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....

Friday, August 10, 2012

Posterous--iPad App

I completed the seminars dealing with iPad use in the classroom.  The presenter presented (just realized how dumb that statement is, as if you didn't know what a presenter does) many practical apps that would benefit instruction as well as creative apps student's could use to present information they are learning.

One such app I want to attempt to use in my classroom is Posterous.  The best thing is it is free.

My principal is always asking us, "How do you know they know?" (whatever the objective is for the day).  He encourages us to use exit slips, but for someone who is organizationally challenged as I am, increasing my paper load by 100+ everyday can become unmanageable.

Posterous can solve my problems.  I can post a question about the day's lesson on Posterous and then have students respond to my the question on my site.  The question would be like a status update on Facebook and the responses would be the comments of others.  In this way all I would have to do to answer my principle's question is scroll down a computer page rather than read over 100 scraps of paper.

Classroom 20.0

When I began my career as a teacher, it was at a Christian school where resources were limited.  Watching the imagination of my students always amazed me in the simulations I ran (be it the election game, WWI, Civil War, Civilizations, etc.) as all we often had to work with was my scribbling on an overhead projector.  Sometimes there was a VCR.  I remember buying a CD-Rom on World War I and having students crowd around a small computer monitor to watch some clips.  That was how advanced technology was for me by 1999.

Fast forward to the upcoming school year for me.  The Superintendent and Board of Ed has approved for my classroom a set of 25 iPads.  I do have my Master's in Educational Technology and have regularly used a computer and Smartboard in my classroom for several years, but for the first time in my teaching career, I feel as if I am on the cutting edge of classroom technology and I do not want to lose the trust that my Superintendent and BoE has placed in me.  

As of now, my plan is to have an online textbook created for my students by the end of the summer (Maybe not the whole textbook but enough that I can stay ahead of my students.  WOW, I just realized, it will be as if I am a first year teacher all over again).  I am also investigating other uses for the iPad in the classroom.

That investigations begins tomorrow when I attend a conference for iPads in the classroom at Kean University.  I hope to get some ideas on how to best incorporate this new technology for the classroom. Most of this blog for the summer will be a diary of my journey.  

Up until now, except for the advancement of computer use, a student in my Christian school classroom in 1999 would see much of the same elements I used in their classroom as I used today (Review Basketball, despite some tweaks, is still a hit).  I don't believe there is anything wrong with that.  It's not as if I haven't introduced anything new.  Over 20 years I have perfected and grown comfortable with a certain style of teaching.

If I can get what I am imagining in my head to take place in the classroom with the use of iPads, students from my middle school class of 2011-2012 will not recognize the delivery, sequence, and flow of a daily lesson of 2012-2013.

Looking forward to changing things up! 

(disclaimer- I do NOT believe that technology is the panacea for the ills of education, however neither am I naive to believe that textbooks and notebooks will never be replaced in the classroom, and I am certain that reality is going to happen before I retire)

What to Get the Teacher Who Has Everything

OK, I don't have everything, but every so often my non-teaching friends will ask me, "What do I get my kid's teacher for a gift."  Remember, everything I say here is from me, other teachers may think differently.

First- I didn't become a teacher for the little gifts I receive at the end of the year.  They are always appreciated but never necessary.

Second- Don't look to spend a lot of money.  Gift cards are nice.   My favorites are to Barnes and Noble and Dunkin Donuts.  Even in $5 denominations, they add up quickly.

Third-  Go in with other parents (especially when you are in the upper grades when you have multiple teachers).  About ten years ago, my homeroom gave me a baseball bat bag filled with wiffleballs and bats and then signed their names in fabric ink on the bag.  Still have that bag and think of the kids when I see their names.

Fourth- Only give to the teachers that you appreciate.  I had a parent stiff me many years ago, I wasn't upset, I thought the parent was irrational the whole year and wasn't expecting anything.  I heard my colleagues got something cool from the parent.  I wasn't jealous.

Lastly- Homemade gifts.  Even just a note from a student that says thank you is more than enough for me.  Again, I didn't become a teacher for the little gifts at the end of the year, but when you read a note from a child expressing their thanks for a job well done and sharing how they enjoyed spending the previous year with you...there cannot be a monetary amount placed on that.