Saturday, April 22, 2017

Writing Without Fear

For some students writing assignments represent their worst nightmare. Any hint of having to put a pen to paper can instantly transfer fear into the mindset of at least half my students. How did writing become such a skulduggery exercise of futility? Did it take place when one of their earlier teachers in elementary attacked their papers with big red pen? As of late I've noticed a small segment of student population refusing to answer even the simplest of questions? And another segment who respond with 2-3 words which to them constitutes a sentence of thought. While I recognize that writing requires much more processing of language in order to produce a message, there needs to be some degree of effort put forth. This lack of cooperation is a matter which I need to deal with in the near future, as it causes me great concern. I know better than to interpret their fear of engagement as defiance of me as a person, noting that this is rather a frustration for not being able to complete the task at hand. It's a mind-block that requires my ongoing attention.

Meanwhile, for those who are willing to work at improving their skills, I identify lessons when I can provide opportunities and encouragement for finding ways to inject new vocabulary in personal reflections. I assure students that their grade will not be based on spelling, punctuation, or capitalization of words; rather recognizing the content of their ideas. From that point forward in each writing exercise I carefully monitor student writing to assess strengths and weaknesses, making attempts to teach specific skills and strategies that might enhance their abilities in future writings. I'm careful in my feedback, looking for ways to reinforce their newly-learned skills in addition to correcting recurring problems.

My greatest challenge is finding time to review everyone's work so they have time to digest my comments while the assignment is fresh in their minds. I intentionally keep my response short, wary of overwhelming them with too much feedback. Over the past few years I've followed the advice of renown author and educator Kelly Gallagher: "Focus less on grading and more on improvement. Expect more out of remedial students; expect more out of average students; expect more out of honors students. 'Everyone improves' becomes the mission of an effective writing classroom."

Students, of course, like to talk with each other, but merely asking students to get together and talk with each other about their writing usually is not enough. Students need guidance in responding to each other’s writing. Teachers model good responses (and sometimes bad ones), they offer mini-lessons on response, and they lead students to define what truly helps them, so that response sessions are effective. Teachers are also encouraged to use forms and provide checklists that can serve as guides.

Most recently I tried a new approach by dividing the class into groups of four, then asking them to collaborate together in wordsmith a response to a question involving the ongoing leadership shuffle in Pakistan between military dictatorships and elected democratic leaders. I provided an incentive for the group that could best craft their insight with a Milky Way double-bar to split among their group. The result surpassed my expectations with some exceptional writing. Somewhat as Gallagher noted, my focus was less on grading and more on insightful content. Together they achieved more by focusing on a common goal, using their individual strengths to assemble their best effort, and it's a concept I intend to explore further with next year's classes.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Personal Connections Abound

I was introduced to National History Day (NHD) in the spring of 2010 when Tom Reich, Reference Librarian at UW-Stevens Point, asked me to serve as a judge for the North Central Regional Event. I loved the concept which allowed high school students to use a designated theme associated with history and then choose a subject of choice to which they could make a connection. After three years of volunteering my time evaluating projects, I promised myself that my future classroom would include NHD as a unit of study. When the opportunity presented itself to teach in Beaver Dam, our staff embraced it with open arms and every freshman student from there on forward has experienced it first-hand.

Now in our fifth year of existence at BDHS, NHD continues to be a work in progress. I am often fascinated by the various topics that are chosen by students every semester, and I'm quickly finding it to be one of the true strengths of the program. Just recently one freshman selected Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist who contributed much to the understanding of molecular DNA. Last year this same student lost an older sister to a rare form of cancer that scientists are just now identifying ways to combat using Ms. Franklin's exhaustive work. Another student selected Eliza Schuyler (a/k/a Mrs. Alexander Hamilton) after discovering that she was a direct descendant, while also uncovering a story behind Schuyler's founding of the first private orphanage in New York City. Finally, when one young man was informed that his great-grandfather was killed during Japan's deliberate attack on Pearl Harbor, he immediately decided this would be his topic of choice.

