Tuesday, March 27, 2018

One of those Special Days

Every now and then teaching provides an opportunity for genuine relationships to perk like a pot of fresh brew.  While so much focus is placed on curriculum, I contend that relationship-building is often overlooked as a most important component.

This became a quick realization to me two months ago when the second semester in the current school year began. One specific class, Block 1 Global Studies, contained a larger than normal amount of freshmen students with attitude issues. Specifically, five young teens could be viewed as "punks" in the eyes of many teachers. They put up a front of distrusting authority figures and general dislike for school. I sensed they would be a hard group to deal with, but rather than responding with an iron fist I elected to shift my teaching style in order to better understand their logic of thinking.

Delving into their academic history, I discovered a pattern of ongoing failure over the past 3-4 years. Unfortunately previous administrations chose to kick the can down the road with meaningful interventions rather than sitting down to discover why these teens think the way they did, passing the problem down the system for someone else to address over time. As a teacher this involves ongoing patience and tolerance for an assortment of personalities, especially when I begin the day in front of these young people. But in order to understand, one has to face the perceived problem head-on. Although the semester is only halfway completed, it has been a rewarding experience. It's also consumed much of my time and physical energies, but I firmly believe this is what true-teaching is all about.

Tapping into a resource of one past BDHS graduate now majoring in social work at a state university, I invited a handful of my most challenging students to an after-school round-table discussion. In return for their input they would receive not only a hearty meal of their favorite pizza, but a reduction of assigned detentions for past deviant behaviors. From the very start it became a meaningful exchange of information which lasted for more than 90 minutes. While I doubt it will solve every problem associated with their conduct in school, it provided great insight into erroneous perceptions by staff and student alike. Best of all, these students want to keep the conversation going with future meetings between themselves and administration.

Before closing, I'd mention that their collective performance in my classroom has improved considerable since their first day back in January. Not only did they pass my class, a notable accomplishment in itself, but they have impacted students in a positive manner. This group of rabblerousers has the opportunity to turn their lives around, provided they are truly serious about identifying personal goals and making decisions in an adult manner. Time will tell, but at least I was able to nudge a stone previously unturned.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Freshman Insight As Only Freshmen Would See It

During the last day of regularly scheduled classes I always ask those freshmen in Global Studies to share insight on ways to make improvements to my class. This last semester I asked another rather simple question in hopes of scratching the surface of better understanding how young minds look at their first year of high school. The question was as follows: “In one sentence, what is the hardest thing about high school?” Their responses were both refreshing and honest in nature. I did not make changes to grammar, spelling, or punctuation as they provoke added intrigue on my part. Enjoy…...

  • The hardest thing about school is test. I’m not a well studier and that really effects my grade.
  • To me there is nothing to hard about school.
  • Navigating all the construction. Not being shy around other people. Participating.
  • Waking up to going to school.
  • Hardest thing about school is not being in control and waking up for it.
  • Getting things done on time and getting up early because I procrasente and have insomia
  • Getting up and learning things you feel will be no importance in your life/career
  • Amount of homework w/being involved & sports to you’re well rounded for college
  • The hardest thing to me are the tests because I can’t remember sertin things about classes.
  • The hardest thing is making sure I maintain the 4.0 GPA like I want. Sometimes the work can be so overwhelming that I can’t do the work but I push through it and try my hardest.
  • The hardest thing about school is learning different ways in each class like listening in English, reading in Global Studies & watching/doing in Geometry
  • The hardest thing about school is dealing with the stresses it brings.
  • Proboly, waking up and being here and getting homework done on time.
  • The hardest thing about school is how there is always alot of homework.
  • Hardest Thing: over-commit myself. Say I can do too much and end up very stressed because I’m not the best in something.
  • The hardest part is waking up and having to memorize things fast.
  • The hardest thing about school is the pressure put on you to do your very best.
  • The hardest thing about school is the homework.
  • The work
  • The hardest thing about school is homework, tests, and getting good grades.
  • The hardest thing about school is dealing with the people in it.
  • The hardest thing about school for me is procrastination and dealing with people.
  • 8th hour regardless of the class it’s always boring
  • The homework piling up and sometime the teachers don’t explain it well.
  • Hardest thing about school is turning work in on time especially with other classes to do work for. Also, I don’t have many friends anymore.
  • The hardest part about school is being comitted and motivated.
  • Hardest thing is not having fun or interesting classes.
  • Hardest thing about school would be that im not the greatest at it. No one really is.but something with me not being able to focus as much as others but ive been told i can change it or its an excuse but people don’t understand.That my learning is different.
  • The hardest thing for me is the teachers I hate getting told what to do and when I have to do it.
  • I think the hardest part about school is homework and not talking.
  • I think the hardest thing about school is when you do really well on all the assignments in a class but then do bad on the test.
  • The homework and not being able to see your friens too much.
  • I think the hardest thing about high school is, tests. They take a huge part of your grade.
  • I think one of the hardest parts of high school is how little Middle School prepares you for it. In middle school you don’t really need to study for tests, yet in high school, it’s a completely different picture.
  • The hardest thing about school is maintaining a 4.0
  • The hardest thing about school is the tests and showing up
  • I think the hardest thing is just jaming My brain with infromata Also, the tests, are usually hard and cause alot of stress on me to get an A.
  • The hardest thing is how others see you. They look at you and already decide what person you are.
  • The hardest thing about school is the stupid children. I learned not to try too hard.
  • I think the hardest thing in school is trying to stay focused in my class
  • The hardest thing for me is trying not to talk to my friends during class.

