Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas as a Wealthy Boy

I grew up in a large house with a river running through the back edge of our property.  My backyard was big enough to play football, soccer, wiffleball, and basketball.  We went to some cool places for vacation, for example,  I remember living a week in a cabin located deep inside a forest in Vermont.  My Dad was one of the wealthiest men in town, he was gone for two weeks every month because his work was so important.  My Mom did not have to work.  Thankfully, I didn't stand out with my wealth as every kid in town was as rich as me.

Every Christmas, I would come down the stairs to see an amount of presents under the tree that was beyond what I ever could have wished.  Bicycles, electric football games, a Daisy air rifle, the list of presents I received seemed to be never ending.  My sister and I did not have one stocking, but two each.  Hung on the front door, they were overflowing with candies and small toys, waiting to be preyed off the door and enjoyed.

At least that is the world my young mind created when I was a boy…

As an adult, I wonder how the four of us co-existed without killing each other in our small Cape Cod house located within ear shot (and sometimes smell shot too) of the factory whistles that lined the railroad tracks running through my town.  The river was a small brook that you could probably light on fire since people dumped their car's motor oil in it.  In my mind, I imagined my backyard was a colosseum, when in reality any other sports I engaged in with my friends couldn't be more than 2v2 affairs due to the small plot of land my parent's owned.  Often,we just walked across the street to play kickball or ride our bikes in the bank parking lot.

In order to afford vacations, we often spent weeks down the Jersey shore with my grandparents, or, went up to Vermont where my Great Uncle owned 300 acres and had built a small cabin in the woods for guests.  As I became an adult and discovered the cost of hotels, I realized why our vacations were often like they were.  

My Dad was a factory worker who worked shift work.  So for two weeks he was home all day while I was in school and if I came home right after, I would see him for 15 minutes before he headed out for the night shift.  The sound of his car door slamming around midnight was a comfort for me.

Some of the kids I'm my school were probably better off than me, others not.  In the eyes of a 10 year old in a blue collar town in NJ in the 1970's, we were all equal to each other.  (And I think if any of my classmates read this, they would agree)

I thought I was living a middle class life, but I was really a member of the lower class.

And today on Christmas, as I see the presents under my tree for my daughters, I reflect to the sacrifices my parent's made to fill the living room with presents for my sister and I, so we felt like every other kid in town.  And not just at Christmas, but throughout my childhood.  They took it as their responsibility to insure that my sister and I felt loved and cared for; that we were safe and provided with everything we needed. 

As my father often said, "Im working in a factory where it can go over 120 degrees in the summer so that my kids never will."

As a Christian, that is the wonder of Christmas.  When every possession, every relationship is viewed as an underserved gift from God, than no matter what you have you are rich indeed.

And the greatest gift of all is when God became flesh that Christmas day many years ago.

John 1:14
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The reach of His Grace so we can know Him.

Ephesians 1:17-18

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people

And the sacrifice He made so we never will.

Hebrews 2:9
But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

When I compare my Christmas gifts to others, I will be greatly disappointed.

When I view everything I have as gifts from God, I am that young boy who believes that I am one of the wealthiest kids around.


Friday, November 8, 2013

One More Conference (Dear Katie V2 #11)

Dear Katie,

One of the things college will not prepare you for is Parent/Teacher Conferences.  I always find it difficult to talk about my students with their parents.  Often, Im not sure what information they want me to share.  Typically, I am talking with parents non-stop for 2 hour sessions.  This year, my district decided not to give us a half day, so I taught a full day, then went straight into conferences for two hours, had a hour and a half break (it was supposed to be two hours, but some parents scheduled to come in between 3:30 and 4 showed up closer to the 4 o'clock time), and then two more hours of parents.

At the end of a long, tiring day I was told the last parent listed in the 7:30-8 o'clock block had not shown up.  I was preparing to leave when at my door was a mother and father who I had seen talking to other teachers earlier in the night.  I figured they didn't need to speak with me (their child is an A student).  They had made a point to come back and speak with me.  What could this mean?

One more conference.

I was dragging.  I left that morning before dawn, while your aunt and cousins were sleeping, I was hoping to get home and at least see them awake for a few minutes.  Parents coming back to speak with me couldn't be good.  Would they complain that their child received a "B" on a group project?  Would they "lash out" because I refuse to review where places are on a map before a quiz because I want the student to research information on the Internet rather than me spoon feeding all information to them?  Are they going to complain that an A wasn't good enough?  I was in no mental shape to spar with any angry and complaining parents.

One more conference.

One more time I rose from my chair to forcing a smile to break across my face as the husband and wife strolled across my room to my desk.

"Hello, Kevin Cullen, I teach history"

One more conference.

They introduced themselves and we all sat down.  They were new to the district and came to tell me how happy they were at their child's progress in my class.  They validated not only my teaching style but the subject matter.  The wife told me how she was telling her colleagues at work how I took the time to explain and allow the students to think how pervasive social studies is involved in everyday life.  They were happy I gave the students a solid rationale for a social studies education.  Her co-workers responded how boring their children found social studies and she explained how much fun her son was having in my class. She told her co-workers, "My son's social studies teacher is brilliant!".

They then talked about how pleased they were of the school, "______________ was just one of many kids at his old school, here it seems like his teachers really KNOW him."

One more conference.

As our conference concluded, my energy was revived.  The fatigue that had settled in from a day that began at  5am and wouldn't end until I returned home at 9pm dissipated.  The thoughts of any bad conferences I had that day retreated to the far reaches of my mind.  A smile broke across my face as I turned off the light to my room.  All this because my long day was extended by

One more conference.

Uncle Kevin 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Don't Buy It (Dear Katie #2 V10)

Dear Katie,

I realized that I must have participated in over 1000 parent teacher conferences in my career.  Over that time, I have heard some sad, encouraging, and rude words (both toward me or their child)  fly out of the mouth of parents. 

In a few weeks, I will switch sides of the desk as I attend my first parent-teacher conference for your little cousin.  I know what questions I will ask or want answered by her teacher ("Is my daughter respectful to you?", "How does she get along with the other kids?" "Is she at grade level in her academic work?")

The ONE statement I have heard on a few occasions that I will NEVER say to the teacher is...

"I am a teacher, I would never (or never heard, or don't believe, etc) that YOU ____________"

Being honest with you, what goes through my head when a parent says that is

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

If you think about it, what the parent is saying is the same thing I am thinking.

First, I am not a kindergarten teacher.  A different skill set is required for that position that I do not possess, need or use.  Even it we both are middle school history teachers, I have always recognized that teachers approach the subject differently.  And teaching my children to adjust and succeed under people who have different styles and methods is life.  Adaptability is a great thing to learn in school.