Not every student will possess these personal connections to a historical event, but in their own distinctive way they have reasons for their choice. Their focus is on the man, woman, group, or subject connecting to "Taking a Stand in History" and it's an awesome experience to watch unfold both in and out of the classroom over the course of 5-6 weeks. At the end of the semester I ask freshmen for input on ranking their favorite units of study, and the History Day Project traditionally ends up at the top of their list. It requires plenty of extra time and effort on the part of a teacher, but the outcome makes it all so worthwhile. It many ways it's truly history in the making!

Friday, December 30, 2016

My Warning about Cell-phones

I enjoy using new technology in my classroom, more so than many of my comrades. However, when school reconvenes after the holidays, I am often amazed by the number of new cell-phones which were gifted to students at Christmas. It makes a great gift and parents have good intentions with using the device to better stay in touch with their child. But it also raises my awareness to the grave problems our society is creating in years to come, most of it coming about from the addiction to social media and games which rob young people of tine, focus and establishing priorities for their education.

Let me be very clear in the way I identify and communicate ground rules for using electronics in my classroom. When the bell goes off, I expect students to not only be in their seats, but cell-phones turned off and completely out of sight, As a block class we take a break at the mid-point, and they are allowed to use their device appropriately...but only for those five minutes. If we complete the lesson content and there is extra time available, I provide students with a minute or two to check their device. Any violation results in not only having it confiscated, but 30 minutes of detention time with yours truly over the next 2-3 days. On average I have a small handful, usually 2-3 students, each semester who learn this lesson the hard way...and word quickly spreads throughout the school that Mr. D is very serious about misuse of electronics.

My concern comes not from students breaking policy, but their addiction to games they foresee as innocent and entertaining. Games such as Candy Crush and Empire are extremely creative, tempting players to continue their quest for higher scores and additional features, but minutes easily turn into hour upon hour of "playtime" which could and should be used for studying valuable knowledge. I've witnessed mornings when students came into my class barely able to keep their eyes open after late-night gaming marathons. I question what kind of parents would allow their children to be consumed by such habits. And we wonder why so many young people suffer from sleep disturbances, anxiety, stress, and depression?

While social media can be a unique tool for human interaction, young people rarely know the when, why, and how for responding to perceived slams of personalities of others more or less popular than themselves. Too many students play out their dramas with ill thought-out responses rather than implementing the concept of 'forgive and forget' and moving on. Young people are now being identified with pathologies of "Nomophobia" (No-Mobile-Phobia), "FOMO" (Fear of Missing Out)- the fear of being without a cell phone, and "Textiety"- the anxiety of receiving and responding immediately to text messages.

As funny as this all might seem, I foresee the misuse of cell-phones in a school environment resulting in ocular problems with eyes which will deteriorate further as age progression continues. Allowing young eyes to stare into a small screen for hours at a time is presently resulting in dryness, blurry vision, irritation, and fatigue. I sense there will also be physical problems associate with carpal-tunnel syndrome from overstimulating thumbs and wrists on tiny keyboards.
I'd love to dismiss my concerns as over-reacting, but it's anything but that. I enjoy the daily interaction with young people, and they often-admit their shortcomings when it comes to misusing their cell-phones. At the same time it provides a daily rush of adrenaline and an excitement second-to-none. I wish I was wrong, but mark my words.....in 5-10 years the medical profession will feature daily stories of the consequences I foretell today.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Band of Brothers

The Band of Brothers, Oct 2016
Little did I ever think that I'd post a reflection regarding a high school sports team, much less one dealing with defeat. But as it is with life, we learn important lessons about human interaction; not always involving myself with a cast of characters, but watching how they influenced one another both on and off the arena of sports. From the pain of losing comes an awesome feeling of accomplishment...of knowing how important this interaction meant to each of them.
Any person who has ever coached, managed, mentored, taught, advised, or parented a team understands the true impact that young people can sometimes have on you. Success or failure is immaterial; it's the grit and heart which defines inner character. When they win, you celebrate. Whey they lose, you suffer. But when they grow as individuals, you acknowledge their deep conviction for determination and willingness to sacrifice. I've been fortunate to personally experience those moments in life, be it with the Silver Lakers or Wild Rose Wildcats, but never like this.
Mr. D and Nate
This group is forever known as the "Band of Brothers" for a commitment to each other; senior members of the BDHS football team, who played their final game together just over a week ago. What began as a season of promise ended in disappointment and deep emotion. When they were freshmen I made a promise that I would attend every home & away game during their senior year. Mission accomplished; but not without feeling their pain and witnessing something very special. Their journey into the future has only just begun.
After the team picture (top right) was taken I was is awe when many of these individuals asked to have a picture taken with me before leaving the stadium. Kids don't come up to the teacher at the end of class and say "Today's lesson meant so much to me that I want a picture of us together."  ....maybe they would if the meaning was truly best understood for the true impact it had on their life.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Taking It to the Next Level

