Sunday, March 10, 2013

Always Has a Story to Tell (Dear Katie V1 #12)

Dear Katie,

My last year at Christian Heritage School in Trumbull, CT, I was humbled by the senior class ('99) by receiving the yearbook dedication.  Among the various awards and commendations I have ever received, I still consider this to be my greatest because it came from a group of students who made me look like a better teacher than I really was.  They did this by taking every class discussion, every classroom simulation (World War I, Civil War, etc), and every video project to the nth degree and drove them in directions I never imagined.  The creativity of that class spurred me on to develop better lessons for them to explore and expand upon.

Among the kind words they said of me, one sentence stood out.  They said I, "Always had a story to tell."  I guess I always do tell stories, some of them personal.  And there are some good reasons for this:

1) Kids love hearing stories.  And if you can tie a concept you are trying to teach to a story, the student will have a better chance to remember the concept.

2) It allows students to know you are human.  They can identify with you.  It makes you authentic and someone who shares the same joys and struggles as they do.

3) It allows them to make sense of history.  Whenever I can I try to share a personal antidote to bring home a historical point.  For example, when teaching about the Cold War and how the Soviets created a buffer zone with Western Europe, I talk about how a young lady years ago complained how teachers use her as a buffer zone when they place her between two students who always talk.   There is real life meeting history for the student.

4) And if I cannot come up with a personal story I will create a hypothetical situation and place the names of people in the classroom into the story.  You would be surprised how kids are glued to the story you are weaving when they hear the names of their classmates in it.  When talking about economics I will use words to take them into the cafeteria and discuss a mythical conversation about snacks and sandwiches between two of their classmates to illustrate why people trade.

When I taught World War I, I often taught students that nations act like individuals just with greater consequences.  They would have to create a poster illustrating on one half a reason why World War I began (such as Nationalism or pride, Alliances or Cliques, and Revenge) and on the other half how that same concept can create conflict in school.  Not only do students know why things occur, but they are now thinking of ways to take those same concepts and apply them to their lives.  And as a teacher, the fun is in watching them create wonderful scenarios illustrating their point.

Just as stories from your life can teach them history, history can teach them about their life.

Just My Opinion,

Uncle Kevin

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Power of Words (Dear Katie V1 #11)

Dear Katie,

It was the day before a test at Christian Heritage School and we were preparing for the standard review game.  First, I went over topics and structure for the test and concluded by saying, "This is going to be a very hard test, you better have already started to study."

A student then spoke up.  "Why do teachers always say that?  It's not very encouraging.  Why can't you be like our Spanish teacher.   She's always telling us that the test is going to be easy because she knows how well prepared we are."

The student made a great point.  Do I, in stressing how hard the test will be, create feelings of despair in students that may struggle in Social Studies?  Do I make students give up without trying?  Maybe the Spanish teacher had a point.  Encourage them and praise the hard work they already put in.  And perhaps they will want to study more as not to let her down(since she already said she knows they are prepared.)

Words do not leave your mouth and go into an empty void.  
They enter children's ears where they are weighed and considered.

Being encouraging is a great trait, but can you be too encouraging?

A former colleague recently forwarded a blog to me that discussed how we are doing children a disservice if we do not allow them to experience failure.  One of the points the blog made was that we are too quick to praise the mediocre.  In my quest to be encouraging, I too easily throw out words like "That's great" or "Awesome" for things that are just "Very Good" or even "OK".

Telling them something is "Great" when it's "Good" may build up their self-esteem for the moment, but when they compare their work to others or even have others rightly point out where their work falls short, what will happen to that self-esteem when they figure out you were not completely truthful.

In fact, being honest about the level of an essay, project, presentation, etc. will force the student to step up and work if they want to obtain a high comment of praise.  Isn't that what you want as a teacher?

We can't sacrifice authenticity for the sake of building self-esteem.

Some things to remember:

1) Tests are hard and students know it, you don't need to remind them.

2) Encourage them to do what they already know they should do as students; prepare in class, ask questions, and study.

3) Tell them the truth.  If their project isn't very good, tell them, and give them ways they can improve.  And when they hand in that masterpiece, they will experience true satisfaction because your words of praise will mean so much more.

Just my opinion,

Uncle Kevin

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Backchanneling-Todays Meet

I was intrigued when I was introduced to the concept of backchanneling  at a faculty meeting last year.  For those who do not know the concept, backchanneling is when there is an online conversation happening at the same time a presenter is giving a talk.  So as I talk, students would be texting the class in a chat room setting.  Although intrigued to have my students respond, ask questions, share thoughts, at the same time as I spoke, I lacked the computers in my classroom to make it a reality.  Until this year and the box of iPads.

I used a website called  I can easily be distracted by a lot of bells and whistles. Today's Meet is straight forward and easy to use.  You create a room and you tell kids from their device to go the room you created.  For example if I name it wildcrazyroom, the students would type in the following for their address,

I even had the guts to attempt this for the first time as part of my yearly formal observation from my principal.  I figured, he could give me some great feedback of what worked and what didn't.

Here is what I enjoyed about it (remembered, this all was happening in the background on the computer, not verbally)

1) Every student had a chance to respond to questions

2) Students congratulated the kid who I specifically pointed as having a great answer.

3) Students seemed more comfortable to ask questions, even to type in when they didn't understand a concept.

4) By asking all students to answer all questions, they were ENGAGED throughout the lesson.

5) It provided an awesome exit slip.  In this lesson, I asked the same question in the beginning and end of class, I saved the transcript and could review how the students answers improved the second time.

6) Did I say all the students were engaged in a lecture?  They were engaged because

Backchanneling moves students from passive listeners to active participants.

Backchanneling-Today's Meet-Great Experience!