Saturday, December 13, 2014

History--Facts to Opinions (Dear Katie V3 #14)

Dear Katie,

In class, I am nearing the end of my unit on the Byzantine Empire.  We began a few weeks ago discussing the failed launch of New Coke in the 80's and used that as a launching pad to discuss "New Rome", the city of Constantinople.  Through weeks of reading, discussing, and yes, memorizing facts, we are now ready to have fun (at least in my eyes), developing the ideas of why this was important to learn in order to better understand our world.

We began looking the recent Ukrainian/ Russian crisis and use that as a springboard to discuss other times in history there had been a clash over the balance of power between Western & Eastern Europe.  For a history teacher, this is the fun of the course, as students take the previous knowledge you have "drilled and killed" into them and use it to make new connections.  My students were comparing and contrasting past divisions seen in the Western and Eastern Roman Empires and making connections to the divisions seen in the past 100 years between Western Europe (The European Union/NATO) and Eastern Europe (Warsaw Pact/Russia).  And as a teacher, you stand back  with pride as you listen to your students tell you connections and opinions that you never even thought about.

When students see how the past related to the present is when
History becomes Real.

You don't get there without impressing on your students the importance of learning facts that they may find irrelevant.  Before these classes on the modern day tensions between Eastern and Western Europe, we spent days reading about and memorizing events such as Diocletian dividing the Roman empire into East/West, the building of Constantinople, the Great Schism, and 4th Crusade.  Events that for many if not all of my students seem so distant and irrelevant you have to give the students praise for even attempting to retain these facts when they are hammered with a worldview that de-emphasizes anything outside their personal experience.

Without the retention of these basic facts that we went over in class by what some would deride as rote (using daily "game" quizzes) students would not have historical evidence behind their opinions.  Rather they would have a visceral  reaction, "I agree with the Russians/European Union because I feel they're right".  The argument would become emotional rather than logical.

Why are they right?  

You need facts to back it up.  My students' supports for their argument wasn't at their literal fingertips (doing a Google Search) but at their figurative fingertips.  They had transferred enough knowledge into long term memory that the discussion was both brisk and insightful.  A student who can understand the proper format of a word problem, yet fails in their ability to compute simple math in their head has the same result as a student who cannot understand the format but can do the computation, a wrong answer.  Both parts have to be correct.  Imagine watching a presidential debate where a candidate is "Googling" topics after the moderator's question and then formulating a response.  We would see that as a weakness, not a strength.

Without background knowledge, 
you limit your comprehension 
and ability draw connections with new ideas.  

And History is fun when your students make those connections.

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Why You Coach (Dear Katie V3 #13)

Dear Katie,

About 20 years ago, I ran into a college buddy of mine who was a basketball coach. He had the recent honor of spending an hour of one on one time (talking, not playing) with who many believe to be the greatest coach in any sport of all time, John Wooden, UCLA basketball coach and winner of 10 national championships over a 12 year stretch.

What did he talk about?  Why Wooden employed the 1-4 High Post Offense?  Pivotal decisions he made during the course of a championship game?  Insights in how to train and preparation?

None of these things.

My friend said he didn't talk about basketball at all.

Coach Wooden talked about his players.  What they were like as boys who played for him and the pride he had for the men they had become.  He even played a tape for my friend of a song performed by one of his players.  Wooden closed his eyes and my buddy noticed a tear rolling down his cheek.

They were not just basketball players that were 
cogs in the UCLA championship machine.
They were human beings.  
And what made Wooden such a great coach 
is that he emphasized that.

(In fact the basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabbar -not his birth name, he changed after he became a pro to reflect his conversion to Islam- has said that there were only two people he respected too much to ever correct if they called him by his birth name Lew Alcindor, his Mom, and Coach Wooden)

Envision your class as your team.  In a digital age where students are becoming identified for their test scores and where companies are rushing in to discover ways to monetize them, we as teachers must take extra care for the children placed under our charge.

We must stand in the gap for the sake of the students.
 They are not automatons but children 
to be nurtured and guided 
because it is for their best
Not because it will increase their test scores.

Yesterday, I was at a friends house and I ran into some residents of the town where I coach junior high soccer.  They recognized my face from a picture that was taken of our team for winning the county championship.  They said, "That must have been some great team you had this year."

My response that I said with a smile remembering those kids:

They were a bunch of great boys, 
even if they didn't win the championship.

Uncle Kevin

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thankful 2014

1 Thessalonians 5:18
Give thanks in all circumstances; 
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

I am Thankful for being raised in a loving FAMILY who sacrificed for me in order that I may have the preparation I needed both in my professional career and personal life.  

I am Thankful for marrying a WIFE who loves and accepts me for who I am and the years of laughter and enjoyment we have shared and for my In-Laws that raised her well.

I am Thankful for energetic CHILDREN whose path in becoming my daughters are just as amazing as the girls that they are becoming.

I am Thankful for FRIENDS both new and old, currently a part, or once a part of my life, who have endured my immaturity, helped me to think, and always made me laugh.

I am Thankful for my STUDENTS, both current and former, who have given me a treasure of memories that has no price.

I am Thankful for a sovereign God who is with me in times of joy and sorrow, riches and despair.  And for Jesus whose life showed us people are more important than things.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

EdCampNJ--The Take Away (Dear Katie V3#12)

Dear Katie,

I hope you enjoyed your experience at EdCampNJ yesterday.  After attending two Padcamps, it was my first time experiencing an EdCamp and I was impressed for the amount of coordination and effort that the planning team displayed in how smoothly things ran.  A huge kudos to those who sacrificed their time so many teachers could benefit.

For a student about to enter the teaching profession, listening to teachers share their experiences and expertise must have been like opening gifts at Christmas.  Each idea a new valued tool to place in your educational toolbox.  I hope the excitement your presenters showed and the amount of teachers who sacrificed a Saturday without pay to learn and share taught you this...your college preparation is not the end of learning and implementing new ideas for the classroom.

The Master Teacher is a never ending learner.

For me, there was nothing earth shattering that I learned.  My classroom approach has always attempted to be unconventional (b/c I believe that student's minds will be engaged due to the difference experience in my class) but since teaching is such a solitary profession (you spend most of your day with people outside your peer and professional group) you are not quite sure you are doing things right.  The other problem is that you get stuck within your own ideas and become comfortable in your own ways of doing class.  

If you want to continue to grow in your profession
Hearing the ideas of other teachers
 helps defeat the tyranny of classroom monotony

The one session I went to called Velcro: Making Your S#$! Stick confirmed many things that I am doing right as well as giving me fresh ideas for further development of my classroom.  My goal is to further extend moments of movement for my classroom.  I already have a "Video for a Blue  Monday" to help my students in a small way to get over the depression of a start of a new school week, maybe I'll bring my Wii in and take your cousins' Kids Dance game to get my students over the hump of midweek.