As a young teacher, do not allow a parent who is a teacher to assume any sense of authority over you.  Does your principal support what you are doing in the classroom? That is more validation than a student's parent who happens to be a teacher.  

It is a badge of honor whenever someone tells me 
my classroom is not run in the typical way, 
both when it is complimentary or said derisively.

When another teacher is telling you to do things "their way" it does not logically follow that it is the "right way" or what will work best with "your way". 

"I am a teacher, I would never (or never heard, or don't believe, etc) that YOU ____________"

Remember, a teacher who has the arrogance to use this line does not have your best interest at heart but is out to gain an advantage for their child. 

I don't mind if I am asked questions about what I do, because I believe I am competent to answer them. I have taken the time to reflect on what I do in the classroom and why I do it.  You should prepare yourself to answer any questions to why you do what you do in the classroom.  And if you can't, or you realize your answers are less than satisfactory to the parent, maybe you need to think about what you do and retool.

But no parent should believe they have some kind of position of power over you just because they happen to be employed in the same field.  

"I am a teacher, I would never (or never heard, or don't believe, etc) that YOU ____________"

Don't buy it.

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Teach in the Moment (Dear Katie V2 #9)

Dear Katie,

The other day at school,  I went down to the gym to get ready for soccer practice. Some of my former students, who are now sophomores in high school, came back to play basketball with my principal and some junior high boys.   I walked through the gym as they were warming up.  A few stopped, walked over to me, shook my hand and asked how everything was.  It was special they approached me first, usually it's the other way around.  It brought back great memories of classes and times on the baseball field (they also played baseball for the team I coach).  They were great boys and would love to have them in class forever.  But that isn't life.

You have students for one year.  ONE YEAR.

And it flies by.  I have learned, even in years that I have rough students, there are always kids that can bring a smile to my face; who are motivated to stretch their thinking and creativity in my classroom.  In those hard years, focus on the students who are appreciating you classroom.  They are there.  Don't wish the bad years away so quickly.

It's only ONE YEAR.

One great thing about my time teaching at the Christian school I was at for 7 years was that as the upper school history teacher, I was able to see my students grow up.  My relationships with them were not just for one year, but 4 (and sometimes even longer since I often had contact with them from an earlier age since K-12 was all housed in one building.)

That isn't the case for most teachers.

You only get ONE YEAR.

So many fond memories.  So many laughs.  So many "ah-ha" moments.


As you teach, you will be surprised how much students will influence how you approach the topics you cover.  You will find yourself predicting the questions they will have, the misunderstandings that may develop, and the solutions to bring clarity.  The key to the lesson may be develop because five years earlier some student gave you an example or an idea to use in future classes.

Savor every moment.

For the ONE YEAR.

My soccer team this year was not expected to do well.  Some of their best players went down to injuries throughout the year.  And they kept winning much more than they lost.  I had two great captains, my on-field coaches, who were respected and led by example.  If some menial task needed to be done, they were the first to volunteer.  The season is now over.  I will never coach half the boys again because next year they will be playing for the high school.  As I went through this enjoyable season (that ended on penalty kicks in the semi-finals of the county tournament) I tried to take in as much of what was happening.  Remembering the examples of what can be accomplished when a team works as a team will be wonderful stories to share with future teams, and allow me to relive the memories.

Memories that will travel far beyond the ONE YEAR.

You will never become financially wealthy as a teacher but you will possess a treasure trove of memories that no one will ever be able to take away.

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Parents Can Give Me Internet Headaches

I get a headache every time I believe I'm doing something extra, something out of my way, something good, and then I am told by someone that it is not enough.

I feel like a surfer on the crest of a wave when it comes to computer use as a teacher.  I have never felt like I was trying to catch up to the wave or have had the wave come crashing down on me.  I'm not going to say I'm a "pro surfer" at using the computer for educational purposes, but I'm the guy who even in his forties can still get up on the board ride a few on to shore with the occasional wipe out.

Computers were to free up time from my hands in order to develop and explore other activities for my classroom or even to "make my job easier".  At first, it was no longer having to re-type a test to edit them year after year since I could access my saved file from the previous year.  Determining final grades went from hours on a calculator to minutes setting up a spreadsheet.  And then came the Internet.

Researching was now done in my house than in the library and it became easier to share and borrow lesson plan ideas.  The real boom was to be in parental contact.

My parents would have loved having access to the following:

-Email contact with the teacher instead of having to call or be home for a call (remember, when I grew up there were no voice mails or even answering machines)

-Access to my grades 24/7 with up to the minute calculation of the marking period grade

-The ability to see a list of my homework assignments

-When I played sports, a list of upcoming games, cancellations, and directions to the fields

Not only would they have loved it, but appreciated the teachers for doing it.

However, the problem with access to all this information has been COMPLAINTS

Complaints that it is not enough, that it's too many "clicks" to find information, but worse...

Instead of the student 
having the primary responsibility for information
coming to the attention of the parent, 
it is shifting to the teacher.

-Parents have complained after seeing a low grade online that the teacher did not contact them, not realizing that posting the grade online WAS the contact.

-Although teachers are putting homework assignments online (and sometimes even notes), now the complaint is that it should all be on one page even though their child has multiple teachers.

So in order to keep up with a child who is not keeping up with their responsibility, 
my colleagues and I to should take time out of our day in order to make things more streamline;
enabling the student to do even less.

-Online is SECONDARY, the PRIMARY source of this information should be the student.  If a parent is going to complain about having to do the work of tracking down the information, it should be toward their child for not being responsible enough to take or get the information in class.

-Complaints about the directions to away sporting events, as if it is not posted on the school's website the opponent's school can not be found. In the time the email can be written to complain, the parent could have easily typed the school's name into a map search. (Somehow my parents knew the location of every middle school, high school, and college that I ever played, without the Internet)

Every time some new website or app is presented to teacher's, we are always told "this will make your job easier".  For me, sometimes the jury is out.

When parents tell me how much they appreciate and how much it helps their child that I take the extra time to input grades online or fill a website with the information about my class, it makes me feel that it was all worth it.

But when a parent complains they want things even easier or complain even though the access to information keeps on improving (as if it is never enough), it makes me want to pull the plug on the Internet and return to the days of it all being the student's responsibility to be the carrier of all correspondence from school.

I have had more complaints about increased communication in the Age of the Internet than I ever did in the days before the Internet.

If the extra work is going to create more headaches for me, then what's the point?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Is Childhood Dead?

