Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dear Katie (Vol 1 #4), The Rockin' Classroom

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,

For the past 8 years, I have tried to open my class with a song.  As you know, the opening exercise for my classroom is called "What's Up Now?" and it serves three purposes, one, to inform students on current events for the day,  two, to remind them of upcoming assignments, and three, introduce the essential question and tasks that we will accomplish during that class period.

Each day I choose a theme song for "What's Up Now?", that is also a cue for the students that they need to quiet down because class is about to begin.

I typically choose songs based on the lesson or unit.  The most popular of the songs ever has been "Down Under" from the Australian band Men at Work for our Geography unit on Australia.  When studying the Byzantine Roman Empire, I would open class with "Istanbul, not Constantinople"(the They Might Be Giants version).  On Friday's, it's typically Rebecca Black's "Friday"with the multiple complaints and "ughs" from my students making it even more fun to play.  And this year, a good friend of mine who creates Industrial music even produced an official class song.  (I still have to come up with a name for it).

Make sure you know the lyrics of the song you are choosing.  My student teacher one year wanted to use the song "Money" by Pink Floyd for a lesson on economics.  Thankfully I was able to mute the sound before a word of mild profanity was sung (Since I know you went to see "The Wall" I think you know what was said)

What some may believe to be a waste of time, I see as a very important piece of my class.  In order for students to learn, you have to make them feel comfortable; they have to want to be in your classroom.  The anticipation of "what song is going to be played today in history" gets the student thinking and getting their mind ready for your class.  And we know from studying how people learn that people can "peg" information to seemingly unrelated but familiar items (Look up the Roman Room memorization technique).  

You would be surprised how many students have said over the years, "I remembered ________ because of the line in the song _______________."

Always think of ways to create a classroom environment where students can't help but desire to be a part of it.

Just my opinion,

Uncle Kevin

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Paperless Quiz-Socrative App

Over the summer I was able to attend some iPad seminars with a co-worker.  As our presenter discussed some of the apps available for educational uses, I turned to my colleague and said, "Smart clickers and Smartboards have just become obsolete." 

One of the apps the made me say that was this one called Socrative.  It allows the teacher to create a quiz that students take digitally on an iPad, iPhone, or computer.  There is an app for the teacher and a separate app for the student.  After the quiz is created, the teacher informs the student of the "room number" on Socrative, the students then take the quiz.  After it is finished, the teacher can receive the student's answers for each question through email.

The huge positive for me was the ease of use.  The interface to create the quiz was self explanatory.  The students had no problems navigating the program.  After they completed the quiz, I had the scores emailed to me, and now I can enter it into Powerschool (the program our school uses for online grading).  It will be the first assessment in over 20 years of teaching that will know no paper.

In comparison to the Smart clickers, there isn't much to set up.  If each student has a digital device and the app installed, you are good to go.  The Smart clickers have receivers to plug in, programs to open.  The ones our school has you enter text as you would on a cell phone pre-smartphone bogging the class down and taking up classtime.

The one problem is that once you answer a question, it's gone.  I learned that after the first class and informed subsequent classes to read the questions and choices carefully.  Although this was ok for a quick four question reading check, I don't know if I would feel comfortable with using this method for a test of 30-40 questions where students couldn't review their work.

As time goes on, I will be using this to check for understanding of concepts "on the fly".  Socrative allows me to type in a question during a lesson and the students will answer it in seconds allowing me to check for understanding.

Socrative=positive experience.  Definitely recommend!

A friend on Facebook asked my thoughts are in the comments

If each student has an iPad out to use during these quizzes, can't they just cheat 

and go on the web and look up the answers?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Dear Katie (Vol 1 #3) A Classroom is for Kids, Not Inmates

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,

There are times that I look at the institutions of schools and the word "prison" pops into my mind.  "Stay to the right", "Don't chew gum", etc.  And don't many students see it as that?  They are sentenced to a 13 year prison sentence called public school until college gives them some freedom.

