday, September 8, 2012

New Years Day is in September

To any of my former students who may read this:

"Thanks for the respect you displayed in my classroom and the overflowing bag of memories you have given me that I can continually open and enjoy the rest of my life."

As a student and as a teacher, I love the first days of school.

As a student, it was opening up the new binder and writing the first words of notes on to the blank sheet.  Remembering how I believed I came of age as I chose not to buy the Trapper Keeper with the pictures of baseball players on it (and it was before the days of the extensive use of sports licensing, so these pictures were just drawings of generic baseball players) and I chose to get the old blue canvas binder.  You got to see your classmates that you didn't spend time with over the summer and it seemed like one big awesome happening.  And as I got to college, that feeling only intensified.

And then the hard work of school work swept away all the euphoria.

The nice thing is you began every September with a blank page like the sheets of loose leaf paper in your notebook.  Every year I declared this was the year I was going to give it my all to receive an A in all my classes.  I rarely was able to achieve that goal and mostly it was because I allowed the social aspects and fun and games to distract me.

But, hey, there was always next year.

It is much the same way as a teacher.  I come in the classroom and rip open the boxes of supplies I ordered from the previous year.  It feels a bit like Christmas.  I know I may sound like a geek here, but I really enjoy the new electric pencil sharpener I got this year (sadly, students today do not seem to know how to operate my hand crank one).

The first day of teacher workshops you get to see people who over the years have become friends rather than just co-workers.  The best way to explain the atmosphere is like it is when you enter the cafeteria at college on the first day back from summer break.

And then the kids come in.  A new adventure begins as each class you teach has a individual student helps to create a class personality.  Figuring out how to reach each one of them is part of the fun of being a teacher.

If the class is awful, you only have to deal with it for one year.

More often than not, it is the opposite.  As you work with these kids, and you enjoy their contributions in class, and you laugh with them and get excited for them as you watch them succeed, you realize that too will come to an end.

I was reminded of this the other day when a girl from the Christian Heritage Class of 1999 that I taught posted a picture of her class from their junior year.  And then the onslaught of comments from those kids were listed underneath.  The good natured ribbing reminded me of how their class always seemed to make me laugh and to this day I still say that their class more than any other took full advantage of my teaching style, and the ideas and conclusions they shared in class and the creativity they displayed in their video projects are still some of the most cherished memories of my teaching career.

Since it was a private school, I had the privilege of working with these kids for 5 years.  Although sad that I may never see almost all of them again, I'm happy that I had the honor to have taught them.

And in my 21 years of teaching, I do reflect on the kids who impressed me with their thinking, astounded me with their work ethic, surprised me with their ability to overcome obstacles, or just made me laugh out loud (and some of my students will tell you that is not easy to do).

And one of the reason I love Facebook is that it allows me to see where some of those kids I taught either at CHS or BRMS are today.  And it is awesome when I see they have become all-state, or passed the bar exam, or got married, or their kid lost their first tooth.  I am so proud of all of them.

So even though it is with great sadness I say goodbye to all of my former students, the great thing about being a teacher is that I get a whole new crop that will create all new memories every year.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Were These People Ever Classroom Teachers?

(Most of this I reworked from an old Facebook note from 3 years ago, but sadly most of it still pertains)

My summer vacation ends at 7:30 on Tuesday morning.  It is the day I have to report to a day of teacher inservice for my district.  It is a day I DREAD!  Not necessarily because it is the end of my summer vacation (yea, I know, I just had 2 months off, just because I want to spend more time with my family doesn't make me a bad teacher but an honest person), but because the day itself is turns into a big waste of time.

In fact, last week I told my principal flat out...

"The first day of inservice SUCKS!"

Let me describe the scene for those of you who aren't teachers...

For me, the teacher inservice is like when I returned to campus at college after summer break.

I enjoy the people I work with on a daily basis, you haven't seen them all summer and it is typically a festive reunion.  Laughter and smiles abound.  