I am going to sound old here, but I read two stories this week that made me wonder what happened to the America where I grew up.  One was of a middle school in Long Island that has banned most ball sports during recess and the other was of the U.S. Postal Service dumping a series of stamps that depicted kids doing outside activity such as skateboarding and cannonballing into a pool because as the designer stated:

 "Apparently the President’s Council [on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition] 
and the Let’s Move people saw them and had issues with them."

(So I guess a safer bet would have been kids locked in their bedrooms 
playing X-Box or texting on their cell phones)

What has happened to childhood?

Recess in school today is a joke.  When I was in school, we had an hour off for lunch.  The first half hour was to eat, the second was for recess.  One day, I saw some of my students come in after lunch and their 10 minutes (if that) recess with a football.

Me: "Did you win?"

Student: "No, Tie"

Me: "What was the score"

Student: "7-7"

Me: "Wow, high scoring for 10 minutes"

Student: "No, we scored one touchdown each"

When we played football during recess (through 8th grade), we often played up to 10.  Ten touchdowns.  We had the time to do so.  We played tag (another one of those banned games), or we spent the half hour talking with our friends.  I remember when some older kids invented a soccer type game with tennis balls and we had large 25 versus 25 games.  Yes it wasn't perfect.  People were bullied and kids scrapped their limbs making diving plays they dreamed would somehow find the lens of an ESPN camera, but it was fun.  

We learned to problem solve on the playground and also practice conflict resolution.


First, we cut down the time provided in the day for kids to have unstructured "kid time" and added more academic time as if this would increase academic achievement.

Now, we are whittling away at what kids can do during that limited time, and probably in the end, we will just remove it all together in the name of academic achievement by saying, "the kids don't do anything during recess anyhow".

What happened to the childhood I lived:

-Where recess could be the bright spot that pulled you through the afternoon after a rough morning of classes.

-Where adding more school days were not debated because summers were a time for kids to "explore new worlds" and "dream big ideas" (If you need a reminder, look for a Disney cartoon called "Phineus and Ferb).

-When testing was done once a year, and although you were expected to do your best, no one stressed you out from September until you took them in the spring that your life depended on it

-Where kids met on a local lot for a pick up game of football, soccer, baseball, etc. instead of every sport they played being organized and run by an adult.

-Where lawsuits weren't discussed if a kid came home with bumps and scratches.

When did that childhood die?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Parental Guidance Suggested (Dear Katie v2 #8)

Dear Katie,

Today, your grandparents, my parents, celebrate 50 years together.  So much of the man I am today, the teacher I am today, comes from them.  There were times I wondered how these two ever got together.  They were so different.

Your grandmother grew up the second of five children in the city of Elizabeth and moving out to the suburbs when she was in high school.  She was a National Honor Society student.

Her gift to me was her creativity.

The other day, a parent of one of my students complimented me on my back to school night presentation.  She said it was engaging, filled with information, and entertaining, and it was no wonder to her now why her child enjoyed my class.  That was your grandmother's influence in me.  She could see beauty and fun in the ordinary.  When I was a kid, every night it seemed she would be crocheting, knitting, gluing, doing something creative.  Halloween was always great, because she would come up with great costumes.  Your mother was a banana one year, Cleopatra another. I was a revolutionary militiaman and robot.  All homemade costumes.  One year she made me an astronaut outfit.  Her added touch to the costume was created by taking a plastic milk carton, cutting a 1/4 of it off to make it into a holder for my "moon rocks", which were plastic eggs spray painted gold with sparkles.  She figured out a way to make pillow footballs for me and my cousins with the color of our favorite teams.  I always had the best school projects because her creative mind always develop a presentation of top notch quality. (Yes, I was one of those kids whose parents did their projects)

Your grandfather grew up an only child in a rural area of NJ.  He was a motor head who enjoyed playing baseball and causing trouble.

His gift to me was analytical thinking and fairness.

A part of being a history teacher is explaining cause and effect to allow your students to understand why things happen.  Your grandfather was not a great student, but he is a smart man.  It was hard doing anything wrong or justifying what you did because he would win the argument, always showing the flaws of any argument.  He is one of the guys who know a little bit about everything.  He can fix a car engine and can discuss world events.  He is both mechanical and well read.

He also taught me that you need to be fair to everyone and that your character counts more than your place in life.  When I bowled, your grandfather always said if the rack would knock down a pin he would always give a kid the pin that fell, but would not give it to me so no one would accuse him of playing favorites.  When started playing baseball, I was awful and always played the outfield.  My Dad would help out the team whenever he worked days.  One game, our starting second baseman was out so the coach told my Dad he wanted to put me at second.  You grandfather let me know that he told my coach, "Don't put him there because of me."

The coach assured him it was because he believed I had played better over the past few games.  Your grandfather always believed something is more precious to you if you earned it rather than be given it.  And in terms of baseball, it was so true as I often point to that day as what began my love and devotion for a game that I played through college and still coach today.

The thing that both of them gave me is the value that you do things because it is the right thing to do, not because you gain some advantage or receive some compensation.  Your grandmother always traveled over to her parents house helping them with everyday things even when all her brothers and sisters (and all of my cousins lived) within blocks of their house.  It wasn't easy, but it was right.

I saw your grandfather aid two elderly aunts in their 90's because they had no children of their own to care for them (even though they had other nieces and nephews).  One of those aunts did not include him in her will.  A lesser man would have stopped providing aid at the point of realizing that he wouldn't be receiving any benefit for their time and effort.  Your grandfather is a better man who assisted his aunt until her dying day.

Your grandparents, from such different backgrounds, and at times you could wonder what keeps them together.  It is a mutual love and respect.  My father was your grandmother's strength, my mother was your grandfather's stability.

Your grandparents will never be in the pages of a history textbook from which I teach.  However, their influence is more widespread than they could have ever imagined, as students in CT and NJ over the past 20 years have benefited from the daily lessons they instilled in me growing up.

Without realizing it, they have built a legacy that will continue for another 50 years.

I love you Mom and Dad!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Being Rebuked Is Doing Your Job (Dear Katie V2 #7)

Dear Katie,

I am an MTV child.  I was a middle school kid when MTV hit the airwaves.  I stayed up to watch "World Premier Videos."

When I was in college in the late 80's, a professor of mine noted that he heard when making a music video, the creators attempt to change the scenes every 3 seconds in order to hold a viewers attention.  I never forgot this, and have always thought of ways to incorporate this fact into the classroom.

We live in a world that has gone far beyond MTV.

Cell phones give people 24/7 connection with each other.

Twitter and texting encourages conciseness.  

Websites link us from one page to another creating a journey for us that by the time we have completed our "surfing" of the topic we last looked up, it is far different than what we originally intended to learn about.

And too often we expect attention spans somehow to miraculously increase when students enter the classroom.

