Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Promise Made, A Promise Kept

It was January 2012 when I was first introduced to Diego and Cesar, two unique individuals who had recently arrived in the United States from Mexico. It was my first day in the role of student teacher and as part of my dual certification in ESL and Broadfield Social Sciences, it was a requirement for me to work with second language learners. I remember the moment a few months earlier when my cooperating principal smiled as he made the statement "I have the perfect situation for you in my school"....and then handed me over to these two level one English learners. Since the high school had no formalized ELL program in place, I was presented with a one-of-a-kind opportunity which cemented my commitment to teaching....and learning.

Diego and Cesar knew how to smile and nod their head in agreement, and the first thing I found myself doing was reciprocating in return. In a simplistic way, I assured them that I was there to help. It was more than me teaching them English words in an attempt to help them coexist in this new world, but exchanging both culture and language. I began with the basics....counting numbers, telling time, learning colors and members of the family. They laughed when I mangled their language, and I smiled with them when they attempted to construct new sounds from vowels and consonants which they interpreted differently. The 45-minutes of class time during 1st hour went by quickly and they always came to class prepared with completed assignments and questions about specific words.

As they became more comfortable with Mr. D, they arrived before as well as stayed after school with questions about algebra and science. It's one thing to assist regular students with finding solutions to square roots and transcendent addition sets, and another to work your way through translation of terms while still keeping it simple to understand. It also afforded me the opportunity to revisit my personal frustration of algebraic equations and polynomials I had shrugged off many years ago. Nonetheless we worked through it together and I often reflect that their witnessing my weakness served as a model of determination on their part. Our eighteen weeks together created a friendship and respect for one another, and when I left their school in June I made a promise to return for their day of graduation.

As Linda and I sat in the high school gymnasium that Friday evening, I thought back to those days and how much I learned from Diego and Cesar. Much of what they taught me went well beyond the realm of classroom knowledge, focusing instead on the human spirit and what it means to be a second language learner in a foreign land. In many ways it resembled a time back in 1996 when we opened our home to Vicente Castro, an exchange student from Los Cabos. As the Weyauwega band played the entrance music, I watched with pride as Diego and Cesar came forward with their peers. When their names were called to come forth to accept their diploma, I felt a part of me being pulled to the stage. But best of all was their exit from the gym that night....and finding them in the hallway of the school....looking for me.

We hugged in celebration of their realization of a high school diploma, recalling that their journey was the result of much work on their part. While the exchange of words was more fluent and easier understood (on both parts) from that day in January 2012, the bond of friendship will always remain strong. When I returned to my classroom for the final two days of classes at Beaver Dam High School, I shared both my picture and story with my freshman students...not for the role which I may have played in their education, but for the successful accomplishments of these two young men. I will always be grateful for the lessons they taught Mr. D!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Keep an Eye on the Class of 2017

My school year lasted two extra days this year due to extra-curricular activities with the freshman class. As their Class Adviser I have an opportunity to follow this group to their graduation day in June 2017, something I look forward to with great anticipation. This is an interesting group of characters, and they possess skill sets which could set them apart from other groups of students who journeyed through the halls of BDHS. While the administration has given them and myself the freedom to conduct projects for the purpose of building a class treasury, they are slowly coming of age with confidence and maturity. In April they sponsored "Friendship Week" with a week-long flower sale, then during May they designed and sold an official class t-shirt to members of their class. Last week they held a outdoor Summer Dance which marked the end of the school year with a strong turnout of students. At the end of June they are organizing a Brat Fry which will culminate their first year of activity in high school. These four projects will create the cornerstone of what should be almost $1,000 for what will eventually become their Senior Project. No doubt the upper classes of students are envious for what these students have accomplished in their first year, knowing full-well that the sophomore and junior class has $0 in their accounts.

As a teacher I feel a sense of accomplishment with this group and they've been put on alert that I will continue to challenge them over the next three years. While the "fun aspect" is an easy-sell to these students, I want them to understand the benefit of reaching out to all members of their class. I want them to realize that it's more than just having 3-4 classmates organize all their social activities. By involving more students in the decision-making process, they can actually enjoy more activities in the long run. More people lends to the development of creative thinking and a better buy-in from throughout their class.

Why should any second-year teacher tackle challenges such as these? It enhances the buy-in factor by students in so many ways both in and outside of the classroom. In teaching U.S. History to this year's freshman class, I was able to interact with only about 20% of their classmates. The rest knew who I was and always offered up a greeting when passing through the hall. That 20% spread the word that someone believed in their class, in academics, athletics, and other extra-curricular activities. While I'm not here to be a best-friend to these young people, they do have a sense that they have a trusting adult who will work with them to achieve common goals.