And then...its time to begin, and all the smiles disappear and boredom begins to permeate the room as the speaker the school paid to enhance your educational practice begins to speak.

And as the speaker drones, on you wonder how they can possibly be an expert in the field of education when instead of teaching you anything, they are putting you to sleep.

Specific reasons why I hate this day...

-My first day at BRMS I knew no one. When I arrived no one was there (they were in the middle of a fierce contract negotiation and purposely showed up 15 min late as a protest). They placed me in a meeting with science and math teachers, that was about math. I learned nothing I could use in the classroom (I was a computer teacher). I sat in a group with 3 other teachers, no one said hello.  I bought Wendy's and ate by myself at Hacklebarney State Park. Not a good start to my BRMS career.

-Most opening days at my first teaching position at CHS. It was as if the teachers were the troops receiving the general's directions. We NEVER got done with everything on the list in one day although we were supposed to have one day of lectures and one day to get our classrooms ready. There was one year we took two days listening to administrative directives. I would choose to have root canals on all my teeth than have to ever do that again.

-The worst speaker I ever had to deal with was a guy from a counseling center. Instead of building us up and saying, you have the opportunity to change a kid's life for the better, we got a "I hear kids tell me all the time how you teachers screw up their lives" (ok that's a paraphrase). That's was a great motivator to start a new school year.

How it could be better

-Stop the horse and pony show by bringing all the teachers of the district together. Allow each school more time to meet with their staffs to discuss specific issues for each school. Have the superintendent plan to meet with every school to give a brief message.

-Don't waste time or money on a speaker. Instead actually give teachers the time to meet with each other and brainstorm and plan for the school year.  The key word of the 21st century is...collaboration, isnt it?

-One of the best opening day speakers I ever had was Neil Cavuto of Fox Business.  He spent about 40 minutes discussing teachers and how they effected his life, his own children's' lives, and the impact that we have.   Witty and motivational.  Not bad.

OK, I have to get ready in order to have my time wasted.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dear Katie, (Volume 1 No. 1)

From time to time I plan to encourage my niece Katie in her pursuit of being a teacher.  She is currently a Sophomore in college.  These blogs will take the form of a letter.

If any of my teacher friends have any topic you would like be to write about or would like me to paste your own post on here for her or anyone else to read, by all means, please be my guest.

Dear Katie,

One of the questions I needed to answer when you interviewed me for an education course last year was:

"Describe one course you took in college that taught you the most about being a good teacher."

My response was, "NONE".

Now this doesn't mean that I learned nothing in my education courses. Listen carefully and ask questions, but it doesnt become a reality until you actually do it.

Let me explain.  I think trial and error is the best method there is in becoming a good teacher.  I was fortunate to work for two principals for most of my 20 years as a teacher who gave me the freedom to fail.  This allowed me to experiment with students and discover what works...and what doesn't.

One of my biggest complaints with some of the student teachers I have had over the years is that they "play it safe".  Student teaching is the best time to experiment because there is someone in the classroom giving you constant feedback.

When you do your practicum and student teaching there will be periods where you observe a teacher in action.  ASK THEM "WHY"? 

"Why did you raise your voice to that student for talking but only gave an angry look at another?"

"Why did you choose to end class that way?"

When you student teach (since practicum is a far shorter time period) there is typically time at the end of the experience where you have wrapped up being the teacher and have returned to being the student.  Ask if it would be OK to watch other teachers in the building, even ones outside of your discipline.  Most teachers would welcome that.

Do you want to become a good teacher?  Here is what you do.  Remember the teachers that made you excited about their course.  Study the professors you have in college who do the same.  Think of that one course or subject you dreaded, but the instructor you had made it come alive for you.  

Also remember those teacher/professors who you would rather have a root canal than be in their class.  What made the class so dreadful?

Make lists of the good and the bad and see those things that fit into who you are or what you are comfortable with in addressing a classroom.

To be a good need to be yourself.  Kids can sniff out a lack of authenticity.

