Saturday, August 23, 2014

Reflections On My Summer

Within a matter of hours I'll be back in the classroom, but I pause to ponder on ways I've used the past ten weeks to look at ways for self-improvement in this profession. Although I'm comfortable with the content, I reviewed past lesson plans in an attempt to create more meaning and tie-in to standards. Much like a composer who revises their compositions, I make it a practice to pen notes as to what works well on any given day and what needs attention. When students raised questions regarding a topic, again I made notes in order to delve deeper to find interesting content. When I sensed struggle about an idea, I jotted a note to clarify the intent of the lesson. It's an ongoing process and requires constant monitoring from day to day.

I allocated some time every day to kick back and read books related to Economics and real life. One such reading was "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions" by Dan Ariely. While the average person generalizes the topic of economics as dry and boring, it's all about the many decisions we make every day. We're all guilty of making decisions and then later wonder what we were thinking. Through experiments Ariely breaks down our decision-making process and explains why people act in logic-defying ways. It definitely changes the way one thinks about rational behavior and will instigate some interesting conversation in this year's AP Economics class.

"New Ideas from Dead Economists" was another enjoyable read and offers a historical perspective on many of the concepts taught in both micro and macroeconomics. While I was fully aware of the impact of Adam Smith on our Founding Fathers, I journeyed deeper to find how he clearly defined the proper role for government: first, providing for national defense; second, administering justice through a court system; third, maintaining public institutions and resources and the 'dignity of the sovereign.' I was incensed by the authors constant reminder that "economics is the study of choice. It does not tell us what to choose, It only helps us understand the consequences of our choices." Teachers can sometimes make the mistake of drowning their students in facts without spending adequate time exploring the rationale behind those factoids. This book provided that perspective and emphasizes that there is clearly more to economics than prices, profits, rents, and costs. Laws, morals, fashions, and philosophies all contribute to an economy. Parents must eventually learn to teach their children how to handle uncertainty, not how to ensure stability. This is why Economics should today be a required course in every high school!

My summer also consisted of curriculum building as I am preparing a new course offering of "Global Studies" for the 2015-16 school year. Much like I did with AP Economics, I'm provided the freedom to explore resources to construct this new course which will become a requirement for all incoming freshmen. While the challenge is great, I sense an opportunity to create something very meaningful. Again, it's more than content...and requires rigor and fortitude. Content must not only align to standards. but help students learn to think, communicate and solve problems. The course outline is only one step on a long stairway to higher learning, but an important one which sets the foundation for excellence.

Finally, there was also considerable time spent on PBIS for the coming school year. Detailed lesson plans for every homeroom adviser were assembled to insure a good start. Presentations to staff not only provided statistics on 2013-14 but put forth some attainable goals for 2014-15. Videos featuring students and modeled behaviors will reinforce the message throughout the school. Best of all, our superintendent has made PBIS a district-wide initiative this year...so every school will be on board. As students from elementary and middle schools make their way into high school, the concept of recognizing and rewarding positive behavior will become all the more easier.

And so my journey continues. The path will not always be smooth and straight, but bumps and curves create an interesting ride. It also keeps the traveler interested in the scenery. I see some wonderful landscape ahead!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Door Swings Both Ways

This past week I said goodbye to a pair of colleagues who have influenced my short teaching career. Their departure was rather sudden, but as can be expected in the business world, you rarely find people staying put all the time. Much like a young worker whom you had high expectations for, the day comes when they enter your office and announce that they can't wait for the promotion that was expected. Much like the future-manager who confessed to needing more challenges, then hastily accepting a new position with your competitor. Their leaving creates a wound which takes time to heal...be it at a school, business, or household. Life will proceed as it has for the past thousands of years, and in a month or two no one will admit to have noticed the change.

Just as these two individuals leave through the swinging doors, there will shortly be new faces in the crowd to interject thoughts and ideas on my life as well as those around me. They will most likely challenge some conventional ways of thinking, yet infusing new perspectives on time-honored traditions within the halls of the school. Bring it on!

Friday, August 1, 2014

It's August...already!

Many of my fellow teachers stay away from the classroom until the official call goes out for the start of a new school year. I stand not in judgement of them, knowing that in life (regardless of one's profession) people often act in the same manner. I tend to immerse myself in learning throughout the summer, using some of my downtime to search for new materials and challenge myself with new skills associated with technology. My backyard, often referred to as the center of my universe, becomes a haven for contemplation from sunrise to sunset and I'm able to charge my batteries in ways which few would fully understand.

Even though I still have four weeks until in-service week, I like to peek ahead by looking at class rosters and reviewing past grades for this year's classes, not so much to make predetermined judgments on individual students, but to get a feel for various learning styles which will be my focus for the months to come. No two students learn the same way, and my lesson plans need constant tweaking in order to provide versatility at a moment's notice.

I am also in the midst of authoring a new course for the 2015-16 school year which will impact the school curriculum for many years to come. As we transition from U.S. History (pre-colonial to WWI) to Global Studies, I am looking for ways to incorporate new standards for the Common Core into a rigorous offering of history, geography, and modern-day problems associated with countries in the eastern hemisphere. This is a slow process, but one which I fully embrace for what it is...an opportunity to raise the level of expectations on all fronts.

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.