In the final days of school there was more than one occasion when a freshman would make the statement "Mr. D, we want you to know that we want you to continue being our class adviser next year!" I assured them they were stuck with me and I was staying right with them until the day they graduated, eliminating any doubts from their mind. This journey has been enjoyable and most rewarding, knowing that adults can make a difference in the life of a young person. But they've also taught me that students learn best when they are in control of their learning. Teachers cannot talk and talk and talk while students listen. Teachers have to engage their students in meaningful activities, pushing them to the deep end of the swimming pool where the real learning takes place. This has been a GREAT year!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Civil War, Camp Randall, Jump Around, and Jared

History can often overwhelm young people and teaching requires an ongoing shift of ways to approach a topic. Most teens are geared for what's happening in their life today...not 25, 50, 100 or more years ago. I remind them how lessons can be learned from history, and in many ways it cycles with people repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. The Civil War is filled with such examples of hatred, contempt, power struggles, second-chances, death and rebirth, and more. 

I always set a small block of time aside to explore Wisconsin's role in the Civil War by introducing Old Abe (the Bald Eagle who was involved with several battles), Governor Randall (who sacrificed his life while taking supplies to troops in Tennessee), and the Iron Brigade (reputed to be the finest and fiercest Union regiment). Today's teens are fully aware of 'Jump Around", the hip-hoppin' rap song played just before the start of every 4th quarter home game for the Wisconsin Badgers. The stadium venue has achieved celebrity status on gameday, but few, if any, of my students are aware of the history associated with Camp Randall and the Civil War. It served not only as a facility to train Wisconsin troops, but also housed prisoners of war from the South. When people walk through one of the main entrances on the grounds of Camp Randall, they unknowingly pass under the Memorial Arch, dedicated to those who served in this conflict.

While this is all good and informative, it's "HOW" I get there that impacts their learning. As I've noted before, I begin class with a "Thinking Prompt" that grabs their attention and pulls them in. Last Monday it started with a motivational slide and the words "I CAN"...then transcending to a slide with Walt Disney's quote of "All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them." Kids of all ages not only like, but they also associate with Disney. Each of them identifies with one specific character, be it a hero, villain, or underdog. Then I pull in a slide of Camp Randall, play a 2-minute video of Jump Around and demonstrate how the crowd is fully-engaged. Their eyes are lighting up......

"Okay Mr. D.....where are you going with all of this?" During the weekend the NFL held its annual draft and one of the Badgers greatest success stories became a 5th round pick of the Green Bay Packers. Jared Abbrederis exemplifies everything special about underdogs making it in the world if they follow their dreams with guts and determination. Although many of them recognize the role he played with Wisconsin, none of them are aware of his walk-on status as an incoming freshman. None of them know about breaking his femur and being in a wheelchair three months prior to leading his high school team to a state track championship. None of them were aware that Jared grew up in Wautoma, a small town I worked in for 30+ years. I knew first-hand of his challenges in talking with friends and family over the years....and I shared some of this with my class.

If ANYONE is going to get to the place they're headed, it will be Jared. I'm not referring to life in the NFL, but the biggest game of all....life! He is focused and inspired, humbled and honored. I made a bold prediction that day with the statement that Mr Abbrederis will make it with the Packers. Not only does he now wear Sterling Sharpe's former number (84), but he walks with a determination that will bring success in life. My message that morning was "follow your dreams and persevere." ....not just the way Jared did it, but as all those quiet heroes from the Civil War did as life moved forward. Learn from the past and live for the future!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

History Overload

With only six weeks remaining in the current school year, we're moving into one of my favorite teaching units- the Civil War Era of U.S. History. While I know my students are already looking forward to summer vacation, I know that I still have their attention. Before kicking off the unit I wanted to assess common knowledge among my classes in order to avoid wasting time teaching information which was already commonplace. I assured my students that this was neither a quiz or a test and no one would be reprimanded if they couldn't remember anything from earlier instruction in middle and grade school. Each person was given a blank KWL chart with instructions to provide Knowledge which they already knew about the Civil War, insight into what they Wanted to learn or know more about, and the information which was Learned at the end of the unit (to be completed after their unit test).