I am often guilty of piling on myself...taking on more than I am sometimes able to handle. While some people my age would take satisfaction in just completing college, I chose to delve into another unknown by beginning work towards attaining my Masters Degree in Educational Technology in January 2015. There were days when I questioned my sanity as to WHY I would want to jump into the cold icy waters of such an undertaking. After all, I'm active in my school with PBIS, Class Adviser, Key Club Adviser, and frequent spectator/volunteer at extra-curricular activities. If my daily schedule wasn't already packed to the gill, why would I dump this on my plate? For the past nineteen months, this question was frequently brought to the forefront as I sat in bed at night wondering if I was really up to the task.

Throughout the process I did everything I could to eliminate any source of negative thinking, focusing instead on the quality of learning that was taking place in my life. There were countless numbers of scholarly articles assigned by my instructors, each requiring a personal writing reflection. I recall one of my assignments involving the dismantling of my laptop computer, identifying the component parts and how they interacted with one another. One bad move could erase some valuable files, much less damage the overall functionality of it. For the first time in my life, I authored a grant proposal for a set of chromebooks and supporting software for assessment. While I personally HATE asking others for money, it was a necessary part of my education. In-between I constructed my first eBook, developed a Professional Development Plan (a/k/a PDP), Instructional Design Plan and Rubric, an online version of my Global Studies classroom course, Mobile Device Integration Plan, Class Technology Coaching Philosophy and Implementation Plan...and everything else.

Throughout the duration I experienced six different but uniquely qualified instructors. Each maintained the highest of standards, communicating in a professional manner. There were weeks when I aced assignments when I was challenged to dig deeper into my thinking. Deadlines were met on schedule, all while developing syllabi and teaching two new courses for high school students. In my professional career of 31+ years in business there were numerous other times when I undertook similar challenges, but none as fulfilling as this one. As I prepare to enter my fifth year of teaching, this new certification has sparked a new passion and intellectual curiosity for integrating new technology into daily lesson planning. While the bump in salary is nice, the experience of watching students using new skills will be very rewarding. My newly completed graduate work has revealed an exciting pathway to the future of public education!

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Wake-Up Call to Life

All too often it is the final weeks of school when there are moments I long to remember as being extra-special. One such occasion occurred at the end of May during late afternoon when I sat alone at my desk and looked up to find a young man peering down at me. His face was one I remember from Sept 2012 when I found a silly, immature group of freshmen students inhabiting my locale on the first day of school. Tim (not his real name) was not only silly and immature, but suffered from attention deficit disorder. He was often cooperative in class, but could never complete any assignments, even when they were written down and provided days in advance. This was my first semester of teaching and I often went out of my way in communicating with parents as to celebrations of achievement or concerns for failing grades Tim was one of those students who never got to second base, failing tests without any regards for the consequences. Despite several phone calls and letters to home, I was never able to roust a response from either of his parents, much less his guidance counselor. I felt as if I was flying solo on all fronts, and as a result Tim earned the first "F" in my short career as an educator. At the end of January 2013 I felt I let him down, somehow thinking that a different outcome was possible had I taken immediate action on the first day of class. Over the next three-plus years I moved on from Tim's failure, making him a distant memory in favor of students who demonstrated greater concern for their studies. But memories quickly return from the abyss when that individual suddenly appeared in front of me.

