Thursday, June 11, 2015

Year Three Comes to a Close

Two days ago I pulled into our driveway and felt the true feeling of satisfaction come to land in my soul. The 70-mile trip from school was relaxing. but it took the friendly sight of home to hasten reality. I felt like a marathon runner who just completed his 26+ miles in record time, a bit exhausted, a little overwhelmed, and a lot relieved. Throughout the race there were special memories based on interactions with students, faculty, parents, and members of the community, but home is where the heart is, a place to relax, rejuvenate, and yes, reflect.

Reflection is something everyone should allocate time to do. I require my students to do it several times each school year, mostly by writing in response to prompts based on specific lessons. It requires some 'quiet time' to reach back and let the inner voice come forward, challenging one's self to explore beliefs, ideas, and potential consequences. During my time in the business world I once set time aside just to think of the many benefits associated with reflection, Sometimes it can overwhelm you, much like opening Pandora's box and releasing all the evils into the world. Reflection is often best kept to oneself, if only to mark the point on the life trail you're currently experiencing.

Since I returned to the classroom five years ago, I've made every attempt to block time on my calendar for personal reflections on teaching and experiences taken from my classroom. Little did I ever think that this blog would live beyond the four-month life-cycle as was assigned by Jeff Boyer, my Education Technology professor at UW-SP. Yesterday I discovered our original class Wiki from that class, anticipating that I'd find updated blogs being maintained by 70+ former classmates. To my surprise, it was like walking through a ghost town.....every blog (which the exception of my own) had ended with a December 2010 final entry. All their contemplations lost in the past and no one reflecting on their present experiences with teaching young people. It was not only disappointing, but represented how educators can sometimes error in their ways by choosing to pass on reflection.

Last fall the State of Wisconsin instituted "Educator Effectiveness" in an attempt to evaluate teachers on performance inside the classroom. For fellow teachers the concept is new and sometimes overwhelming, but in many ways it represents a means to hold individuals accountable for student performance. Some educators feel threatened by the process, thinking that they will be outed for poor student outcomes, but for myself I see it as long overdue. In business we called this "Employee Evaluation"...a chance for honest and open dialog between management and employee.

On the lighter side, sometimes the best (and most honest) evaluations are offered up by students. Once again I provided time on our final day of school, asking freshmen to write a letter to next year's incoming class, with words of advice and reflections on their teacher, Mr. D. As always, they were a hoot to read....
When I came into this room I found what I thought was the school's oldest teacher and told myself this was going to be a long, boring semester. It was just the opposite. Mr. D is the best teacher in this school and he makes this class not only interesting, but very enjoyable too. I learned a lot so be nice to him!
Mr. D is by far the BEST teacher here, and he goes out of his way to help students. Take it from me....I almost waited too long, and I wish I could start fresh all over again. I'll miss this class.
Put your phone away as this teacher means what he says. No texting means just that or else he'll take it away. He's not like all the other teachers and wants you to succeed.

It's always good to receive a compliment from an administrator or parent, but it's really the kids who can tell you when you've made a true difference in their lives. Yes, it was a very good year!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Teaching Differentiation with Blendspace

Over the past several months, I've attempted to focus on the role which differentiation plays in the 21st-century classroom. Traditional teaching has meant one-size-fits-all in the approach to lesson planning and the delivery of content in the classroom, but today's students are diverse in ways they consume and process information. In my previous career, salespeople would similarly use but one approach (and it was THEIRS) on every customer, creating an instant turn-off by more than 90% of their accounts. The topic of differentiation is timely and pertinent to the next generation of learners, and I am attempting to integrate this concept into my daily routines.
Many of my freshmen students have diverse levels of experience with not only reading and writing, but thinking, speaking, and problem-solving as well. As my classroom is not the traditional model, I make use of tables and sit two students at each table. At times they will work together on a question, and another when they are asked to begin thinking on their own. Rather than focusing on a chapter, I ask them to explore a big idea associated with issues and concepts, then provide them with the necessary tools to enhance their learning journey.
Another important component of differentiation is offering students a choice in ways which they can complete a specific task. Knowing that many young people are visual learners, others hands-on (kinesthetic) and some absorb more by listening (auditory), I attempted to integrate a concept known as Blendspace into one of my lessons dealing with Manifest Destiny. In using the website, I was able to assemble a variety of formats within an informational context which provided students with a wide menu of options.
Rather than taking the class into the library’s computer lab, I brought the school’s laptop cart into my classroom and asked each student beforehand to bring a set of earbuds. Before launching them into cyberspace, I covered specific guidelines dealing with personal responsibility with computer use. I noted that it was okay to move around from website to website in looking for content which would aid them in the process of thinking about Manifest Destiny and the United States; but more importantly was the need to stay on task with what was asked of them. With no further questions, I sensed the students were ready to jump into what was being asked of them and they were urged to begin.
I spent the next forty minutes in true amazement as each student was totally engaged in what they were doing. Some had logged into videos, others were reading website content, and another segment was listening to presentations. Students who rarely took notes in class were now doing just that from the various online lessons. I did not expect to see such a positive response from my students as they were fully engaged with the activity.  The idea of differentiation is truly a unique way of teaching, and requires that I, as their teacher, provide each of my students with experiences and tasks that will improve their learning.
Rather than being a one-hit-wonder, I chose to repeat this experiment on my 3rd block class later in the day. It was met with the same results, and reinforced my commitment to the concept as none other. Three weeks later I attempted a similar exercise with the unit of Sectionalism, and again my students all responded with completing the task without any distraction or non-compliance. Best of all, unit exam test scores hit a new high and I discovered the true benefits of real differentiation in my classroom. Very cool!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Bridging a Divide with Technology