The other session that gave me a lot to chew on was Next Level: Gamification.  Although the presenter runs a different classroom game than my own (his is an adventure game based on games such as Zelda, while my concept is that each group is a team in a Baseball league) there were still ideas that I could take away.  For me it was trying to figure out a way so instead of teams earning "Wins" through the games and projects they complete, that they can also gain points that can be used to cause other teams to go into "slumps".  You may be thinking, what does that have to do with history, it doesn't...directly, but what it does do is motivate the student to study and perform classroom tasks in order to help their team.  It also engages the mind on my class, that will help them to peg the content information for my class into their memory. 

These two takeaways help support one of the major tenants of my educational philosophy:

I don't want my students to just be discussing 
the ideas of my lessons in my classroom
My desire is that they are discussing 
the ideas of my lessons in the halls, bus, & at home.

Anything I can do to motivate that is worth investigating.

I have to say though the best part was debriefing about the experience with you.  It is amazing to me that the little girl that I held in my arms as her godfather at her christening is now a young lady with a bright future ahead of her in the world of education.

See you on Thanksgiving (If we don't get snowed in)

Uncle Kevin

Friday, November 14, 2014

Novelists & Tweeters (Dear Katie V3 #9)

Dear Katie,

I will never play Pictionary with your aunt as my partner ever again.

A few years ago, we were playing Pictionary at a friends house, and it became a very frustrating expereince.  I was a good Pictionary player.  I remember a time in college that myself and a bunch of male friends defeated a bunch of girl friends and that even though I was a horrible sketcher, my friends easily could pick out what I was trying to draw.  Actually, we all were very horrible sketchers and the girls were in constant amazement that we could even identify what they other guy was drawing.  It seemed like every picture the girls drew were worthy of A's in any art class.  We chalked up the difference to the fact that several of the girls were Elementary Ed majors and of course that meant they had to be good at artsy things to fill their classroom bulletin boards.

In the game that winter night many years later I had no such luck with your aunt, either in getting her to know what I was drawing or me guessing what she had drawn.  What I saw as a very simplistic drawing, your aunt had difficulties guessing it.  When it was my turn to guess, your aunt would draw very detailed, well drawn and thought out pictures.  Yet I had difficulties coming up with the correct answers in time because it took her so long complete it.  Being a competitor, I hate to lose, thus my frustration bubbled over and caused some tension (Like I said, I hate to lose).

And the other day, I learned that there was nothing wrong with either your aunt or me.  We were just thinking like the men and women we are.

I was watching the show Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel hosted by Jason Silva (actually I saw it through Netflix).  The episode was discussing how men and women think differently.  Here is what I learned...

Women remember more detail thus share more details when telling a story.  
Men remember less details and need less details to understand the same story.

How do we take that fact and apply it for the classroom...

Boys are "tweeters", girls are "novelists".

As teachers, we need to remember to encourage boys to be more descriptive in writing longer pieces. What other facts could you include to support your thesis?  What adjectives can you add that will peak the readers interest?

In writing summations, we need to encourage girls that sometimes brevity is necessary.  Is that fact really necessary to advance your point?  Are the amount of descriptive words distracting to the main point?

Obviously they are valuable questions to ask all students, but maybe it will allow us to be more focused on where it is most needed.

So if you and your brother ever come over to the house with the game Pictionary, I'll be on Bobby's team.

Uncle Kevin

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Wall Came Tumblin' Down (Dear Katie V3 #11)

Dear Katie,

Sometimes there will be days when you teach that you will have to throw away the lesson.  Some days will be because of tragedies such as 9/11 or ones on a more local level.  Other days will be due to uplifting moments in history, such as my first encounter with "ditching the lesson" when I was a student teacher.

You have to remember that by the late 80's, CNN was the only 24 hour news service and social media was regulated to a wall outside our college's bookstore where people could post opinions and ideas (usually rants and complaints, so nothing has changed).  My school did not have cable hookup in the rooms so the only TV we received were the channels coming out of NYC through our TV's antennas.

November 9 was a typical school night in college.  A bunch of us would spend time talking in my friends Bill & Tom's room on the 7th floor to end the night.  As the clock went past 11, and being a school night, it was time for us to get some sleep.  For me, I needed to get ready for student teaching at Blue Mountain Middle School in Montrose, NY.

I headed off for my dorm room, turned the TV on to catch the beginning of the Tonight Show before I went to bed.  I caught the very end of WNBC-NY 11 o'clock news showing people dancing on a wall & thought to myself,

"It looks like the Berlin Wall, but it can't be, those people would be shot." 

The next morning, I woke up, showered, and headed down to the cafeteria to have breakfast.  As I usually did, I walked through the mailroom to check my mailbox before getting to my car.  In the middle of the room was a USA Today newspaper box, and the headline confirmed what had happened.  The Berlin Wall, the symbol of the Cold War's animosity between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Wall that many of us would be brought down by mortar shells, was being taken apart peacefully with picks and sledgehammers.

Needless to say my cooperating teacher & I threw out the lesson for that day.  

It was a great class period.  First my cooperating teacher and I shared with each other what we heard on the news or read in the paper before the students came in to class (remember, no Internet).  The class period we shared what we knew (it was sketchy), the history of the wall, and just took questions as the kids were absorbed and taken with the history they were living.

For the first 5 years I taught, the Fall of the Berlin Wall was a great lesson.  For me, it was one of those moments of knowing "Where you were when you first heard about..." along with the Space Shuttle Exploding, President Reagan getting shot, and the ball going through Bill Buckner's legs.  My students were into it because for them it was relevant history.  They remembered the Cold War and saw this as the symbol of the beginning of the end of that time period of history.

Growing up we never thought the Soviet Union 
would end without a Third World War.

As the new millennium hit, and I was now teaching students born after the Cold War, I realized that for them there was no context to the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  I remember showing them a video of people racing from both sides of Berlin through Checkpoint Charlie, embracing people on the other side.  For me, a moving scene, for my students born in the 90's it led to the question, "Why are they so happy?"

Remember this as you teach.  For you September 11, 2001, was a traumatic day.  You can remember where you were with vivid detail.  Your students were not even born when it happened.  It means little to them, so you need to deliver in rich details to provide the context.

How are you going to make events 
outside their sphere of experience relevant to them?

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Coaching Champions (Dear Katie V3 #10)

Dear Katie,

The other week, I had the honor of coaching a great group of middle school boys to a county championship in soccer.  When you get your first teaching position, I highly recommend taking on a coaching position or becoming a sponsor of a school club.  Not only will it bring you added revenue as a part time job, but it allows you to see your students in a different light...and allows them to see you in a different light as well.

I had two young men on the team this year who were very quiet in my class last year.  Spending the season on the soccer pitch allowed me to see great senses of humor that they both have.  Laughing with them was one of the fringe benefits this year.  You will see students who may struggle academically excel in the sport or club activity you are leading.

Coaching makes you more sensitive in the classroom that you are teaching the whole child, not just the facts and skills of the subject you were hired to teach. 

Over the years you may have heard your grandfather talk about me and baseball.  You may be wondering what do I even know about soccer, I think some of my players wonder that as well, and even I do at times.  You do need to know something about the game for sure, but their are some universal coaching philosophies I use on the athletic field as well as the classroom.