It truly amazes me how open and forthright freshmen can be when you ask them to share their opinions. Within 10 minutes of completing their 3x5 feedback cards I asked them to write another note, only this one would be addressed to next semester’s class, offering their brutally open insight on this class so fellow freshmen are provided a ‘warning sign’ with regards to classroom conduct and expectations. Although these departing students think their letters will go unnoticed by myself, I spend 45-60 minutes reviewing each one to make sure there were no hidden references to drugs, alcohol, or inappropriate language. 100% were sincere and to the point.

Their completed letters often mirrored some of the many petty annoyances happening in the personal life of today’s teenager, but also provided a glimpse of what I was doing right and perhaps wrong in their eyes. There was a consistent message from the group for the way they obtained a new understanding for today’s world and that learning could indeed be fun. The “hardest things” mentioned on those 3x5 cards were noticeably absent from their classmate letters, so my impression is that some of their other teachers could be somewhat detached from their world. This is not a slam against my fellow teachers, but still cause for some concern on my part as an adult who values student relationships. Many years ago I was reminded that perception is often another’s reality.  :)

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Letter to the Editor

For the first time in my short career of teaching I have the urge to respond to one citizen's complaint about teachers. A "Letter to the Editor" went as follows:

On Dec 12, the Daily Citizen ran a front-page article that talked about a number of teachers who are unhappy with their pay and also feel unappreciated. Pardon me, but I just don't get it. 
I challenge anyone to name a profession that has a better benefit package with 16 weeks of vacation from day one. Incredible job security. Early retirement option. A lavish pension and fantastic health insurance. As far as pay? I requested and received a copy of every teaching position in the district. More than half of our teachers make more than $53,000 per year. Divide that by 180 days and divide that by eight hours and that comes to $36.80 per hour. There are 85 teachers making more than $60,000. That comes to $41.66 per hour. Unhappy with their pay?
I am not anti-teacher. I have relatives in the profession and more than a few good friends that are great teachers. I am anti-public union and anti-public pension, simply because the taxpayers are left with the bill. When is this 7-year pity party going to end?

This past year my base pay of $45,852 did not change as was previously determined by a combination of steps & lane compensation. Being in a year where a massive construction project is taking place in our building, I understand the need to be sensitive to the mood of local voters, but as a "young teacher" I have an outstanding loan associated with a decision to complete my college education. In addition, I also invested in a 2-year program to obtain my Masters Degree for which an expense was incurred. In my opinion the so-called freeze is a dangerous precedent, as good young teachers will seek greener pastures where they feel more appreciated. But at the same time I recall times in the business world when stagnant sales or excessive customer debt resulted in no raises or even employee cutbacks. Raises in any job, be it the public or private sector, truly need to be earned, and how those raises are earned should involve regular conversations with members of management/administration. (more on that later)

When it comes to the argument of receiving 16 weeks of vacation from day one, it's anything but that in my life. So many of those days are spent cleaning up loose ends of every-changing lesson plans, learning new curriculum and guidelines, then focusing on PDP and SLO objectives. While I cannot vouch that 100% of my peers are actively involved in similar routines, I'm sure there is a sizable number who remain committed to their profession.