Having turned 62 years old today, I find that many of my cohorts in the teaching profession are aghast of the misuse of technology by today’s students. In many ways I agree for I fear that young people are growing addicted to online games. They see these activities as harmless and view themselves as being “tech savvy” when it is anything but that. However, the fault for this lies not in the games they play, but the opinion they hold of themselves indicating that they are anything but savvy on how to use the internet.  I choose not to seek someone to blame, but look for an opportunity to provide them with the proper tools and skills sets so they can embrace technology for every promise it holds for their generation and beyond.

The divide I see is one which impacts all of society...a divide in values. Simply handing a computer (and yes, I would consider a SmartPhone a computer) to a person without any guidance is a recipe for potential disaster. That individual, be they young or old, rich or poor, pink or purple, needs assistance with understanding of its true value for their life so the computer is used for knowledge rather than the cash value it can gather on an open market such as Ebay or Craigslist.


I recall when computers made their way into the workplace back in the early 1990s. Some employers feared that placing that “box” on the desk of one of their most productive employees was going to cause distraction, but instead resulting in greater productivity and higher profits. Another segment of employees chose not to adapt to new technology and ended up opting for early retirement. Their jobs were never filled and other employees stepped in to absorb the departed’s daily responsibilities. In many ways I see our schools mirroring similar mistakes from a generation ago.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

My Experience with Gifted & Talented

This semester has been rather special as I interact with a handful of very gifted students on a daily basis. These individuals are able to absorb large amounts of information, and their thirst for knowledge is seldom quenched. As I seek to ways to expand on differentiation in my classroom, this is one of those unique opportunities to not only observe, but to inject new strategies into daily lesson planning. These individuals enjoy new challenges and will often take a que and delve deeper into content. I am not attempting to speed up instruction, but rather focusing on increased depth of study within a particular topic. These same students read at a higher level than their classmates, sometimes two or more grade levels beyond the norm. My struggle has nothing to do with the willingness I have in my heart to help, but instead focuses on the lack of adequate planning time which is necessary to locate resources I need as an educator. While overseeing a classroom of 25-28 students, I'm finding myself sandwiched between the special needs of young adults with IEPs and those who I see as gifted and talented.

Ironically, it was during recent weeks when students completed their History Day Projects when I came to discover the true talent these individuals have inside. NHD was a fantastic opportunity for them to explore new levels of higher learning, and it really kept them in the game (so to speak), They explored their topics in language and creativity which enhanced learning for everyone in my classroom. In addition, these same individuals were self-managing and very direct in the ways that they conducted their research. It was not only me who took interest, but their fellow students who became accustomed to their perseverance in seeking answers to their questions.

Many years ago in the business world I learned that "one-size-fits-all" was never acceptable in the workplace. When I first made the journey back to into education at UW-SP five years ago, I quickly realized that school and the shop were no different as well.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Project GPA and Leadership

During my 30+ years in business I became all-so-familiar with the costs associated with poor customer service. When an employee made poor choices, there were ramifications all across the board, from correcting the wrong to addressing the hurt-feelings with customers, much less regaining the lost trust and confidence. Schools have this same problem as it pertains to daily attendance, delinquencies, behavior problems, poor grades, lack of motivation, and non-conformists. While administrations have consequences in place for their problem kids, the time and resources which are allocated can be a huge cost factor. It robs time and resources which could be spent working with students who see school for what it is....a chance to learn knowledge.