Too often we feel safer running classrooms "the way its always been done".

Our job is to reach kids, get them to think, and sometimes doing so "isn't safe".

A friend of mine was a recreation director at a Bible camp, who created crazy games in order to get kids attention and get them involved in the camp.

Some of the older counselors questioned some of his decisions as a little immature.  (As if middle and high school kids need to play and interact like they are adults)

One of the head pastors of the camp, a man well into his 70's, encouraged him to continue what he was doing b/c the kids loved it, and people's problems were stylistic rather than ethical or moral.  He also was realistic about "living on the edge", that it would provoke naysayers.  In encouragement, he gave my friend this bit of advice (that my friend paraphrased as):

"If you ain't being rebuked, you ain't doing your job"

It does not mean to seek out trouble.

It is a call to be innovative to the point that people question what you are doing because it isn't the way its always been done.

Be creative, try, dont worry about failure.

Be an innovator in the classroom.

Your job is to reach kids.  

Don't plan lessons and activities that fall into the comfort zone of your fellow teachers.

Plan lessons and activities that excite and motivate kids to learn.

I've been a teacher over 20 years, I try something new every year.

I am NEVER satisfied.

Just because we've added a smart board and iPads to a classroom, doesn't mean that we've innovated if they are just being used as the modern equivalents of the overhead projector and notebook.

Thinking back to the constant changing of scenes in MTV videos, it is something I am trying to do in the classroom.  I try not to have my class start an activity on the bell and end the same activity on the bell.

NEVER spend your whole class lecturing.

Don't say, "when I was a kid, I could sit through 45 minutes of a lecture".  Or "in the past, people could sit through hours of lectures"

You didn't grow up in their world.

Why fight the lack of attention, why not find ways to work within it?

In the future, I'll tell you some ways I attempt to do that.

Don't hate change, embrace it.

It's the adventure of life.

But what do I know, I'm a child of the MTV generation.

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, August 10, 2013

How to be a Big Guy (On Leadership)

Recently I received the sad news that my friend's father had passed away.  Mr. Tango wasn't just my friend's father.  In all the seasons of baseball I played (through college), he was one of my best baseball coaches (he was my coach when I was in 7th grade for our in-town youth league). I was doing some driving around the hills of northeastern PA the day I heard about it and I began to think what made him a great coach.  What did I learn about coaching from him?

1) He never gave up on us.  

He took an AWFUL team (we only won ONE game of the first 10) and brought us to within one game of the championship.  He did not let us remain the league's doormats, he didn't belittle us for losing, but he kept positive, kept smiling, and kept working to improve us.

2) He trusted us.

One of the reasons we turned our season around is that he allowed us, the kids, to coach the game (lineups, switches, the bases, everything).  Maybe he was trying to figure out a way to keep us interested while we were losing, maybe it was because our assistant was being tossed out of every other game.  But when we became empowered, winning meant more to us than before..and we began to win.  Some of the strategies and ideas that my teammates and I figured out that summer I use in coaching baseball today.

Leaders can take two roads, one is to create & nurture leaders under your charge and the other is to create a hedge around yourself based upon your insecurities that someone underneath you might outshine you.  Choose road one if your focus is build success in others.  Choose road two if it's all about you.

3) He knew each player had their own strengths and weaknesses.

Our assistant coach believed that the way to get out every power hitter was throw high, inside fastballs.  Mr. Tango disagreed.  He pointed at me and said, "It won't work with him".

He knew that there wasn't just one solution to every problem.

So one practice they decided to see who was right.  I stood up at bat and our best pitcher took the mound and was told to throw the balls up and in on me.  He threw the first pitch by me for a strike.  The assistant said it proved his point, but Mr. Tango reminded him that it was only strike one.  I hit the next two deep down the left field line.

(To the pitcher's credit, I did have a HUGE advantage over him. I knew where the pitch was going & what type of pitch was coming.  A middle school kid who can throw three straight pitches in the same location just shows how good he was).

You cannot use a cookie-cutter approach when it comes to leading people under your charge.  You need to figure out their strengths and weaknesses (btw, mine in baseball were curveballs on the outside part of the plate)

4) He communicated both passion and knowledge.

I had coaches who knew more about the game than Mr. Tango.  A coach I had in high school possessed the most knowledge of any coach I ever played for, but was the worst motivator of people. Don't get me wrong, Mr. Tango knew the game, but more importantly, he could convey & instruct what he knew.  And he always did it with a smile.  We knew he had our best intentions at heart.  He made us want to listen.  He made us want to do well.

Some of the smartest people on a subject are awful teachers because they fail to make a connection with their students.

Some of the smartest administrators are awful because they cannot communicate vision and direction to those under their charge.

5) He treated us according to the potential he saw in us.

Mr. Tango's nickname for me was "Big Guy".  Physically, this wasn't the case.  I was average height for my age and VERY thin.  Yet, he always called me the "Big Guy" and I went on to have one of my best seasons in baseball and the confidence I gained helped motivate me to continue to improve my skills.  I played up to the expectation that he saw in me.  I wish more leaders would motivate those under their care positively, based on what they can be, rather than to berate and belittle them so they play just well enough to keep the "coach" of their back.

When I was in college, I stopped by my friend's house and saw my old coach relaxing on a chair in his family room.  He said he wanted to show me something. He walked out of the room and returned with a baseball that the team had signed as a gift at the end of the season.  Great memories flooded my mind when I saw the names on the ball.  He told me to look for my name.  There were two words underneath my name and I said them audibly "Big Guy"?. (I had forgotten I wrote that on the ball.)

He said to me, "Yea, Kev, You were our Big Guy".

6) We were motivated to go out of our way for him.

Signing the baseball was not the idea of our parents (as gifts are many times in the realm of middle school boys).  We WANTED to get him a gift.  I remember a group of us riding our bicycles to a small sports shop in Clark (about 5 miles from our house), to buy the baseball for the team to sign.  It takes someone special to get a group of middle school boys to give up a few hours on a summer's day to go out and buy with their own money buy a baseball to give as a gift.

7) He Cherished the Memories

As I paid my respects to Mrs. Tango the night of the wake, she began talking of the baseball we signed, and how it remained in a case on his dresser all these years.  She said their grandson (my friend's nephew) who himself is a baseball player, asked if he could keep his grandfather's baseball.  I was introduced to the boy's little sister by her mother.  I told her I played baseball with her father and uncle.

Her mother (who I grew up with as well) added it was the team her grandfather coached.  The granddaughter's eyes grew big and she said, "Is YOUR name on the baseball?"