I explained how if I knew in advance that they wanted to explore information about specific people and events (including battles, inventions, advancements in medicine, and anything else), I could work it into our daily syllabus. In looking at their facial reactions, I doubt many teachers had ever said addressed them this way before. Imagine...a teacher who was truly willing to adapt and modify their lesson plans to what the kids wanted to learn! Whoa!! It definitely caught their attention and they provided plenty of feedback for me. Unfortunately, to my dismay, I discovered that aside from knowing that the North defeated the South, there was little information sticking in their memory banks from past classrooms. I SMELL OPPORTUNITY!

While I know full-well that past teachers surely did their best to pack lots of information into the heads of their students, they missed an opportunity to instill 2-3 key components which would serve as everlasting memories. Had those key points made their way into the memory banks of students, they would have content from which future inquiries could be activated. My job is to make sure they come away with that foundation firmly in place, a springboard from which they can investigate further. No teacher should ever hope to cram EVERYTHING they know about the Civil War into a 2-3 week unit, much less a semester-long project. Teachers should instead aim for planting seeds and opening doors for future learning.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Grooming Student Leadership

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the school district's long-term Vision and Mission planning initiative, and this involved coming together with twenty-eight individuals representing the school board, business, educators, students, and concerned citizens in order to identify core strategic objectives. Over the course of eight weeks it was a first-class affair, and after some guided discussion everyone came to a general consensus for areas which the administration and board will concentrate their efforts in months to come.

One objective was directed at student growth and achievement throughout the school district, calling for "the improved growth and achievement for each student, each year through personalized learning, continual data, reflection, fluid delivery of services/supports, and leadership development."  Those last two words caught my immediate attention as I believe that all schools, not just those of my employment, have issues which can be directly tied to lack of student leadership.
Grooming future leaders is not any easy, but I credit those people who recognize this as a serious issue. While students might aspire to be a leader, what vehicle is in place (or could be put into place) which will best cultivate this practice. When we say the word "leader", do our students construct an image of a well-known politician, athlete, movie-star or best-selling rap artist?

Good leadership does not happen overnight and there are a multitude of organizations already attempting to address that issue, including National Honor Society, Student Council, Link Crew and many more. Grooming student leaders should not involve the manipulation of students whereby staff is making the decisions and students are asked to 'rubberstamp' their decisions. I also tend to shy away from programs that simply inform students and then little is done to stimulate discussion for the expression of personal opinion. Traditional schools often take satisfaction in finding one student who will serve as leader for their class, and although a leader can have their ideas, change cannot be adopted through the actions of only one person.

In my journey as Class Advisor to the Freshmen Class this past year, I see those individuals with the potential to lead. I often refer to them as the quiet leaders within their groups of friends...those who know right from wrong and are looked up to by others. These individuals are diamonds in the rough. With the right nurturing they could exert influence for positive change throughout the school and community. I look forward to seeing how the district's new initiative is addressed from this point forward, and I'll gladly contribute my time and effort in empowering students so they are actively involved in the decision-making process. Peter Parker (a/k/a Spiderman) noted it well, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Thursday, February 27, 2014

GOAL PLANNING 101 with My Freshmen

This year's class of freshmen students is a one-of-a-kind group and I sensed their potential from the first day of school. While some teachers are impressed with intelligence, athleticism and demeanor, I consider camaraderie and personal regard for one another as key ingredients to the long-term success as individuals and the overall collective. I doubt they were ever made aware of it before, but they exhibit a rare quality which is genuine and very true. There is something "there" which other classes lack in social interaction, and they have the opportunity to achieve things which is sometimes recognized as greatness.

They enjoy competition, but keep it in perspective. They take learning serious, but enjoy moments when they can kick back and just be themselves. They aspire to be good and are just beginning to learn what it will take to become "the best" in every sense of the word. As one of their teachers I look for any opportunity to introduce new concepts which brings the real world into my classroom. It doesn't necessarily need to be one of my past experiences in the workplace (although it sometimes help)...just as long as I am genuine in my approach. Kids can see a phony coming from any direction, but when you show your human side you get their attention.

Today I introduced GOAL PLANNING 101 and my opening question was "What does it take to accomplish a goal?" They came up with some pretty good answers, but the most important response was left unheard. I waited until they exhausted their list, and then added what I felt was most important...'You have to write it down on paper.' I shared moments when salespeople told me they were going to do this and that- and then neglected to write it in their daily planners in order to insure that it was something they were REALLY going to attempt to accomplish. I spoke of my friend James and how he worked diligently over many hours to construct an outline which spelled out his road map for success. Finally, I reminded them how a group of aspiring patriots came together during the summer of 1776 to construct a paper which one day became our Declaration of Independence. "Imagine what our country might have turned into had they NOT written everything down on paper? Do you really think they would have succeeded?"