A few weeks ago I awoke at 2 AM with an idea which could very well address all these issues plus change lives in a unique way. As adviser to the Class of 2017 I have the luxury of working with an exceptional group of almost 250 young people. They are close in camaraderie and enjoy having a good time together. They also enjoy a challenge...for which I was about to place one of the biggest opportunities on their plates. In the business world we referred to it the "pursuit of excellence", but from this day forward their class calls it "Project GPA". (note that the letter 'A' is underlined intentionally)

My idea began with identifying their class GPA (grade point average). Since the current semester had not yet ended, I would pull information from the end of their freshmen year. I was not seeking individual information as this was to be a group effort for all 250+ students with no one being singled out for being near the top nor close to the bottom. The school's administrative secretary provided me with the number 2.728 (our starting point). The goal? Raise the accumulative GPA of the Class of 2017. And the objective? The pursuit of individual and group excellence in Academics, Athletics, and the Arts. How to pull all of this together? Thinking along the mindset of "what's in it for me?", I drew from Urban Meyer's coaching technique of communicating the leadership formula of E + R = O and thought about the quality of individuals with whom I was associating myself with. Would they buy into it?

Our school uses Enrichment Periods twice-a-week to provide help time to those needing academic intervention. Other students who maintain their grades use the time to relax playing intramural sports, other leisure activities, or simply use it in quiet study halls. Our Sophomore Enrichment hadn't met in over a month and they enjoy getting together to plan class events and fund raisers. Upon meeting with the four class officers, I explained my idea and asked if they would like me to present it to their group. Without question it was a slam-dunk and I began planning how this might be introduced. I was excited but also guarded in my approach. When I saw the attendance sheet of 27 students who had signed up, I was feeling pumped as I had gotten the right people in the pews.

I started with large numbers on the board:  865,  $243.12,  1247.86,  2.728  and  3 + 2 = 5
When I pointed to the first, I asked if they could identify with that number.  No responses. "There are 865 days until you graduate. That time is going to fly by and before you know it, you'll be out in the real world. Are you going to be ready?"
The next set $243.12..... this is what their class made on their last project in December. It was a promotion with a local business and all students needed to do was recommend people going to their restaurant on a Monday night.
1247.86.....that's how much their class had in the treasury. No other class has ever had that kind of funds sitting in their account as this point in their academic career. This group knows that will ratchet that amount up even higher over the next two years.
2.728....that one got some stares. Since the class officers were aware of my idea, I reminded them not to respond as I wanted the others to think first. "Folks, this is your class GPA as a whole. Are you really satisfied with this? Hold your thinking....."

For the next 15 minutes these students were as attentive and resourceful as I've ever seen them. "Think of the impact this could have on your class, much less your school, if you could get your accumulative GPA to rise over the next 2-1/2 years? The benefits would be huge for the school as well as yourselves. Higher GPA normally associates with few issues with discipline and associated behaviors. Do you think your principal might appreciate that? Could the school realize some savings in money that might equate to a reward for your class which would be worth your time and effort?"

Project GPA was launched, but its ownership doesn't rest in the hands of Mr. D. It belongs to their class and the extent for which they are willing to give in the ways of time and effort. I will stoke their collective fires with suggestions for staying on track, acknowledging that not everyone will buy into the concept. Doubters love to see such ideas fall....but this is one group of students who see the benefit of listening to reason. 

And what does the 3 + 2 = 5  stand for?  That was a special conversation all in itself. The concept belongs to Urban Meyer, coach of national champion Ohio State Buckeyes. Our class discussion about leadership took place on the second day of our four day meeting. Check back for another update......it's pretty special!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Working with Challenged Students

Every teacher accepts the notion that not all students learn at the same pace, much less grasping information in the same way, as a result of limitations with skill-sets associated with speech, listening, reading, writing, and comprehension. Many of these challenged students have IEPs (Individualized Education Program) in place which are tailored to address the different constraints on student learning. Modifications are made not only for the classroom, but expectations with homework and testing. Working together with support-staff, special ed teachers, parents, and the content teacher, it will often improve upon areas of concern.