1) If you want your players to "Play Great" treat them as "Great Players"

I always ask my players opinions on what we are doing well on the field and what we could do better.  In this way I am demonstrating that I trust and value my players' judgment; that I am a coach willing to listen.  In the classroom, ask for their opinions on your teaching and lessons.  It will give them a feeling of ownership; it is not your classroom, but OUR classroom.

The team isn't "MY TEAM" but "OUR TEAM".

It is also important to make your players believe they are better than they think they are.  It is not making them believe in a lie, but it is to encourage them to play at their very best every moment they are on the field.  On the sports field, it is to motivate them to believe that no obstacle is to large for them to move.  

Why Not Us?

Our battle cry for this year was, "Why not us?" First, it focuses on the fact it would take a team effort to win a championship.  The second is to get in their minds that one team has to win the championship, so what makes other teams more deserving or capable than us.  Why can't we be the ones who win the whole thing.  

You would be surprised how many teams lose the game before it begins 
because they BELIEVE they are supposed to lose it.

In the classroom, too many teachers state, "This is test is going to be difficult" rather than "This is a tough test, but I know you are ready and able to do a great job on it."  

2) Sometimes not being an expert makes you a better coach

I am a baseball player, played it through college.  Was All-Conference First Team in High School.  I come with a wealth of baseball experience to the boys I coach, yet my record in the county tournament for baseball over the past 11 years is 7 wins and 11 losses, while in soccer over 7 years it is 10 and 5 with 2 county championships.  Makes you wonder what sport I actually can coach better. (BTW I did play soccer up until sophomore year in high school, so it is not like I never played the game).

Many of the men who are in the Baseball Hall of Fame as managers were not the best players (some never even played in the majors and if they did, they were up in the Big Leagues just long enough to "enjoy a cup of coffee).  The list includes Tony LaRussa, Tommy Lasorda, Sparky Anderson, great managers, not the best of players.

It is said that the best players tend to make bad managers because they expect their players to do the great things they did naturally.  And because it came naturally to them, they find it difficult to explain how to do it better. 

As a soccer coach, I have to ask questions of soccer minds (thankfully I work with a top notch soccer player and another person who is engrossed by soccer and knows the game) to better understand the game.  I have to break things down rudimentary to my team so I understand what I need them to do, thus being clear in my instructions,  In baseball, I think I rely on my own knowledge too much and find it more difficult to break down the steps of a proper swing.

As a teacher, it is something to remember.  The concept you are trying to teach may come easy to you, but may not come easy to your students.  Don't assume they understand what you are trying to teach them.  Break it down.

The best teachers are NOT those who can spout complex ideas using big words.
The BEST teachers are those who can break down complex ideas into bite sized chunks.

3) Mistakes Happen

When I coach, I do not hold mistakes over a player.  Errors and turnovers will occur.  If they didn't, I wouldn't be coaching humans.  If a coach belittles a player for a mistake, that player will begin to play too cautiously, never taking calculated risk.  And your team will never play to their full potential if they are not willing to take risks.

If a player believes a mistake will place them in your dog house
They will play beneath their ability in order to avoid mistakes

You should point out mistakes, it is how we learn, but you need to allow the player to get out there and try again or they will learn NOTHING.

In order for a student to grow, they need to feel comfortable taking risks in your classroom.

As a teacher, you must point out if a student answers incorrectly.  However, praise the effort, thank them for the attempt.  Let them know you would be more happy with them to try and fail rather then to never had tried at all.

As the last whistle blew, my team charged the field hugging and jumping on each other.  We received our trophy and met their parents at midfield.  I had them stop celebrating for a moment and asked them to take in the moment because after we left the field that day, that team would no longer exist.  In silence we all looked at each other, coach, players, parents.  All beaming, all proud.  It was a great memory.

Also a bittersweet moment, but I made sure I looked into each boys' face to remember the effort, talent, and fun they brought to make us the best team we could possibly be.

Remember, you only have your students for a brief season of their lives.  
What do you want to instill in them?
Can you both beam with pride when it is over?
That is how you coach Champions.

Your Favorite Soccer Coaching Relative,

Uncle Kevin

Friday, October 24, 2014

Response to Cheating (Dear Katie V3 #8)

Dear Katie,

Today I am writing to you about the joy you receive as a teacher when a student "gets it".  However, it is not my student who "got it" but your first grade cousin.

A few weeks ago, your aunt and I received a note home from Maddie's teacher telling us she was looking on another student's math paper to complete her own.  Due to this, Maddie's name was moved to the "Red" (a classroom management device in her first grade classroom indicating you did something wrong).  The teacher told her the importance of doing her own work even if she finds math to be very difficult.  When we talked with Maddie, we didn't show anger about the cheating.  We were afraid doing so would only cause her to hate math even more than she did.  We stressed that Mommy and Daddy want to see her do her best in math, even if her best wasn't a perfect score.  We stressed we (Mom, Dad, and teacher) wanted to see what she did wrong so we could help her do it right.

In the past week, Maddie told us she was in the "Red" for cheating on math again.  We wrote an email to her teacher, but her teacher assured us that was not the reason why she was in the "Red", and that the reason was trivial and she didn't need to inform us by a note (not that she was hiding it from us).  Maddie likes to please and gets upset when she disappoints people, placing her in the "Red" will shape her up quickly, and it did, according to the teacher.

Reading the response, we realized that we needed to talk with Maddie about being upfront with us when we ask her what she did wrong (I think she thought we would be less mad about cheating and more mad about misbehavior).  But a small line in the teacher's response made us realize our daughter got the lesson that cheating is wrong, and that all of us (parents & teacher) would rather see her do her best.

"She actually voluntarily goes to the back table to do her math so she won't be distracted.  I am very proud of her"

That night, after talking with Maddie about being upfront with me, I asked her about sitting by herself for math.  She said, "I want to do my own work and not look on someone else's paper."

SHE GOT IT! (tears welling up)

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Free Form Radio & The Dutch (Dear Katie V3 #7)

Dear Katie,

When you hear a DJ on a radio station introduce a song, he/she probably did not select it to be played.  A station manager typically selects the songs in the rotation for the day and some DJ's are nothing more than talking heads who stick to the script leading you from one song to the next.

Things are different for my high school friend Rich Russo, one of the few free-form DJ's on the air in the New York market.  On Sunday nights, Anything, Anything with Rich Russo, comes on to the airwaves (on stations listed below).  He can play any songs he chooses. In between, he shares his views on events of the day, memories evoked by certain songs, history behind the songs, etc.  His comments are his own, the playlists are his own.  Sometimes he will play a song with certain word or theme, songs in honor of people's birthdays, and even pulls out songs like William Shatner's (Captain Kirk) spoken word performance of Elton John's Rocket Man  or Pebbles and Bamm Bamm singing Let the Sun Shine in.  He also introduces his listeners to new artists.  And somehow always works in plugs for one of his sponsors,  Sixpoint Beer.  You will not be hearing his playlist on Top 40 stations.