Since my first year teaching, I always tried to place myself as a student when planning a lesson.  Sometime I even write my lesson plan from a student's desk.  The reason is this:

"If I'm bored with a lesson, how do I expect my students not to be."

That is just some of what it is to become a good teacher.

Have Fun!

Uncle Kevin

Friday, August 24, 2012

Does Anyone Like the End of a Vacation?

I have seen this cartoon on some friends Facebook accounts recently.  Some are teachers, others not.  I have heard people complain when teachers complain about having to go back to work.  

"You just had two months off, so shut your mouth."

Does anyone like the end of a vacation?  If you have two months or two days off, everyone complains about having to go to work. 

It's why most people don't like Mondays either.

Over the years I have had students ask me, "Do you like going to work in the morning?"

Being honest I say, "If I had my way, I would rather be at home with my family, and not here with you."

"So you don't like being a teacher?", is the quick retort back.

"I never said that.  What I said is that I would rather be with the family I love, or hanging out with good friends.  Wouldn't you?  The problem is I don't have unlimited wealth to do that for the rest of my life, so I have to work.  If I could have been any profession in the world I would have chosen professional baseball player.  Becoming my second choice isn't that bad."

Are there slackers in the teaching profession?  Absolutely.  Are there teachers who have maintained their position by "kissing up" to the right people?  Yup!  What profession doesn't have those people?  Most teachers I know, even the ones in the last quarter of their careers, continue to push themselves to seek new ways to reach their students.  They are artists who are always honing their craft.  They love their jobs.

But it doesn't mean they like seeing their vacation coming to an end, who does?
(And to be honest, most teachers I know work on plans and ideas for their classroom over the summer anyhow)

As for me, as July comes to an end and August begins, I usually develop an itch to get back to the classroom.  My wife can confirm this to be true.  I love my job!

(And I have to admit, since having children and being Mr. Mom while my wife works in the summer, that desire has only intensified.  Raising children is hard work, the school year becomes my vacation)

I begin spending time back at my school getting my classroom ready.  I spend time preparing handouts and running them off.  I research new ideas to implement.

So in less than two weeks I will begin my 3rd decade as a teacher.  It wont be easy beginning my mornings at 5am again and I probably will complain, but it's not because I'm a teacher,  it's because I'm human.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

My World History Book

A few weeks ago I posted a question on my Facebook page asking others what would be the best way to approach writing the history textbook I am creating for my classroom (World History AD 300-1760).  I was surprised with the amount of responses and appreciated everyone of them.

A typical world history textbook takes a culture or empire, for example the Romans, and gives their history in a period of time.  I was curious.  Do people best connect historical events that way or is it done that way because it is ALWAYS done that way?

For example, one problem with the traditional method is that Roman history spans over 1000 years.  Do  students miss the interconnections the Romans had with their surrounding world?  Is it so condensed that students think the Punic Wars and birth of Christianity happened pretty much around the same time period (when in fact they were about 200 years apart)?  Since most Roman history ends with the fall of the city of Rome and the ascension of the "barbarian" Odoacer to the throne in AD 476 do students miss the fact that the real power of the Roman empire had shifted east a century before and the Caesars ruled for another 1000 years?

Based on discussions I have had, the Facebook responses, and reflection, here is the approach I am going to take:

In our school, the 6th graders learn Ancient History through the Middle Ages.  The 8th graders learn U.S. History.  My course is going to connect the two (This is a new course.  I used to teach Geography which stood alone).

Since the course is to link the two histories, the primary link will be the issue of trade.  Trade is the reason Rome became wealthy and desired to control the Mediterranean.

The book will look at the empires that looked to dominate world trade in a chronological sequence.  Starting with the Byzantium Empire (300-1452), the book will then look at in order the Rise of the Arab Muslim Empires (500-1200), the Mongols (1100-1350), and the Ottoman Empire (1300-1760).