On Back to School Night, I share this with the parents, "I'm not looking for your child to fall in love with History, they may hate History, but my hope is that at the least they say 'I don't mind having to spend 45 minutes of my day in this guy's class'."

My approach has been simple.  One is that I realize I have to go beyond who I am.  Sometimes I'll get silly in the classroom hoping that it will grab their attention or say something provocative that will make kids angry and get them to think.  

Another thing is my classroom decorations.  Once the year begins, I don't have time to think about changing and rearranging what is hanging on the walls of my classroom.  I have a more important job than interior design, getting kids to sharpen their critical thinking skills using the facts of history as evidence.

So what I do is decorate the classroom at the beginning of the year and let it stay that way.  My first few years of teaching I had a theme.  One year I covered the front wall of my room in newspaper, only exposing the chalkboard, with the words, "History Made Every Day."  Another year, I made the chalkboard look like a TV set and wrote "The History Channel".

In recent years I have found the importance of keeping the decorations static from year to year.  It has been almost 10 years since the movie Napoleon Dynamite was popular, and most of my students have no clue of it.  But if they ask, I use it as a teaching tool.  The line on it, "He's Out to Prove, He's Got Nothing to Prove" is an awesome lesson about being yourself so much needed in the social interaction of teens.  The reason to keep some posters and decorations the same is to keep a connection with past students.  It's funny that my high school students from Connecticut in 1997 can share similar "Cullen Stories" with my New Jersey middle school students in 2013.  My students who have moved on to high school will sometimes pop in my classroom and look in and say things like, "Do you still have that Napo... Hey! there's the poster."  

Classroom traditions are a great thing.  When my current students see my previous students remembering fondly those traditions, I think it only benefits me in motivating them to learn in my classroom.

Another reason I have my Napoleon Dynamite, Beatles Yellow Submarine, Giants, Blackhawk posters, a snowman that lights up, as well as my small Evil Kneivel doll hanging from a miniature model of the St Louis Arch in my classroom as well as other things, to make the room a pleasant "hang out" for the middle school students that enter the room. 

You will see quotes all over the classroom.  I have always believed if a student is going to daydream, might as well ponder a good quote instead.  There is one quote for me to ponder in the classroom:

"Obvioulsy, educators want to get the students to think in the class.  But the real goal is to get them to think in the hallways BETWEEN classes."

The other thing you will see in the classroom are pictures of my family and a big map of the cross-country trip your aunt and I took for our honeymoon.  Again, the map can be used as a learning tool as kids ask me about places we went.  The family pictures are just to make kids know I am a real person.  Sometimes they will ask me to share a little of my family life, and they will share a little of their own.  Some people may say, "You're supposed to be teaching, not running an Oprah interview", but my response has always been this

...if you are willing to take a few minutes to interact and get to know the students of your classroom, and they you, you will have them listening to your every word and willing to try their best for the majority of the time you have them.

For too often we make our schools resemble prisons, everything orderly, everyone group think.  The teachers are the guards and the classrooms where they make "license plates".  If you are willing to express yourself in your classroom, then your students will break out and be willing to express themselves as the individuals that they are.

Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Know Thyself, Know Others, No Social Studies?

Since year one of teaching, I have begun instruction each year with a rationale to my students why the course they are taking is important to their education.  One year, during a high school World History course I asked:

“Why do you think this class is important?”

To which a wise-guy student replied:

“So people like you have a job”

I have been a Social Studies teacher for 20 of the past 21 years (there was that one year I was a Computer teacher that got my foot in the door at my current position).  I have dedicated my life to the proposition that a Social Studies education is vital to advancing a child intellectually.  

However, in the current educational climate, Social Studies has moved to the bottom of the totem pole in the classes known as the “academics” and I’m beginning to experience what my peers in the “arts” classes have dealt with for years; if the subject cannot be used to “make you money”, than why is it necessary?  

There is a reason they call history, literature, music, art, etc. the humanities; the ability to contemplate, express, and create work that is beyond what we need to survive separates us from animals, and makes us human. 

The humanities bring color and meaning to life.

As Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) says in Dead Poet’s Society

“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

I was hit in the face this week as in several classes I was asked or the comment was made, “There isn’t a state test in Social Studies, right?”.  In 2004 (I believe), the state of NJ did have a Social Studies test ready to go, but then Governor McGreevy pulled it in order to save money, and it has never returned.  In the eighth grade, students will be tested in English, Math, and Science (in other years, just English and Math).  The “value” of an academic subject is based on if there is a state test on it, and the students are starting to buy into that belief.  Sad.

Why is a Social Studies education important?

First, let me state that some Social Studies teachers have “shot themselves in the foot” by making their classes all about memorizing facts and not guiding students into connecting those facts into their daily life.  My wife, from the moment I began dating her until now, has never been shy about telling me how boring history classes were to her.

A good Social Studies class should allow students to question, discover, and offer opinions about the topics that are in the curriculum and how it relates to their lives and the world that surround them today.  

The Social Studies class should be flexible enough to allow certain “rabbit trails” to be followed.  Doesn’t allowing students time to express their thoughts, referee disagreements, encourage appropriate responses, and guide them to lay out their opinions supported by fact help in molding them in becoming better citizens?  Doesn’t this allow them to develop their critical thinking skills?

Don’t the stories of great people inspire future generations to great acts?  Or warn them of consequences of poor choices.  

Don’t events of the world stage reflect the events of our daily lives?  For example, when I taught World War I to my middle school students, we would discuss the reasons the countries went to war.  We then took reasons on the macro-level such as Nationalism (pride) and Revenge (the French desire to regain the Alsace-Lorraine from Germany) and compared them to how disagreements or fights begin in their world, the cafeteria during lunch and blacktop during recess.

Just as Biology is the course that studies the physical process of life, isn’t Social Studies the study of what makes us humans?  And since the one thing in life you cannot avoid is other humans (unless you're a hermit), isn't Social Studies important to help each of us better understand each other?

If we are preparing our students for jobs that do not exist yet, then how are we helping them by our placing the vast majority of our efforts into science, math, and formulaic essay writing.  Now is the time we need to encourage the expansion of their thoughts beyond themselves.

We need to stop dehumanizing education by embracing pragmatism (ie. its all about test scores).

As Steve Jobs once said

“It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough.  That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

My Wife's Independent Streak

The other night my daughter was running a fever and my wife sliced the tip of her finger nearly off while dicing a sweet potato.  After applying first aid (and eating dinner) she decided to go to the ER to see if it needed stitches.  I hope what I say next doesn’t make me sound like a horrible husband, but I told her with two kids (one with the fever), it would be better for her to drive herself with the bandaged finger to the hospital while I stayed home, and she did just that.  I was comfortable not going with her because one of the things I have come to love about my wife is the independent streak that makes up her character.

Her independent streak has allowed me to pursue an advanced degree, spend weeks in the summer working with kids at camp, take overnight trips without her.  I never worried about her being uncomfortable without me being around.

Her independent streak allowed her to pursue her dream to be a Physician Assistant (for those who don’t know, her job falls between a nurse and a doctor) .  I came along in the middle of her pursuit, and our marriage didn’t stop her from obtaining what she wanted (nor was I going to be a husband who denied her of that).

Her independent streak allows her to stand up and tell me when she thinks I’m doing something wrong or I am using poor judgement.

Her independent streak allows her to hold on to beliefs that are hers, and will not allow her to be swayed when political parties, the news media, and/or entertainment worlds tell her the views she should hold on to "as a woman".

Her independent streak allowed her to break through the barriers preventing her from fulfilling her dream of being a mother as she vigorously researched and completed form after form in order for us to be blessed with the adoption of our two wonderful daughters (I just did what she told me needed to be done on my end.  She was the driver of the “adoption express” and I was a passenger enjoying the ride, and the destination).

But the thing that I love most about her independent streak is this....

I know her love for me is not manipulated or coerced.

She chose to freely love me.

And that’s why I love her independent streak!