It's all very eclectic in a world that seeks more and more to be standardized.

He doesn't build a audience of casual listeners, but loyal listeners who are drawn into his show because they appreciate the passion he brings every week.  When you listen to the show, you don't know what to expect.  You turn to his show because you have come to know him and have built a "relationship" with him though his banter.  By the wide variety of music he plays, you come to appreciate his extensive knowledge of music. While on one side you have the comfort of listening to a "friend", you also have an anticipation of not knowing what to expect from him from week to week, but you listen because you have grown to trust him.

What can a free-form radio host teach us about education?

My assistant principal, Brad Currie, arranged for a group of Dutch educators to come our middle school a few weeks ago.  It was great to talk even for a few minutes (wish it was longer) with Dutch teachers and education professors about educational pedagogy and philosophy.  One professor asked me if I came up with my own lesson plans.  I said yes.  She said that wasn't the case in the Netherlands.  We discussed the pros and cons to scripted lessons (One pro was that the instructor did not necessarily need a lot of background knowledge when working off a scripted lesson, where she felt in our method that I must have a strong background knowledge in my subject, history, to make it work).

The biggest con to the scripted lesson for me was that it does not allow the teacher to display their passion for the topic.  When a teacher is passionate both in delivery and content, the student is drawn into the world that is being discussed (much like how the free-form DJ draws his/her listeners into the  music they are playing and discussing).

When the teacher has freedom to make the class memorable,
The students will remember the lessons learned.

The Dutch education professor agreed that freedom for the teacher is more engaging for the student (and shouldn't that be the goal?).  However, there is a push in some districts, even in some states, that every teacher teach the same thing, the same way, to every student.  Some educational bureaucrat making the decision without ever stepping into a classroom to understand both the students or the teacher.  A classroom of students and teachers is a social creature, not an industrial machine.  The push and pull of levers in one classroom will not necessarily work in another.  Any other belief dehumanizes both teacher and students.

Can we truly say we value diversity if every day in every classroom in America
students are learning the same thing the same way?

The educators who I respect, the ones that I have learned from the most, are "Free-Form educators" who don't depend upon textbooks and workbooks for how they instruct the class, but take those ideas and reshape them to make the lessons their own in a creative and imaginative way.  I also think students respect and learn the most from those "Free-Form educators" as well.

Uncle Kevin

Anything, Anything with Rich Russo can be heard on WXRP 107.1 "The Peak" at 9PM and WDHA 105.5 from 11PM-1AM on stations for us in northern NJ. He can also be heard down the Jersey shore on "WRAT" 95.9, Springfield, MA on "The Lazer" 99.3, and in Washington D.C. area "The Gamut" 820AM and 103.5 WTOP

Monday, October 13, 2014

Why the Angst about Rote? (Dear Katie V3 #6)

Dear Katie,

I am going to conclude my series of notes about rote memorization with the reason for my angst (Google This! and The Rote Strawman). It actually is not due to any pressure being placed upon me in my classroom.  It is due to the way that worksheets are instructing your 1st grade cousin to learn math.

When I was young, we had to fill out worksheets that had simple math equations, 1+1=?, 1+2=?, 1+3=?, over and over again until the answers became automatic.  We may not have understood what it meant when we learned it, but as time went on, and we developed intellectually, we understood the answers we memorized.  We understood when we should add or multiply as our intellect grew.  We used flash cards to memorize our addition and subtraction.  We filled out multiplication tables, over and over again, until 5*8 was automatically 40 in our minds.

Today, this is referred to derisively as Drill and Kill.

In today's world of let's push kids into upper level math before they are ready (or into math courses most will never use outside of school, how is that authentic?), your cousin, a beginning reader, is asked to read a word problem.

Here is a basic one.  Some have instructions that your aunt and I struggled to understand.

"Johnny has 8 goldfish, he flushes 3 down the toilet because they died, how many goldfish does he have left." (OK, that is not the actual problem, but you get the point).

In a box next to the word problem, your cousin draws 8 fish, crosses out 3, and has 5 left.

In the blank lines she writes 8 then writes down 3 next to the minus sign and writes down the number 5 as the answer because that's how many fishes have not been crossed out.

I ask her without her looking on the paper, "What is 8-3?"

Her answer "I don't know" (even though she just "completed" the problem).

The math problem did not help her learn 8-3=5 
nor did it help her understand the process.

It reinforced something she has known how to do since she was 3.  COUNT!

She counted to 8 as she drew the 8 fish.  She counted to 3 when she placed X's on the 3 fish that were flushed down the toilet, and then she counted the number of fish that did not have X's, which was 5.

And when your aunt and I ask her a math problem, instead of spitting out the question, we watch her counting on her fingers (and I have seen middle school kids doing the same thing also).

And why can she count?  Because you aunt counted with her over and over again as a child to 20, her preschool teacher counted with her over and over again until 20, and then her kindergarten teacher had her write over and over again up to 100.  What's that called?

Rote Memorization

And why can she even complete those problems, because she learned to count  BY ROTE.

Your cousin is not a genius, but she doesn't struggle academically either.  We are told she is a good reader for her age, and enjoys learning.  Yet, math frustrates her.  I have witnessed her cry over it.

Your aunt was told by a friend that her daughter who is the same age was frustrated also by math, so she put her into Kumon and she is now successful.  And what does Kumon do that the schools don't?

"Drill and Kill" math facts.

I won't pay someone else to do what the school should be doing.  Guess I'll be printing out "drill and kill" math facts sheets. 

Uncle Kevin

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Rote Memorization Strawman (Dear Katie V3 #5)

Dear Katie,

In my last note I wrote to you (Google This) is about the disdain that some educators display toward "rote memorization" as if it is archaic and out of touch for modern times.  I hope I established that there is a reason that students should learn facts "by rote" and that it is based on a simple idea that I was taught in Ed Psych, younger minds are more concrete and develop into abstract thinkers as they develop. (Yet, there seems to be a push to have them to be abstract thinkers when they are not developmentally ready).  The facts they memorize become the building blocks for deeper and richer understanding of texts, mathematical problems, solutions to problems, etc.

Rote memorization is an easy target because those that attack it have built a straw man.  When they say rote, the picture that is induced is one of a strict teacher who drones the same questions as he/she walks up and the perfectly straight rows, in order, again and again, until the student has repeated the correct answer so many times that just like Pavlov's dog; when the teacher asks the question (the bell), the student responds with the right answer (salivates).  The term "rote" reminds people of a classroom that the students are bored out of their skulls, where 50 minutes feels more like 500, and half the kids are asleep on their desktop, drool coming our of their mouths.

Teaching facts by rote does not have to be a boring classroom.

You have been in my classroom.  Would you define it as "boring"?  When I do the "game quizzes" where kids compete as teams over the course of a marking period in order to win the "class championship", I am practicing nothing more than "rote memorization".  I am reviewing vocabulary terms over and over again in order for the students to memorize it.  It would be rare for one of my students to refer to these games as boring.  In history, when a student knows people and events by "rote", they will better understand sources they read, see, or hear, be able to defend or explain stances they take on certain questions (because they will equipped with the facts to back it up), and make connections between different eras and regions throughout world history.