"Yes, my name is on the baseball." I laughed as I said it.  It was as if we were major leaguers who had signed that ball.  By sitting on their grandfather dresser all those years, Mr. Tango's grandkids recognized the high esteem he held for that team.  It was as if we WERE all major leaguers.

Mr. Tango gave me one more lesson in how to be a "Big Guy".

Mr. Tango, it takes a "Big Guy" to teach someone to be a "Big Guy"

And you were a "Big Guy"!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Slaying Boredom & the Baseball Hall of Fame (Dear Katie V2 #7)

Dear Katie,

As you know, your grandfather, brother, and I took a trip up to Cooperstown to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I LOVE Baseball.  I can spend days in that museum.  You NEVER can see all that is in that building in one day.  The uniforms begin to fill out as I imagine the games in which they were worn.  You can "take in" the smell of leather radiating from the gloves behind the glass.  The pictures of players, stadiums, and fans pull you into the moments depicted.  Tradition permeates the whole building, and a sense of reverence overcomes you as you enter the hall with the plaques of the Hall of Famers.  The sense of wonder transforms me into a kid again.

It also gets me thinking about my classroom.  Many people (your aunt, my wife, included) find (found) history to be a boring subject.  My motivation for the past 21 years has been to change that perception.

How can I make my classroom come alive just as the baseball mementos behind that glass?  How do I create that enthusiasm for a middle school Social Studies course?  Of course, I am not naive enough that I can recreate the emotions that overcome people in the Hall of Fame, but not trying is sure failure.

I used to refer to my classroom as the World Geography Experience.  That is what I want my students having in my class, an experience.  I want my classroom to come alive for students.  I want there to be traditions that they can discuss with their siblings and friends in other classes and in other years.  Hopefully these layers serve as a hook to the lessons and themes we learn in class so the students retain ideas and skills to use later in life.

Learning is solidified in minds when linked to memorable experiences.

Last year I created a baseball theme that I use as a motivational device.  Groups are "teams", classes are "leagues", they begin each marking period creating a team logo and flag.  They compete in review games and other challenges to earn either wins or losses and hopefully win the pennant.  This year I am looking to expand upon what I started.

Yes it seems like fun and games, but who said you can't learn through games?  Why does a teacher have to stand in the front of the room and dictate notes?

Baseball team, like all sports, have nicknames that typically identifies a feature of the city in which the team plays.  What nickname would the students give to your classroom?

And where did this baseball idea come from?  My pilgrimage to the "Baseball Cathedral" on the shores of a lake  in Cooperstown, NY last summer.

When teaching is your passion, everywhere you travel should fill you 
with ideas for your classroom.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lecturing on Lectures (Dear Katie V2 #6)

Dear Katie,

There will be two types of education courses you will be taking in your undergraduate studies, the practical and the theoretical.  In your educational philosophy class you will read and discuss words like "constructivism" and names such as "Vygotsky".  You will be encouraged to make your lessons hands-on because people are able to know and understand stuff they "construct" for themselves.  The popular catch phrase you will hear is...

A teacher should be the "guide on the side", not the "sage on the stage".

As you have witnessed in my classroom, I have attempted to create an interactive, participatory classroom.  So you can attest that I am no anti-constructivist or necessarily disagree with the quote above.

Your uncle is not a  Luddite!

However, there is a place for the lecture in the 21st classroom.

Wait, what?  Lecture--21st century classroom?  Isn't that a contradiction?  I mean, come on, with the proliferation of digital devices in the classroom, a student can just pull up a video or "ask Siri" to get the answers that a teacher can provide through a lecture.

A lecture models logical thought and critical thinking for your students.

1) "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."

For education that means a time for lecture and a time for project based learning.  Some of your students will be auditory learners and will catch the information better when you verbalize it.  Your Aunt will attest this being true for her (and she's pretty smart).

2) The problem with lecturing isn't the lecturing, but the lecturer.  

Some of the most knowledgeable people cannot explain what they know to others.  Other people miss the mark because it is not delivered at an age-appropriate level.  Others offer no opportunity for those in the audience to ask questions.  Combine the lecture with back channeling (students use a website like Today's Meet can post thoughts & questions about your lecture that can be displayed on a monitor) so students can interact with the information you are providing. 

3) "We all need, the human touch" -Rick Springfield

The availability of video instruction is awesome, however, a student cannot stop the video and ask a question.  The popularity of TED videos only shows that lectures are not dead.  However, as we begin to be absorbed more into the digital age we cannot become so consumed that we lose out on "face to face", real time, same locale human interaction.  We cannot buy into the idea that only people who appear on the TED stages have something of value to share.

4) Quick & easy is convenient, but just touching the surface.

How one gets to the answer is more important than the answer.  We live in an instant gratification world, where what is called "debate" is won and lost more on style rather than substance.

When I taught at Christian Heritage School in Trumbull, CT, I was fortunate enough to share a classroom for two years with one of the smartest men I have ever known, Jim Bair, the Harvard educated English teacher.  Working in the back of the class listening to him lecture the class about Shakespeare didn't just help me to understand the Bard's work better, but guided me in developing logical arguments.

I had students that had us both as a teacher come up to me and say, "Why is it every time I time I ask Mr. Bair a question, he never gives an quick answer, it's always feels 5 minutes long?"

My response was always the same and was based on a similar feeling when I first began asking Mr. Bair questions.

Listen not just to the answer, but how he is answering it.  

He is offering a logical, reasoned opinion.  You're just not going to know the answer, but WHY it is the answer.  Students would come back a week later with a better appreciation of Mr. Bair's long winded answers.

A lecture models logical thought and critical thinking for your students.

Okay, time for me to get off my soapbox and allow you time for you to digest and implement what you have learned.

Uncle Kevin

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

22 Days--Maddison's Story

Today's post isn't about education, but it is about parents & kids.  I wrote this on Facebook 5 years ago to explain how my wife and I went from DINKS (Double Income, No Kids) to proud Parents within a brief period of time.  And today, I celebrate my daughter's FIFTH Birthday, and I am still amazed how we started out on the road with her.

Facebook has been a wonderful distraction from the busyness of life. It has helped me stay connected with friends and reconnect with others I thought I would never see again. In the past 8 weeks, many of you have seen that my wife Alisa and I have welcomed our first child into our family, Maddison Grace, born on July 30. I think Jeff Bruce said it well when I announced it on Facebook..."Congrats...I think I missed something." So here is the story for those who care...

Alisa and I have been married for 11 years. Our plan was to have Alisa finish her Master's degree as a Physician Assistant, work for a few years, and then begin our family. The past six years have brought disappointment and sadness. We tried naturally for about a year and a half, then the visits to fertility specialists began. Just those experiences are very humbling.