My normal school day is longer than the eight hours mentioned by the writer; often lasting twelve or more due to lesson preparation and grading. I set high-expectations for not only my students, by for myself as well. In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I also donate time (uncompensated) as adviser for our school's very active Key Club, serving on our school's PBIS Committee as well as spearheading National History Day for Regional and State competition.  All told, if I was to really crunch numbers to best reflect the time I spend on teaching each and every day, it could approach a wage slightly above minimum wage. 

I've not been one to whine, but as someone who is relatively new at this profession I contend that pay is not based on a system of merit, but one of tenure. When Act 10 was signed into Wisconsin law by Gov Walker in 2011, I felt school districts across the state were provided with a big carrot which might instigate some positive changes in accountability on all sides of the debate. I understand the purpose of tenure and how it can protect valuable educators, but it can also prohibit much needed change from taking place. Again I stress this is not a vindication of all teachers nor administrators across the country, just voicing my opinion that a good segment of administrators are not taught how to be leaders in their schools.

During my career in business management I discovered the culture of "Absolute Honesty", an idea put forth by Larry Johnson and Bob Phillips back in 2003. I loved the concept and asked my three branch managers as well as the owners to read the book while thinking about how it could impact our company. Quickly we developed into a strong team with ongoing open dialogue between 120+ employees throughout the company.  From that day forward I never feared an opportunity to sit with any employee, regardless of their position in the company, to discuss performance by either party. It was a special experience that I will long reflect on in a positive way. It's unfortunate that this same form of conversation can't be found in many of our schools.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Guilty...as charged!

I confess that I'm totally at fault for being lax with my classroom reflections. Despite being MIA for the past eight months, I'm pleased to acknowledge that I'm still very much engaged in the classroom. Yes, I have legitimate excuses....from being forced from my classroom as a result of the massive construction project taking place in our school, to being overwhelmed with putting too much on my plate while donating my time and efforts to extra-curricular activities, and then interlacing it with commitments to our marriage. Yes, they're all there.....but excuses don't legitimize my shortcomings. Shame on me!

With five years of teaching now behind my belt, I still have an ongoing passion and commitment to teach high school students. They give me hope for the world, while also inciting fear for their shortcomings. However this year, more than ever, electronics continue to dominate their free time. In many instances, I fear, iPhones have become their best friend. As a result I sense they're becoming more disengaged with face-to-face socialization, many times using it as a barrier to socializing. When I arrive to school at 6:30 AM everyday, I always find 3-4 students sitting in the commons area, totally unaware of the surroundings but thoroughly immersed in games on their phones. I contend this generation's addiction to games will impact test scores as some point in their education, if not post-school performance.

A psychology professor at San Diego State, Jean Twenge, recently wrote an article in The Atlantic noting that the rise of cell phones and social media has created a generation that spends less time with friends and more time alone in their rooms on their phones. Citing data from the 'Monitoring the Future' survey, Twenge said that teenagers who spend more time online than they do with their friends are the most likely to report being lonely and feeling left out.

While I acknowledge that electronics can enhance learning in the classroom, I also know from personal experience that when students have phones or unrestricted laptops out in class — and are texting, surfing the web, or posting on social media — they are only half-present (if that). I do everything I can in attempting to make my classes as interactive as possible, with students engaged in discussions, group work, or other tasks. When I have a roomful of half-present students who are distracted, it detracts from what we as a class can accomplish on any given day.

Once school resumes after the Christmas break, I sometimes dread going back to the classroom, knowing that many students will have new phones with which I now have to contend with. While it might sound as if I favor the banning of all devices from schools, I am anything but of that opinion. Such a ban can single out students with accommodations who need those devices to participate in class, so the conversation regarding responsible use and between students and Mr. D will continue into the foreseeable future.

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.