The book will then return to Europe to address their desire to establish new trade routes with the East that will eventually lead to Columbus' sailing.  The three empires we will look at will be the Hapsburg, the Ancien Regime of France, and the upstart Brits.  The book will conclude with the French and British battles for supremacy, and end with the French and Indian War, the front door step for the 8th grade U.S. history teacher.

By focusing on large groups, I will have some time to bring other events and people into the conversation.  Since it is an online textbook, I do not necessarily have to include them in the book itself (although I could) but link to an online article or a worksheet or supplement that I created.  In this way students do not miss the great trading empires of Africa, but will see how they connect with the Arab traders.  The Japanese, Chinese, and Korean empires will not be missed, nor will the Amerindians.  Events that shaped Europe, and thus the United States, are easily added such as the Renaissance and Reformation.

I hope this makes sense.  If anyone has any comments or wrenches to throw at it ("If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball"), let me know.  Its always appreciated.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Playing Games with my Class Version 1.0

As a kid, I was always drawn to simulation board games.  Many were sports related, such as "Statis-Pro Baseball", "Sherco Baseball", or "Title Bout".  However, there were also some historical games such as "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and "1776" that made it to my game library and was definitely one of the reasons why I am a history teacher today. Most of these games were from a company called Avalon Hill and usually bought at a store in the Woodbridge Mall.

Starting with my first year of teaching, I attempted to adapt these games to the classroom.  I hope that my students enjoyed their time building a civilization, or fighting either the Civli War or World War I.  

My first "game" became a yearly event at Christian Heritage School, it was the Election Game starting in 1992.  My eleventh grade U.S. History class (and eventually my 12th grade Government class) would be split into two (sometimes three) political parties.  Through ads, posters, and debates, they had to campaign to the other history classes in the school.  That first year we had students represent the three candidates that year (Bush, Clinton, and Perot) and it ended with a school wide townhall debate the day before the election.

The first year I ran the World War I game, I was told by my principal that some of my students were in the lunch room with their maps of Europe pulled out and scouring through books to see what moves and technologies worked or didn't work.  (Most of my former students can tell you that an army better not use mustard gas without developing gas masks b/c the wind can always change direction).  Discovering how effective games could be led me to develop more.  Not all have been successful, but the ones that were successful were well worth the work in designing them.

As a teacher, what I appreciated most about the use of games in the classroom is not just the non-traditional approach of addressing the curriculum, but the critical and creative decisions made by the students.   Where the students took the game was always the best part for me as the teacher.  Since the game was open-ended (although historical factors effected the decisions, the decision DID NOT have to match what was historically done), it allowed for out of the box thinking and some strange scenarios. 

I watched as one student, in his noble attempt to bring about one peacefully united tribe for his class, declare loudly, "We will brutally enforce peace."  Needless to say that even the tribes that agreed to his unity government at first joined the others in attacking his tribe.  

In World War I, Germany and Britain allied themselves because they thought it would be mutually beneficial.  I also saw the Ottoman Empire's collapse and the establishment of a new nation, Goonterland.  The Civil War in one of my classes led to Robert E. Lee getting tired of both the North and South, pulling out of the war, and using the Army of Northern Virginia to establish the nation of Virginia with recognition from the British and French.

Other games have been just to use the ideas of competition and reward to entice students to study.  The idea for this came from my middle school teacher, Mr. Bernosky.  Since year one, I have had a youth basketball net in my classroom for review basketball.  You get a question right, you get to shoot.  I also split classes into college basketball teams and their average score on practice quizzes led to their advancement in a "March Madness" style tournament, and after a few years college football was added.  We have had classroom olympics, review wiffleball, and within the past few years, Wii review bowling.

In the past few months, I have discovered a wealth of information from text and podcast sources on this idea of "Gamification of the Classroom".  Some ideas go beyond what I am doing in my class, other ideas were exactly what I have been doing for 20 years.  

So, this summer, I have been plotting and planning ways to "gamify" my classroom even more.  

Details to Come....