Over the next 4 years hopes of success were dashed with confirmation of failure. As time went on with that process, we began to look at adoption. We chose China and were willing to wait the 18 months we were told it would take. However, disappointment was found on that avenue also as bureaucratic changes in China has lengthened the wait to what can be 4 years.

I think that this past 12 months have been the lowest time in our marriage. Our love for each other never wavered, but I think emotionally, being childless was taking its toll. We watched as our friends' children were getting older. We listened as they told their family stories and looked at their family pictures. There was a fear when a friend called that they may announce they were pregnant. We often felt invisible to people our age in church because we didn't hold the golden ticket to fellowship...a child. This was the first year we did not attend church on either Mother's or Father's Day. It wasn't they we couldn't celebrate our friend's families with them, however, privately, it was reminders of our situation, and it was taking a toll. We trusted God, and prayed often, our friends prayed for us. I just wanted Alisa to be happy, I knew a child in her life would do that.

In the beginning of 2008, with the China adoption looking like a long way off, we made the decision to pursue domestic adoption. In June we completed a scrapbook of our lives which was needed by our adoption agency to show to perspective birthmothers (they get to choose who their child will be going to). June became July and we hadn't heard back from our adoption agency about the scrapbook (they needed to critique it and have us edit it before they began to show it to birthmothers) . I was getting frustrated. We were thinking we would have birthmothers looking at our scrapbook in the fall, and they said it could be a year and a half wait from there.

We left for vacation the second week of July in Williamsburg, VA. On the last day of our trip (7/10), we checked our email and found one from our adoption agency with the areas we needed to fix in our scrapbook. This is when God took some actions that would change our lives.

On Friday, 7/11, Alisa went back to work. She received a call from Heather, a friend of ours. She had received a call from a member of her church who himself received a call from a high school friend that he had not talked with in over 20 years. Her niece was pregnant with a little girl. The couple she had lined up to adopt the child had fallen through, now she was two weeks from delivering and was desperately looking for a good family. The man from Heather's church said, "I'm a praying man, and I know God will have your answer by the weekend."

We met with the aunt that Sunday 7/13. Her niece, from a southern state, was dating a guy she had two children by (one had died in his first year of life). They broke up, she had a one-night stand with a man and became pregnant. Her and the boyfriend not only got back together, but got married. But here she was, 8 months pregnant, with another man's baby. We got her connected with our adoption agency and we went from there.

We met the birthmom the next Saturday (7/19). What do you say? The aunt was great facilitating for all of us. The birthmom was very sweet, but quiet, only answering when the aunt asked her questions. However, at the end of the conversation she said, "I want you two to know, I know I need to wait three days after birth to give my baby up for adoption, but in my mind, its over. I wouldnt have come all this way to decide I want to take her back."

She was scheduled for a C-section on Wednesday, 7/30. The aunt and birthmom both wanted us there to begin bonding with her as soon as possible. When we got to Morristown Memorial Hospital, the social workers there tried on two occasions (once through deception) to make us leave even though it was her desire for us to be there. The aunt called Alisa in the waiting room and told us to meet her at the doors of the nursery. I remember Alisa's voice quiver as she repeated to me what the aunt told her, "She's healthy and she's beautiful." We took our first glances at our little girl within 30 minutes of her birth. Within the first hour, the nurses set up an area where we could hold her. The nurses were wonderful the three days we made the trip down to spend some time with her.

We were at first told we could take her home Friday, but they held off until Saturday. On Saturday morning, we met one last time with the birthmother. Feelings of guilt became intense as we walked the hallway to her room. Despite her situation, it was still her daughter. I felt like a beggar, "Please mam, I cant have a kid of my own, can I have yours?"

Meeting with her was the best thing that could have happened. She was even more resolute. She told us she was so happy for us, and she knew we would provide a wonderful home for her daughter. God really used that meeting to rid us of the guilts.

We waited in the cafeteria for about an hour until the final paperwork was signed. Our adoption agency social worker carried her out of the hospital (legal issue) and as we exited, handed over Maddison to Alisa. And she has been with us ever since.

We thank God daily for this tremendous blessing. We don't think of her as our adoptive daughter, but our daughter. And as a husband, I am enjoying seeing the delight my wife has in holding our daughter,

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Classroom DIY (Dear Katie V2 #5)

Dear Katie,

As summer comes to a close, teachers around America begin to make their way back to their classrooms, well before they are required.  The reason for this is that the one or two days that is typically given to teachers in their contracts for classroom prep is not enough time to get your classroom "just right".  I typically play music or videos while I work.

I love movies as "background noise".  The ones I have played the most over the year while preparing have been The Sandlot for the laughs and getting me in the middle school mindset and Dead Poets Society for the inspiration.

Here a few tips when it is time to set up your classroom...

1) If you were the age of your students, would YOU want to be in your classroom?
Most of my posters ARE NOT educational themed.  They are there to make it a comfortable learning environment (For example, I have a Beatles Yellow Submarine poster on my wall, the kids like it. I will NEVER tack a Justin Bieber poster to my wall no matter how many students beg me, I have to be comfortable too)

2) Does your room look appropriate for the corporate world or a kid's world?

3) Can your students freely flow or are there too many barriers discouraging wanted movement?

4) Can you move around freely? (remember you may be bigger than your kids, rows might be wide enough for a 10 year old, but too narrow for a person in their 20's)

5) Are desks (tables, bean bags, etc) arranged in a way that encourages or discourages interaction? Think about it, in the traditional row set up, most kids will see the back of their classmates heads, how does that encourage discussion?

6) Is there a small corner set up for YOU?
Yes, I know it is about the kids, but remember, you are going to spend a lot of your waking hours for the next 10 months in that room, you need a space in it FOR YOU.  I always tell me kids, my desk area is MY HOUSE.  They cannot come in (behind the desk) without permission.  They often want to "come in" to see the pictures I have posted on my back wall.  I have a line marked with duck tape that they cannot go past.  If they do, I yell "GET OUT OF MY HOUSE" continuously until they step out. (It's good for a few laughs)

But hey, what do I know...I'm just an old man working in a child's world.

Uncle Kevin

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Ratty Scraps & Game Tables (Dear Katie V2 #4)

Dear Katie,

As I said earlier, in order to make logical, orderly arguments, you need to have facts to back them up.  If you have an extended period to respond, one could use the internet or other resources to discover the best arguments.  Often, you are put on the spot to defend your point of view and will not have time to even access Siri (and if you did, what would the person listening think about your intelligence).  For this reason, there will ALWAYS be a point to memorize facts to have at your disposal when discussing events of the day.