Memorized facts are the foundation that higher level thinking is based.

But rote learning can be seen in other ways also.  What do people think the video games are for little kids that asks the user to shoot down the right answer to math problems?  It is the modern version of the teacher walking up and down the aisle asking kids "What is 1+1? What is 2+2?".  Current online classroom games such as Kahoot ( turn you classroom into a game show as students review materials they are asked to memorize.

A teacher that only teaches material by rote in middle and high school are not preparing their students well.  Students at those levels need to be guided in how to incorporate the facts they memorized into their expressions of thought and their creation of new ideas and schemes.

However, to dismiss all "rote" learning as a technique of days gone is disingenuous to how students learn and what will be need in their chosen field or profession.  It seems that every job as procedures and steps that need to be memorized and and for the person to be able to know automatically in order for the worker to be most effective.

I don't think you would be going to a doctor for very long who google searched you every symptom or entered them into WebMD.

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Google This! (Dear Katie V3 #4)

Dear Katie,

I was at an education conference over the summer in a class on paperless classrooms, when I asked a question about multiple choice assessments.  The young teacher who was running the class flashed a "Oh, my poor dear" smile across her face and explained to me, "the dinosaur teacher who knew little about modern-techno education" that it was the philosophy of her's and her school not to assess information that could be memorized or accessed by a simple Google search.

Twenty years ago, your uncle was a bit more fiery and would have used the opportunity to blast the smugness of her response, but as a man nearing 50, I am proud to say I have learned some decorum.  I just sat there with the "You don't really believe the BS you just spread" smile on my face.

What I wanted to say was, "That's funny, my wife is busy studying to take a multiple choice test on her medical knowledge in order to be re-certified as a Physician Assistant (a position that allows her to perform many of the duties of a doctor except begin her own practice)."

So, multiple choice tests are good enough 
to certify knowledge in our medical professionals 
but not in our students.

Rote learning or memorization of facts has received a bad rap in the past several years.  An attitude has been created that basic math facts aren't even that important to "drill and kill".  Students just need to understand what to do because a calculator can handle the calculation.

Facts learned through memorization is foundational in all areas of life.

Point 1: The Validity of Memorization is Taught in Your Undergrad Ed Courses

Younger learners are more concrete learners and become abstract as they develop.  I see that each year since my role as a middle school teacher is to assist my students in that transition. 

So why is there such an emphasis on understanding at the younger grade levels when students are designed to memorize.  As their minds develop, they can take those facts and analyze, synthesize, and evaluate (Bloom's taxonomy in action).  It seems we are missing out at building a knowledge base in our students when they are more capable of absorbing facts and just hoping for the best as they grow older.

I'm sure that my History & Philosophy of Education professor at The King's College, Dr. Joyce Anderson, would be pleasantly surprised that the young man who used to stumble into her 8AM class in his sweatshirt, shorts, and baseball hat (and usually late), learned, retained, and uses any of that when designing lessons.

Point 2: A multiple choice question isn't designed for recall, but for recognition. 

I have shared this point for years with parents.  I am not preparing students for an appearance on Jeopardy, but I do want to see if they recognize terms, ideas, and people when presented with it.  For example, if a news report discusses decisions coming out of Montpelier, a student who knows his/her states and capitals should know it is talking about Vermont, that it is in the northeast, or hopefully, at the very least, know it is a state capital in the United States.  

Memorization is vital to understanding. 

We use multiple choice tests as a quick way to see if students have retained important foundational knowledge. (There are other ways to design a multiple choice question to assess understanding, but that is for another post).

Think about how difficult it would be to read a historical fiction book based during the American Civil War without foundational knowledge.  It would impede your comprehension of the material.  It would slow down your reading rate as you decided to either determine meaning from context or reach for your computer to Google Search the name or event you didn't know.

Point 3: It is vital in Google Searches.

In order to do any Google Search, you need foundational terms, not only to begin the search, but to evaluate each search result.

Final Thoughts

No one really believes it is "mere rote memorization", memorizing facts are an important foundational piece in learning and explaining what you are learning.  

Think about learning to play an instrument.  The foundational part is memorizing the notes and fingering on the instrument, music theory comes after you have mastered that part.

Musicians begin by memorizing notes and fingering
Music Theory (Understanding) Come Later

Two suggested readings to supplement this idea:

ED Hirsch (book): Cultural Literacy, What Every American Needs to Know

Dorothy Sayers (essay): The Lost Tools of Learning

And finally, 
memorization is very important when you're married.  
Better remember birthdays and anniversaries.

Uncle Kevin

Saturday, September 27, 2014

What Do You Think About That? (Dear Katie V3 #3)

Dear Katie,

In my last blog post I made the following point:

"You'll discover that most quiet kids aren't shy 
and have a lot to say when asked"

So how does a teacher practically do that.  You could just call on the child.  Ask them a question on your lesson to check for understanding.  But what if they are quiet due to a lack of confidence.  What if they are afraid they will answer it wrong, and instead of answering they just shrug their shoulders and say, "I don't know."

Too often teachers rely heavily on the kids who always raise their hand.  When I played baseball in college, some friends of mine came to the game, and one of them asked, "Didn't you hear me cheer for you when you were batting?".

I told her I didn't.  Even though she was only 30 feet from the plate, beyond the backstop, my focus was on the 90 mph fastball coming at me, not the cheers of the crowd.  A teacher's focus can be single minded on the discussion at hand, that we do not realize we are playing the game while most of the class is sitting around watching us play with only a few other kids.

How do you move that student from watching behind the fence to playing the game?

One simple question can help.  During a classroom discussion, make a statement and then call the student you would like to get involved and ask, "What do you think about that?"

For me, it happened this week.  We were discussing "Chronological Snobbery", saying an idea or practice was wrong just because it was old, we need more reasons other than it is old to dismiss it.  I looked at a student that has not spoken up in my class so far this year and asked her if our principal should still use medieval torture practices like the rack to get information from students.   She laughed and said, "No", and I asked her "Why Not?"

She then explained how the person could just make up something to avoid being stretched.  I commended her response and thanked her for not saying, "Because it's from a 1000 years ago".  It was a form of the question, "What do you think about that?".  It not only puts a kid at ease because you are not putting them on the spot to be right or wrong, but you are asking them about something they cherish, THEIR OPINION, THEIR THOUGHTS.

And you know what happened the rest of the class.  Every time I asked a question about the reading, guess who had her hand up ready to answer.  

When a student feels that his/her opinions matter to the teacher, 
they move from spectators to playing the game.

Uncle Kevin

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Getting Them in the Game (Dear Katie V3 #2)

Dear Katie,

Last week, your grandfather took a trip to a park in one of the retirement communities where he now lives.  He noticed a group of guys playing softball with ages ranging from 50-80 years old (the oldest was 83).  Your grandfather played a lot of baseball/softball when he was young, but now in his 70's, he hadn't ran on to a baseball diamond in over 15 years.  As he was watching, a big guy named John came over an asked

"Do you want to play?"