This year I seem to have an especially large load of students with IEPs and I've accepted the challenge with open arms, knowing that lesson-planning requires ongoing changes in differentiation. Upon completing a recent unit and assessing student knowledge, I was concerned about the large number of failing grades on their final exam. Our school has a policy that every student is allowed to retake a test within one week as an opportunity to improve upon their grade. I extended an open invitation to those 'challenged' students to retake their test with me as their reader, knowing that it would require a large block of my free time. 

There have been moments in my life when I took my learning for granted. I may have struggled with challenging selections of reading or writing, but it was nothing to the extent that these students likely deal with every day. As I read each multiple-choice question and the possible answers, I was amazed at how difficult it was for students to make definitive decisions on any one answer, but I exerted patience in every way. In some cases it was specific vocabulary which interfered with their thought-process, while others were tripped up by creative answers that were easily dismissed by average students. I provided both time and understanding with their test retake, sensing that the removal of stress would be instrumental in their success. I never rushed them to make a decision and sometimes expanded upon concepts with difficult vocabulary.

While the typical student would complete such a test in less than an hour, each of these students required a minimum of two hours of one-to-one time on my part...with one needing almost three hours to finish. To my amazement, all four students showed noticeable improvements on their retakes. Not just a simple grade mark of improvement, but obvious advancements in reading, writing, and comprehension. Four 'F's were transformed into a solid C, two Bs and a low A. When I corrected their tests and returned them with the higher grades, students were stunned by the results...as was Mr. D. I doubt they realized how much time (or the removal of this constraint) may have impacted their abilities with test-taking.

In reflection of what I sense could be a constructive solution, I struggle to see how I might make changes on future assessments in order to achieve maximum results in test scores. These students require genuine one-on-one attention, but resources are limited both on my part as well as support staff. There are only so many minutes in each day, much less a lifetime. The human mind is indeed complex in the way it grasps information and extracts facts...be they conceived or factual in nature. As I journey deeper into the world of teaching in 2015, I continue seeking ways to expand on differentiation in the classroom.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Tie Between History and Real Life

A large segment of our population is not aware of the many problems experienced in the early years of our democratic republic when the founding fathers debated about ways this new country would behave. We obtained our independence after a long, hard fight with the British and suddenly we got what we wanted. The 13 new states had more power than the federal government, and rather than acting as one country, some were tempted to behave like new countries. I like to use an analogy of a teenager who turns 18 with the realization that they can fly from the nest, but lose any and all benefits of living at home with Mom and Dad. Our country is fortunate there were people like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Robert Morris who stepped forward with leadership and vision. Had it not been for them, our country would likely look altogether different today.

A few weeks ago my students contributed to a collage of words which exemplified leadership; words such as strong, brave, fearless, and more. Being a leader does not always require an individual to be in the forefront of daily events, and I often share with my students times when I see one of them help another with words of encouragement or a helping hand. One word I use in a positive light is INFLUENCE and how leadership is influenced by another's actions. One's smile can contribute to the success of another, especially when they are feeling down and out. There are days when I feel on the receiving end, then others when I become the giver. Regardless, I know the effect it can have in a all-too-powerful way. Each day I witness young people coming to school with baggage piled high on their shoulders, some of it so heavy that it can't be shaken...and my latest guest speaker hit straight to the heart as few have been able to do.

My friend James is a rather unique individual, one who has experienced the darkest of days. With steady persevere and keen focus on "getting it right", he has pulled himself out of a very deep hole and will graduate from a local university within the next 18 months. Some people never learn from their mistakes, but James has become all the more committed in his quest for the goal line. I had the perfect group in mind for him to speak with, and the time was ripe for his inclusion into my Friday schedule of classes. After allocating 45 minutes of time for his reflections on life, it quickly became obvious that the entire block period would be used for ongoing interactions between James, myself and sixty freshmen students who zoned in on the message. Without detailing personal information, James remained tactful in his approach, speaking from both head and heart. He offered both warning and hope to my classes, and they identified with his message in ways that far surpassed all expectations.

There will come a day when I reflect more on the message put forth by James to my students, but for now I circle back to the word INFLUENCE and how each of us can impact others when we chose to open up in a personal and professional manner. On the following Monday I passed a large thank-you card around the room and invited my class to share a line or two with James. Without the smallest prompt I found comments written with genuine and sincere meaning, and it was then that I knew that together we hit the grandest of home runs that day. In twenty years I hope to speak with some of the students who witnessed what took place, to see if James' words resonated in ways I had hoped. I would find satisfaction in knowing that you changed one's fate and prevented those same mistakes from happening once again. In the meantime, I have one very special graduation day marked on my calendar for May 2016.