As I said in a previous post, I often use games to help with memorizing facts (it's the whole "spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down" philosophy of Mary Poppins).  In my classes this year, each student was placed on a team.  Each week, they competed for points that would help them earn weekly points (or in our case, "Wins and Losses", the team with the most points finished the week with 14 wins and 6 losses, the last place team with 6 wins and 14 losses, the other teams received wins and losses in between those two, based on their points for the week).  At the end of the marking period (or "Season") we would have a champion.

One way students earned weekly points for their team was through our "Dice Game" played a few times each week.  Here is how it worked.

1) Kids would sit with their teams to start class.

2) I would then have them go to "Game Tables" where they would sit with one member from each of the other teams.  On their way to the game table, they would pick up a "Ratty Scrap" (thanks to my AP English teach, Miss Logan, for that.)  A Ratty Scrap is a small piece of scrap paper, each team had their own color).

3) I would ask 5 questions, and then they would drop the ratty scrap into a baseball helmet.  They would return to their game tables.

4) I would review the answers and then pick out one ratty scrap per team (based on color of the scrap) and determine how many questions that teammate had correct.

5) For each correct answer, the team member would go to the Smartboard and role a dice for each question they had correct.  This would be added to their weekly point total.

The odds increase for you to roll more die, and thus get a higher total the more questions that team members have correct.  I have had teams with 2 die rolls do better than a team with 5, but over time, the teams that prepare better will have the higher totals for the "season".

Another positive of this system is that team members encourage and help each other study in order to increase their chances to roll more die.  And I have seen students who do not care about studying before "crack the books" in order not to let their team down.

Anyway, just another scheme in my bag of tips for you to think about using and/or modifying when get your own classroom.

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Review Games & Flying Buttresses (Dear Katie #2 V2)

Dear Katie,

Every so often I will be in contact with a student from my World History class of the late 1990's and they will remark that they will NEVER forget what a FLYING BUTTRESS was.  Early on in my teaching career I discovered I needed to make memorizing the facts of history palatable for my students.

During college basketball season one year, I split my world history classes into 16 teams and we had our own version of March Madness.  I would ask 6 questions and a "defensive" question.

Questions 1-6 each had a different point value.  The goal was to make the average score of each team to be within the realm of the actual score of a college basketball game (50-80 points). Everyone started with 30 points, I made sure if someone had all the questions correct, they would finish somewhere around 100 points. (Which would be on the high side for a college basketball game).

The last question was a "defensive question".  It was the only one where you would lose points if you answered it wrong.

After the students corrected each other's papers, I would take the scores.  Your team's average would be compared to your opponents.  Higher average would win the game and advance in the tournament.

It was so successful, I did the same thing in the fall, creating a college football season that culminated in each team playing in a "bowl" game (we had the Candy Bowl, Salad Bowl, and of course, the two worst teams faced off in the Toilet Bowl).  The March Madness season had both a regular season added.

Kids like competition, and the game quizzes motivated them to learn the material.  For me as the teacher, I could see the questions where students were struggling.

That brings us to the flying buttress.  One year, on almost every game quiz, I would ask them "What was the wing structure in gothic architecture that allowed buildings to be created higher with thinner walls?"  Hearing it so often, they didn't forget.

I did have some students ask me what was the point of knowing what a flying buttress was.  I told them that for the boys, they could impress a date by taking her to New Haven, point up to the gothic architecture around Yale, and say, "Look, a flying buttress."

More on games in the classroom later,

Uncle Kevin

(And despite what people tell you, yes we HAVE TO MEMORIZE facts.  Yes, history classes should be about recognizing trends, analyzing causes and effects, and drawing conclusions, but in order to develop arguments in your speech and/or writing or to understand the context of what you are reading, you need a foundation of facts in your head).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Student Teaching Experience (Dear Katie v.2 #1)

Dear Katie,

Congrats as you make your turn into the second half of your college career and began your pursuit of your education credentials with practicum and eventually student teaching.

Learn from my mistake, DO NOT put college life in front of the work that needs to be completed for your practicum and student teaching assignment.  I was often writing lesson plans in the twenty minutes I had from the time I came to school and when the students arrived.  However, I didn't miss a second hanging out with my friends back on campus.  While the other student teachers were holed up in library cubicles plotting and planning a week's worth of plans, your uncle was walking up and down the library aisles seeing who he could pry into a conversation and eventually convince them head out to get a bite to eat at the diner.  

I was not prepared at all for what awaited when lesson planning became part of my full time job.  Thankfully you inherited your mom's diligence and work ethic.  That will not only allow you to be a successful student, but a successful teacher.  

Do not just absorb what your cooperating teachers are saying, but put it into practice.  Nothing upsets me more than a student teacher who acts like they are listening to my suggestions and advice and then proves they were not listening by trying at least one thing I suggested.  If your cooperating teacher suggests something DO IT.  Remember, in the end they will be your primary recommendation for a position and if your are fortunate maybe that position will be in the district where you had your experience.  A principal is going to take a lot of stock in the words of an employee's recommendation, and in fact, will probably already have heard if you are somebody worth pursuing or forgetting.

Be creative.  Think of one way to grab the attention of your students in a way that you can package and promote as a "highly successful unit".  In this age of digital photos, take pictures, video, etc. of the work your students are doing in the classroom.  Show it off when you go on interviews.  Involve your cooperating teacher in the process.

Emerse yourself.  See if you enjoy it.  Get yourself on sub lists NOW.  (You have enough credits and if you have the days in your schedule, it will get you some spending cash) Many teachers leave the profession b/c they get burnt out within the first 5 years.  If you don't like the work load, you have two years left of college refocus your efforts.  

I am confident that you will love it.  

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Baseball is Life

At times in my life, I hated baseball.  For some who know me, that may come as a shock since I played through college and have coached it at the high school and middle school level for the past 20 years.  By the time I was a senior in high school, I began to get burned out from playing so much, that when I broke my ankle the week before the first week of college workouts, I was relieved.

My only regret now is that I ever hated it at all.

Baseball has taught me so much about life...such as

Baseball is a thinking man's game.  So many people think baseball is boring because there is no action. Much of baseball is taking place in each players' head in between pitches.  The pitcher, catcher, and batter are thinking about the next pitch, what pitch, and what location.  The runners on base are thinking about what to do on the pitch, after the pitch, if the ball is hit and where, etc.  The fielders are thinking about what to do with the ball based on where it is hit and how hard, where they should play, should they shift left or right, up or back.

If these thoughts aren't happening in a baseball player's head in between pitches, they aren't playing baseball.

A  teammate asked me at the end of my baseball career how many errors I made playing outfield in my college tenure.  I replied, "Three".  He then asked me how many I made because I was daydreaming between pitches.  I said, "Three".