At first your grandfather said "No" citing the fact he didn't have a glove, but John said that there were enough gloves to borrow.  The next thing you know he was playing a pick up game of softball and it looks like he intends to make playing softball a weekly event in his schedule.

How does this story relate to the classroom?  In the classroom, you as the teacher need to be like the guy John.  You need to get all your students "in the game".  Are you making that effort?  You don't need to get every kid raising their hand for every question by the end of the year, but you do need to make every student know that he/she is cared for and a part of the "team".

There are two types of people.  The first type does not mind being stars on your baseball team, they are flashy and let their presence known.  They are the "players" who are always giving interviews.  The second type stays quiet and doesn't mind being the spectators.  They are necessary to play the game, but you may not know what they are thinking if you don't ask.  Neither is a problem and it is not wrong to be either type.

The problem is that all-star people have no problem making connections with others because they are the ones interacting the most in the game.  However, the fans will stay quietly in the stands, only "cheering" when appropriate, and not making those connections unless someone pulls them in, like a John.  And for the teacher it is easy to allow yourself to believe that since the all-stars are performing like all-stars, there is no need for the fans.

Don't assume that just because someone is in your class
That they feel like they are involved in "the game".

Work at giving field crew kids opportunities to be all-stars.  Here are some ideas:

1) First, realize that some fans are content where they are, so do not push them to be something they are not, but always offer opportunities.

2) Say "Hi" to ALL your students, avoid playing favorites, ask the quiet kids their opinions (you'll discover that most quiet kids aren't shy and have a lot to say when asked).

3) DON'T allow kids to make their own groups.  The all-star kids build their teams with ease, even pulling in friends that are fans.  But if a kid who is a fan is not really close with any all-star kids in the class, they will not go up to a group because they will feel like they are intruding.  It will create undue awkwardness and uneasiness for that child.

For every kid who shouts out "can we make our own groups" 
there is another kid thinking to himself/herself "Please Don't"

I think everyone (kids and adults) want to feel included and want to be involved.  Some are comfortable letting others know that and quickly get their gloves on to play in the game.  Others will remain "in the stands" waiting for someone to call them down to the field, believing they are imposing if they are not invited.  Neither view is wrong, it's just different personalities.  

The teacher-leader creates a welcoming classroom
and creates opportunities for everyone to get in the game.

The next week, I visited your grandparents and went down to the field to watch my Dad play softball like I had many times as a young boy.  As I was standing near the fence watching him play second base as if he was a kid again, a smile broke across my face.  Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a big guy approach me and he said:

"Hey, do you want to play?"

Make sure you are asking the same question of everyone in your classroom.  Get everyone who wants to play into the game.

Uncle Kevin

Monday, September 15, 2014

Back to School Night (Don't Be That Parent, AGAIN)

I write this for my non-teaching friends (and now that I experienced back to school night from the other side of the desk for a few years, as a reminder for my self).

I give you my tips for a successful back to school night.


1) DO NOT consider the teacher's chair as an option if the student chairs are filling up, or if it is the younger grades, if they are too small. (Yes, parents have selected my chair as an option even when it is behind my desk, even before every seat is filled).  Consider going any where behind the teacher's desk as entering their second home.  And you wouldn't want anyone breaking into your home (or second home if you can afford one).

2) DO NOT expect to get any questions answered.  As a teacher, we are told from our first few years to filibuster the allotted time.  Questions may put you on the defensive because you never know what classroom practice you will have to defend.

When I am feeling daring, I will entertain a question or two (Especially if I conquer the first one well)

If you have a question for the teacher based on something they said, email him/her.

3) DO NOT talk with your friend while the teacher is talking, it is just as wrong as it was when you were a student.  Save the talks for the hallways.

The CAN DO's

1) LISTEN to the teacher who will be investing their time in your child for the next year.

2) LOOK around the classroom.  Most teachers labor for hours transforming their classroom into a comfortable place for your child.

3) SELECT one idea or thought the teacher says (or something you see in the classroom) as a conversation starter with your child when you go home.

4) IMAGINE your child sitting in that teacher's class. It will allow you insight into your child's day and you will be better able to assist them.

It took me a lot longer than I planned to be able to experience my first back to school night as a parent (my wife and I did not have our first child until year 11 of our marriage and my 16th year as a teacher).

I do not take Back to School Nigh lightly, not as a parent, or as a teacher.

As a teacher, 
I try to make it as memorable as I hope their child will find my class.

As a parent, 
it is a blast to experience, in a very small way, my child's school day.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The First Day #23 (Dear Katie V3 #1)

Dear Katie,

Congratulations! You have finally made it to the practicum experience in your undergrad education.  I am sure you are full of excitement.  The butterflies will probably begin the night before you go into the classroom to which you were assigned for the first time.  Those butterflies will be there the first day of your student teaching assignment, the first day in your first teaching position, and probably your first day of school for years to come.

I noticed somewhere around year 16 or 17 I stopped getting the butterflies.  It wasn't that I was any less excited. You can ask your aunt, I'm usually ready to get back in the classroom as August rolls around.  (I love what I do) I'm not sure why it has stopped.  Maybe I have been doing it so long, it no longer makes me nervous.

Thankfully, you have the type of personality that loves new experiences, loves challenges.  I believe you have to be a bit of an adventurer to be a teacher.  It doesn't matter if your classroom is the same, or the curriculum is the same, from year to year.  Your students will not be.  Even if you have the same set of students you had the year before, they will not be the same, they will have matured over the summer, hopefully : )

Your students are always changing; they are not static like totals on a spreadsheet.  Due to this, you need to be adaptable, willing to change things up in order to reach your students.  At times, it may be exhausting, difficult, and aggravating but when you see that the kid that you "pulled your hair out" in trying to think of ways to reach him/her finally "gets it", well, I can't even explain the joy and sense of accomplishment you will feel.  It will allow you to see the effort was worth it and encourage you to struggle to reach the next "difficult" student.

Why do I love the first day of school?

It is a new beginning, a fresh start.

I get to work with people that have moved from colleagues to friends in my life.

It allows me to improve the faults in my lesson plans and their implementation.

It allows me to continue the practices that students enjoy and are effective.

But most of all

It brings into my life a new crop of students

Who will bring a smile to my face as I remember them in future years.

I love the first day of school, best wishes on yours,

Uncle Kevin

Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Teacher and Not a Principal (Dear Katie V2 #24)

Dear Katie,

Over the years, people have asked me after all these years of teaching, why aren't I in administration. Sometimes it is because people believe I have the demeanor, ability, and express insights that would make me a prefect choice to assume a role in educational leadership and the compliment is appreciated.

On a few occasions, I can discern from the conversation that the person making the statement believes there must be something lacking within in me that makes me unqualified to be in administration or I have been passed over for advancement like in other fields.

"I mean, you've been a teacher for all these years, 
I was just wondering why you are not a principal by now"

Honestly there are reasons I have not sought out to be in administration:

1) It is not that I am incapable.