Not every student in my room heard and understood 100% of the words I spoke today, but they know I'll revisit the concept again in the days ahead. There will be some who shrug it off as meaningless and sublime, but I willing to bet that most of this group will "get it" and begin working on their individual goals. They know my door is always open, Mr. D is there to help, and that success is something worth pursuing. This is a group which will eventually leave their mark of achievement as others had only hoped to do...count on it!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Their Turn to Share

Many times students think the course is over once they finish their final exam. However, with 15 minutes of time remaining until dismissal, Mr. D had one last assignment for his freshmen students. This idea is one that I latched on to during my time at UW-Stevens Point, and I vowed to use it once I found my comfort zone in the classroom. After providing them all with a clean piece of line paper, I asked them to write a personal letter to the next class of incoming students. "You have my permission to be brutally honest with them, and I will not initiate recourse against anyone for what you may say or imply in your note. But I do want you to share some insight on what they need to be aware of when they come into my classroom."   The next 10-12 minutes found absolute silence as pencils hit the papers and stories were shared. Each of them offered up irreplaceable tidbits and their insight is priceless. Here's a small sampling of their letters.....

"Mr. Duesterbeck is a really helpful teacher. He stays after school almost everyday to help with U.S. History, homework, go over tests, or just to offer his room for a quiet study area. You should always do your homework, it will be really helpful in the long run. Most of the questions on your homework are usually on the test. Taking notes can be very beneficial, especially for studying for tests."

"Be prepared for the best class of all time. You will take a decent amount of notes but nothing too crazy. If you pay attention and do your homework, you should be able to succeed in this class. Mr. D will teach you many new things and in doing so, he'll make it fun."

"Pay attention and take notes. Then when you have a test, study. Also, do the homework and you will get a good grade in the class. There's not a ton of notes. The teacher is awesome and will do anything to help the students have success. If you're having trouble just ask for help."

"Enjoy Mr. D. He is awesome and makes learning super fun. Make sure you keep up with the pink sheets so you know what's going on. Also, make sure to not let all the time you have on your history project get to you. Make sure you start it right away! Just enjoy the class and Mr. D & you will be fine."

"Mr. D is a cool teacher and likes to have fun, but you need to stay focused on your homework. Take good notes for quizzes and tests. Make sure you aren't talkative or you'll get him on his bad side."

"For your History Day project, choose a partner who you know will do work and choose a topic that interests you. Also, save all the unit tests for finals because they're helpful and he makes sure you have them. Another thing, if you actually pay attention, you'll pretty much get an A in the class."

"If you're in Mr. D's class then you're a beast. So, I'm going to give you some advice. First of all, write good notes! Only write what you need to and leave the little details out. Second, don't take your second/third/fourth/52nd chance for granted. In this class you're not allowed to fail, but you can succeed. Mr. Duesterbeck lets some things slide, but if you continue with your bad habits...well. Overall, just be good!"

"It is important to have the max amount of swag in this class. I was Mr. D's favorite student so beat that! On a serious note, be respectful and don't make eye contact with Mr. D or he WILL call on you. Be ready to take notes and listen because it will help you later on in tests."

"As soon as you get assignments, start on them- next thing you know they'll be due if you put them off. Pay attention or you'll get lost and behind. Mr. D's class is fun, but you have to work with him and do your best. No lackin'. It's not the easiest class, but it doesn't have to be hard."

"The thing you have to know about U.S. History is Mr. D is not only a teacher but a friend. He can tell when you're having a bad day and he pushes you to do your best. He's a fun loving guy and he makes every day exciting. A few rules to follow are: don't sleep, don't get behind in work, and use class time to get things done."

"Mr. D's History class is a great class, but listen to what I have to say. Studying is very important. Mr. D does show a slide of notes, but he does not show everything that is on the tests and quizzes. Make sure to take notes from the book because it will help you overall. Make sure to keep in mind both of these things because they are crucial to surviving Mr. D's class."

"U.S. History is a great time and Mr. Duesterbeck is a fantastic teacher. Just make sure you show him respect and he will respect you. Make sure you take notes! It will burn them in your mind. Make sure you keep up with homework. You will really enjoy everything about the class and Mr. D if you follow these easy and simple rules."

"Get ready to have fun in this class. Mr. D is the greatest and he makes learning fun. Mr. D is the best teacher ever! He makes history come to life."

These are only thirteen of the 58 (maybe even more) reasons as to why I enjoyed teaching so much over the last five months. Their willingness to share gives me great hope for what may lay ahead.