Life is like that.  If all we did was action and reaction without thought, where would we be.  Life is about considering rewards and consequences for actions, assessing risks, preparing for variables, etc.  If we aren't ready, or just seeking to react rather than prepare, we are more likely to make errors.

Baseball is like a poker game.  What card should you play?  Should you take the extra base, what are the odds you'll be safe?  Should you keep the runner from taking second on a hit or try to gun the guy out at home.

We do that all the time.  High risks often come with high rewards, but we can't be foolish either and always take the high risk.  Sometimes it is worth it to play conservatively.

There are times to take the risk and try to nail the guy at the plate and there are times you need to let him score and keep the guy off of second to prevent a big inning from happening for the opposing team.  Life is about assessing the situation and taking the appropriate action.

I love baseball.  Coaching and playing, but I'd rather be playing.

I love life.  Teaching about it and living it, but I rather be living it.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Biome Project--My Trophy (Dear Katie, v1 #14)

Dear Katie,

Where will you find your contentment as a teacher?

May is a time filled with multiple large events in the life of our school.  The biggest of these is the NJ ASK testing that will fill up two weeks in the school schedule.  Both the band and choir concerts take place in May as well as a competition at Dorney Park (lets be honest, its really a boondoggle; a money making weekday in the middle of May for an amusement park that would be empty so they create the illusion of a competition, why not have the competition without the park? Wouldn't kids still be motivated to go?).  

For me as a baseball coach, the season is at its height leading toward the county tournament.  All these events allow the leaders to obtain recognition.  The state testing will have our school's scores posted in the newspaper, the band and choir have their performances and accolades, and the baseball team their quest for a banner to be placed in the gym. And the teachers involved in all these pursue these rewards with great passion because in general people desire to be recognized for their achievements.

It is rare for the classroom teacher to gain such awards.  There will not be bonuses handed out for great lessons or trophies because 90% of your students scored a 100 on your vocab quiz.  

For me, my trophy is another event that takes place every May in the 7th grade at our school for the past 9 years, the Biome Zoo project.

Your aunt and I went to Walt Disney World for a week back in 2004 and I returned with an idea of students creating theme parks (much like Animal Kingdom and EPCOT).  Recognizing that our 7th grade science curriculum (biology) and geography work so well together, I asked the science teacher if she would get onboard.  The collaboration has been great.  My strength is in creativity, hers in organization, and I couldn't have had a better partner in planning and implementing this project.

The project entails 5-6 members of a group selecting one biology project and one social studies project form a list.  Each group is assigned a culture and biome that exists nearby (for example Russian Taiga or Mongolian Steppes).  They spend 3 weeks researching, writing, and creating their project.  After their individual projects are complete, they come together every afternoon after state testing and spend a total of 12 class periods creating a presentation where they create a zoo that seeks to convince the judges that their zoo should be the one built.

Although the instruction packet the students are given is about 8 pages long, it is ambiguous enough to allow the students flexibility to display their creativity.  It can be difficult for a concrete thinking 7th grader who asks, "How do I do I create the architecture for my zoo?".  

I tell them, "If I tell you, then I will see a project that shows me your ability to replicate my creativity.  I want to see YOUR creativity."

As the individual projects come in, I see models of houses, cleverly designed menus, employee uniforms sewn together, and I am amazed to see what they created.

Then I watch the group work and see kids laughing, planning, dreaming, building.  Some of these kids have never interacted in any way with each other all year, and here they are coming together to compete a common goal. Yes sometimes kids slack and don't do work, but honestly most work together well.

And next week, I see the completion of the group projects.  Well structured skits, props, songs, dances, foods, all will be part of the presentations.  And I will sit back to score the projects with pride in the students I have had the pleasure to work with all year.

Katie, as a teacher you may never get your name in the paper, or  adjudicated "excellent" for a lesson plan, or a banner that says "Champions", so let your pride be in with this...

....spending hours developing a project based lesson that is student centered, that allows them to "show-off" their expertise, creativity, organizational skills, allowing them time to put it all together, then watching them perform in their presentations...

THAT will be your trophy.

THAT is why we teach.

Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Of Tests and Projects

Next week I will be at both ends of the educational spectrum.  Each morning I will be a prison guard (ie. proctor) for the high stakes NJ ASK testing (high stakes mostly for teachers, since they are the only ones that have any real consequences if students do poorly).  In the afternoons, the 7th grade team (of which I am a part) will be monitoring student group work for the 9th annual Biome Zoo Project (an interdisciplinary biology/geography project).  Every year I am amazed to see the creative solutions developed by the students.

My classroom has become a “sterile environment” as papers are now covering up the many quotes and pictures I have around my classroom.  The state doesn’t want students to be able to gather information from the wall so all educational posters (ie. “How to write an Essay”), must be covered.  I understand that and declared to my team, “That’s OK, I don’t have anything educational in my room” (my room is covered with things like a Beatles Yellow Submarine poster and an old Napoleon Dynamite poster).  And then one of my “teammates” advised that we should take down or cover ALL posters because he said they might give kids ideas on the essay, thus educational (I wondered if we should cover the clocks too because the numbers could give the kids help in math).  

So when testing begins in my classroom next week, the walls will be covered with paper, you know, kind of like when you see those black lines or blurred pictures.  As I walk up and down the straight aisles of kids working diligently on circling dots  in their desks with the blanks walls, my lively, energetic classroom will be reduced to something more resembling a prison block license plate making facility.

And I am still not clear how the heavy emphasis preparing and taking standardized tests is going to improve students.  The only conclusion I can draw on an increase in score on a standardized test is that student improved on their ability to take tests.  It may help them on their SAT's, but not much of any use in real life.

I have always found developing interesting and creative classroom experiences drives students to learn and that test prep lessons work against that and alter schools into child labor factories.

After the testing is over, students will gather in their biome groups and create a 15 minute presentation “selling” their idea of a zoo the combines a specific biome and culture in the world.  Before they got together with their group, they spent the previous 3 weeks researching and then creating an individual project based on their topic.  Groups come together, share what they learned in their individual preparation, and then make a plan for their presentation.  The end results are filled with entertaining skits, elaborate 3-D models of their zoo, and choreographed dances and songs.  

Teachers are being told that the many of the jobs we are preparing students for do not even exist yet due to constant upgrades in technology.  We are told to best prepare students, we need to design lessons in a framework for 21st century learning skills that include creativity, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

Looking at the two educational extremes this week, state mandated testing and teacher  designed projects, which one allows the students to show their preparation for the 21st century workplace and which one is locked in a 19th century mindset?

(But what do I know, I'm just a teacher with over 20 years experience, not a politician making the educational decisions)