2) I will not do it just to increase my salary.  I always wanted to do something I loved for a living.  That is why when I was young, I wanted to be a baseball player.   That didn't work out so I got my second choice.  I teach because I love teaching.  I do not teach for the paycheck.  It would be very difficult for me to do something just for the paycheck.

3) I don't need to be in leadership.  Sadly, there are some people in administration who deal with their insecurities by having to be someone else's boss (and that is in any field of work).  Hope that you never have to work for someone like that.  Thankfully, I currently do not work for anyone like that.

4) Administrators  have less time having a direct influence on youth.  From the ages of 19-34, I worked as at week long church camp for several mostly Presbyterian churches in the NY/NJ area.  At first, I was a counselor, and then I moved into leadership.  Being a director meant I didn't have a cabin full of boys.  What I learned front this experience is that I was one step removed from the kids.  I knew the kids a lot better when I was a counselor than when I was a director.  It's not that I didn't want to know the kids (as if it was beneath the role of a director).  It was I had other concerns to focus on for the overall camp experience (including staff, scheduling, facilities, discipline, etc)  I think the same goes for administrators in schools and you would be surprised with how many friends I have in administration who are quick to lament that they miss the time with the kids.

It is not that I think there will NEVER be a time that I feel there needs to be a switch, especially if the right opportunity avails itself, but for now, I love being a teacher.  I love watching a kid "GET IT".  I love laughing and learning with the my students.

A Content Teacher,

Uncle Kevin

Friday, July 25, 2014

Community Spirit TBBoB Part III (Dear Katie V2 #23)

The community spirit -the very heart of the National game- was cut out when minor league players became the properties of major league clubs.

A newsclip from the Oregonian shown in the Battered Bastards of Baseball

Dear Katie,

A few years ago, a friend of mine worked as an adult volunteer at a Vacation Bible School at a church in the town that I teach.  Needing to stop by school that summer day, I took a ride over to the church to say "Hi".  I met up with my friend preparing some outdoor activity for the kids, when the horde of kids came out of the church building.  Quickly about 10 kids came running my way shrieking, "Mr. Cullen!".  They gave me "high fives".  They asked how I was doing.  Some of the kids were campers, others were high school counselors who I hadn't seen in several years.  My friend just laughed and said, "It's like you're a rock star."

This is the last in my series about the Netflix documentary I watched called The Battered Bastards of Baseball.  One point the series drove home was that professional baseball, a kids game played by adults, was no longer about the enjoyment of the fans, but had a corporate structure in order to max out profits.  No longer did minor league teams exist for to provide entertainment for their local area.  They existed to develop talent for the major league team with no care about the overall talent they were presenting on the field.  

Baseball has changed.  I am a huge Mets fans, but growing up I appreciated going to Yankee Stadium more than Shea.  Not because the Yankees were the better team at the time, but because at Shea, if you didn't have a field level ticket, you couldn't get past the gate to get signatures of the players before the game.  At Yankee Stadium, no barrier existed.  In fact, from the upper level seats our parents could afford, we would make our way down to empty field level seats to watch the game.  No one stopped us.  If the patrons of the seats showed up, we were kindly asked to move by ushers (often directing us to other seats).  It is no longer the case in Yankee Stadium.  Major League Baseball has made a statement, only money allows you to have access.  

The entertainment for the masses 
has come under the ownership of the elite 
where the Dollar is King.

At one time, a town's public school was the jewel of the town.  Look at some school in your area built before 1950.  You will notice decorative stone work, large majestic staircases, and sometimes quotes from famous people carved into walls.  The level of importance of the endeavor that took place within its walls and the pride a town took in its schools were clearly evident.  Today schools look like office buildings and bids for construction and repairs are won by the lowest bidder (by law).  The school becomes just another building and almost all decisions are made to keep things on the cheap.  

Does a culture who has money as its ultimate bottom line in decision making 
really have a culture? 

As your Aunt always says, "You have to be willing to spend the money to get quality."

And that leads me to a divisive subject, tenure.

Here is one benefit of tenure for the town, 
it helps enhance an atmosphere of stability for a town
 in a nation that has become more and more transient.

In history, I discuss the issue of succession and that governments throughout history have tried to maintain smooth transitions because stability leads to successful nations.  Tenure provides that stability as it keeps teachers put instead of moving from town to town for "career advancement".  I have taught many sets of siblings over the years and I have built a reputation.  Some teachers who have been there longer have taught two generations.  There is a degree of comfort for both students and parents when the school year begins.  They know what to expect.  I remember looking forward to having some of the teachers your Mom would come and tell me about.  I remember my principal and math teacher (they were married) living a few blocks away from me.  Your grandparents were reassured that we were in a safe place because there wasn't much turn over of staff from year to year.  And on a Saturday in May of every year, we would make our way to Washington School to the annual P.T.A. Fair and see several of our teachers roaming around and volunteering their time.  It was always a thrill when I played sports to see one or more of my teachers cheering me on.

The teachers weren't just public servants to my hometown, 
drawing a salary from local property taxes,
but they were vital parts of the community.

And as you become a teacher, do not become one who "sticks to the letter of the contract".  Even if you do not live in the town for which you work, you ARE a member of its community and your goal should be to improve that community.  And the community should recognize you as vital member in making it thrive.

Sadly, many today want to integrate corporate ideas and believe budget scalping are the solutions to improving public education.  I always find it amazing how the small, blue collar town I grew up in could build 3 majestic structures for their children's education about 100 years ago, and today, with a population that earns more in real dollars would not be willing to do duplicate that beauty.  How can we ask students to use their imagination and creativity when they all what they see around them is cold, clinical cubicles of buildings, hallways, and classrooms.

Here is a picture I took of your cousin several years ago in front of my old middle school.  You can see the original design of the original building but notice the large front entrance was covered with concrete and a mural painted over it (when your mother and I attended, there was no mural).  In order to gain some bathrooms on each floor, they rid the building of the grand staircase that beckoned students to come learn.  Instead of a separate gym and auditorium they combined the two with a rubberized floor that was awful for basketball and a rectangular room without stationary seats that was awful for acoustics and site lines for the stage.  It wasn't like there wasn't enough land to build, these renovations were just the cheapest option.  That was almost 40 years ago.  In the past 10 years, they built another school where an older one once stood.  You can see, it is brick like the old building without the decorative stonework (new building to the right)

I hear there are a lot of convenience stores chains and restaurant chains crowding downtown now.

As a student of history, I can say what a culture values, or not, speaks volumes about who they are.

To Community Spirit!

Uncle Kevin

PS I LOVED the town I grew up in, and only use it based on the richness of my experiences, not to single them out in some sort of vendetta, but provide a non-theoretical example of a problem I believe is endemic in our nation today

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Maverick's Secret TBBofB Part II (Dear Katie V2 #21)

' “What is…What is Bing doing?”

“Well, he’s having fun”, 

and that was the secret of the Mavs.'