"Hey there, Mr. D! If you have some time I'm in need of a little help." It was Tuesday afternoon and represented my final day overseeing our department's ELO (Extended Learning Opportunity). As it is with many of the students who pop in after school, I put everything aside and provided Tim with my immediate attention. When we finished reviewing his material, I couldn't resist the opportunity to inquire about life over the past few years. He explained how he was cramming for a makeup test in another social studies class that would determine whether he'd graduate with his class. Tim opened up about wishing he could return to my classroom for that first day of school when I attempted to grab his attention. "I should have listened to you as it would have made my life so much easier. My dad told me I need to graduate from high school if I expect to attend MPTC in the fall. Everything's on the line with this test and I can't afford to fail it." His tone was serious in every way and I sensed it was one minute before midnight in his young life.

A few days later it was graduation day at BDHS and I looked forward to seeing Tim make the walk with 225 other classmates. The gymnasium was packed to capacity on a warm Sunday afternoon, and the procession of soon-to-be-grads was impressive from start to finish. This group represented my first batch of freshmen and they were somewhat special to me. During their tenure of high school I watched many of them grow in maturity and stature. However, missing from their ranks was Tim and I quickly grabbed my program in search for his name. There was no trace of him upon the list and I later found out that he fell short in his run to the finish line. There was a pit of disappointment in my stomach that day, much like it was a few years earlier. When students fail a class, they rob themselves of opportunities later in life. Sometimes the best lessons are learned from our falls...and hopefully Tim will learn much from his mistakes.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Student Input and Buy-In

"I'm a Social Studies teacher, not an English teacher."  I've heard that phrase since college days (which isn't that distant in the past), and every time I do I cringe at the concept of anyone thinking that it's not their job to help others improve upon their thinking and writing skills. Imagine a brain surgeon making a similar statement when their patient is hemorrhaging blood while addressing a skull fracture?  In many ways a social studies teacher is in the best position to help students who struggle with various skills associated with writing assignments.

This year my focus is addressing various skill sets with my students, and during the first week of each semester I ask them to make a personal assessment of areas that need improvement. In a non-threatening way I share a time in my past when my writing skills fell far short of personal expectations. In order to advance in my professional career, it was necessary for me to find ways to become a better writer. At that specific time I was well-removed from high school so there was no immediate help at hand. I recall sitting down at my Macintosh computer and typing sentences, then attempting to improve vocabulary and sentence structure, while being proficient with my time. In many ways it was hair-raising experience which I'll never forget. However, over time I became better at what I was doing and not with just writing, but all my language skills improved: reading, speaking and listening.

I introduced the topic of improved writing by revealing a listing of various components which are often associated with it: expand vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation, more descriptives, elaborate, advance planning, more structure, capitalization, run-on sentences, use of commas & periods, write complete sentences, accurate sentence structure, write neatly, write more, comprehension, and write faster. I assure students that together we can work to improve individual performance with these skill sets, but I need them to self-assess and identify three specific areas they want to enhance. This itself makes a great writing prompt and I cue students to explain why they're making those selections.

After collecting their responses, within an Excel spreadsheet I assign point values of 3,2,1 (3=most important) and count the number of times each element is identified within that specific class. As I analyze this information I've discovered that different classes have diverse values for the aforementioned components. For example, one class identified spelling (19-8), expanded vocabulary (13-5), write neatly (13-5), and advance planning (8-5) as their featured goals. (19 is the total point value in that class, 8 is the number of times it was identified)  Another class ascertained expanded vocabulary (33-12), write neatly (21-9), write faster (16-10), and more descriptives (15-7). In addition their explanations offered further input on why they chose specific areas. For example, "write faster" was directly associated with note taking skills and "advance planning" for pulling ideas together when responding to essay questions.

An important element in this focus is sharing results with each class so they can better understand what I'm attempting to do in the coming weeks with various assignments. It's one thing to collect data, but another in implementing a game plan with proper execution. I may not achieve 100% buy-in from every student, but I've found that a great segment will cooperate once they sense someone is attempting to help them with their deficiencies. And indirectly I become a better teacher as a result...something that I value very seriously.