-Lou Russell, wife of Bing Russell, owner of the Portland Mavericks
speaking with the son of a L.A. Dodgers executive 
as Bing and the team took a victory lap around the stadium

Dear Katie,

Continuing on with my thoughts about the documentary The Battered Bastards of Baseball, today I will share possibly the most important attribute in gaining a student's attention.  If you fail to exhibit this, I can assure you that your ability to get your students to improve will be hindered without a doubt.

The Portland Mavericks had FUN.  Yes, they were dedicated to baseball and winning, but they realized if they loved the game, it should be fun. Bing Russell, the owner, realized baseball shouldn't be operated like a business, or as if the player has joined the army.  The Mavericks had a player named Joe Garza, who simply became known under one name, Jogarza.  Whenever the Mavericks would be closing in on winning all the games in a series against a team (known as a sweep) he would run around the stadium inciting the fans by carrying a broom.  He would sweep home plate with the broom.  He would warm up with the broom.  Eventually, the fans would bring brooms with them on games that a Maverick victory would mean a sweep. 

Having fun doesn't mean accepting less than people's best.  Everyone on that team played hard.  Every one on that team wanted to win.  I believe that their delight in playing the game as displayed in their antics attributed to their success.

What does this mean for your classroom?  

It means you have to demonstrate to your students
that you enjoy what you are teaching them. 

You have to demonstrate for your students your subject is FUN!

Years ago I taught an Adult Sunday School class on Church History.  A PhD scientist who attended my class approached me one day and said, "You look like you really enjoy each topic you teach, I think that's what makes each class interesting."

(I figure due to his intelligence and the degree he obtained, he must have sat in on MANY lectures and had a good understanding what made one interesting and not)

At Back to School night I discuss some of the games and activities in class.  Usually I hear parents say, "sounds like fun", and often I reply, "I don't do this because your kids find it fun, I do it because I find it fun."

And I do.  I have fun watching kids get excited in playing a review game.  I have fun watching a group's unique solution to a problem in a simulation I am running.  I have fun seeing the creativity of my students through a project.

Fun is contagious, and there is nothing wrong with having it in the classroom.  If you love teaching, if your love the subject you teach, and love the kids in your classroom, how can you not display you are having fun.

And having fun does not mean sacrificing quality.  Your job is to reach kids, to get them to think.  Why do so many teachers believe that can only happen in a clinical, industrial style setting of seats and rows where the student only has a chance to participate in the class when asked?

At the end of each year, I ask students to share a thought to prepare the next year's students for my class.  Every year, this is a typical quote I get:

"Be prepared to have FUN, but don't think there isn't any work to do
or that you won't learn anything.  You will just have fun doing it."

And when your classroom gains a reputation for being fun, it will not just pull the students who are more academically inclined, but also the ones who may struggle in other classes.

When the Maverick baseball team did victory laps with their brooms held high, they weren't attracting the die hard baseball fans, they would have come out to watch no matter what.  They pulled in the casual fan who wanted in on the fun.

Design your class so you pull in the casual student to get in on the fun!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Battered B@$tard in the Classroom Part I (Dear Katie V2 #20)

We must be what we're going to be
And what we have to be is free

The Monkees For Pete's Sake

Dear Katie,

Last night I watched a Netflix documentary about the lone independent baseball team in Portland that was created by the actor Kurt Russell's father, Bing in the 1970's, called The Battered Bastards of Baseball.  At that time, Major League Baseball had created a farm system, where every minor league team had a contract with a major league club to help develop young talent.  The Portland Mavericks, who the show was about, was an independent team, that worked with no other major league team.  Since they had no access to the top prospects, the Mavericks were filled with guys who were passed over by the Major League scouts or others who just wanted to play baseball professionally, even if the pay wasn't that good.  And the Mavericks were successful both on the field, and in bringing the fans of Portland to the ballpark.

Due to this success, MLB wanted to re-establish a minor league team in Portland that was affiliated with a major league club, ending the life of the Portland Mavericks.  Of course, I watched it for the love of the game, but as with all things in baseball, it had something to teach you about life.  The Mavericks represented that people can be successful and have fun in the process.  They represented the idea that people with a common goal can achieve it by allowing each player to express their individuality.

Conformity, like cogs in the machine, will get the job done, but at what cost?  
Typically that cost is the loss of the love of the endeavor.  

The love of the game was something the Maverick players, owners, and fans did not lose.  The owner, Bing Russell, allowed his players to grow their hair long, keep facial hair, act goofy, basically have fun.  They all didn't have to have their stirrups showing, wear their hat in the same way, or be clean shaven.  He allowed them to be themselves because he knew they shared one common trait in common with him, they wanted to WIN.  The "corporate" look was universal among major league baseball clubs and they prepared their young players for the uniformity in the minor leagues.

An interesting fact is one of the most successful Major League teams of the era, 
the Oakland A's, operated under the same respect of the individuality of the player

When you get your first job, I hope that you will be led by administrators like I have had the pleasure to work with over the past 20+ years.  My biggest fear teaching at a Christian school (which was my first job) was a rigidity of what was expected in the classroom in terms of management, delivery of content, even decor.  Outside of a few things (like being asked to remove my Jolt Cola poster), I was given great freedom in the classroom, because it still produced the results that were expected.  At the last faculty meeting of the year, the principal typically would express thanks to the people who were leaving the school.  When I left, he began his goodbye with the line "The next faculty member we are saying goodbye to, well, let's just say he marches to the beat of his own drummer."

The reason I could march to my own tune is because he encouraged it.  

At my present position in a public school, my administration has the same attitude.  Even to the area of dress.  One day about 10 years ago, I needed to wear a windbreaker in the classroom because I hadn't noticed a moth had eaten through my sweater.  I went up to my assistant principal to explain what happened and apologize, after he was done laughing, he said (paraphrase), "What you wear is not a high priority for us (the principal and him).  What is more important is that your kids are learning.".

I don't have to wear a sports jacket or suit.  I typically wear jeans and sneakers to class.  The way I see it, I am not trying to gain the focus of a group of investors for a multi-million dollar deal, I am trying to gain the attention of 12 year olds, and to be honest, I never feel comfortable in a suit.  If dressing up is what you are comfortable doing, then by all means do it.  Dressing for success does not always mean dressing "Sunday Best".

When your administrators do not micromanage you on the little things, 
they display trust.  

And when you as a teacher know your administrators trust you, you will feel free to go beyond what is expected.  You begin to innovate and discover wonderful new techniques to draw your students into the world of higher level thinking.  And it doesn't just help your students grow intellectually, it heaps praise upon your administration for their leadership.  Sadly, administrators who micromanage every decision a teacher makes will get what they expect completed, but that is all, nothing more.

A poor leader believes that he/she has to instruct each person under their charge 
in every step of the process, because 
they falsely believe telling people what to do IS the mark of leadership.

A great leader articulates the big picture and then motivates & guides each individual, 
allowing them freedom and trusting they will use it wisely.

My hope for you is that you have the opportunity to work for the Bing Russell types, who unleashes your individuality because he knows you and he share a common goal,  like I have had the pleasure to work under and with.

Uncle Kevin