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 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 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.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Opening Day's Hook, Line, and Sinker

The first day of class is a special time for not only students, but for recent newcomers like myself. I refrain from coming on to my students like an out-of-control avalanche, preferring instead to share insight on this person they're "stuck with" for the next several months. I want them to understand that I was once like them, albeit many years ago. Within Prezi I offer up some pictures of my parents first-date, a family photo when I was about 8 years old (missing my front teeth), my Junior Prom pic (along with my special date), a graduation mug shot, my first car (a '68 Chevy Malibu), our wedding picture, Jacob's baby picture with a series of photos which detail his growth to 6'7", a father/son graduation pose, Ashley & Jacob's wedding day, and their most-recent addition of MacKenzie Ryann. I share my reasons for being involved with Relay for Life, offer up some pictures of my favorite teachers, friends, and others who have impacted my life, and wrap it up with a rendition of "Watch your words, thoughts, actions..."

We discuss expectations for one another and how their attitudes will impact their progress not only in my classroom, but throughout life itself. I share what we will be learning in the different units of study, why we start where we do, and where we will end up at the end of the semester. I distribute the letters from last year's classes...each one special for the way it forewarns the pitfalls of not completing your work on time as well as introducing "Mr. D" as a great teacher. (I don't know whether or not I've attained 'greatness' yet, but I'm working on it) I'll ask them to read 1-2 letters and then pair-share with their table partner, then discuss with the adjacent table, and then open it up to the class for a general summary- which I'll bullet-list on the SmartBoard.  I remind them that the class is not always easy, and my job is to challenge them with information and concepts which can be applied to the real world. History has a way of do that to all of us!

Each year I attempt a new "hook" which grabs student attention and provides the focus where we're headed in the months to come. So many of today's students are visual learners in much of what they learn. By tapping into the rhythm and message of music, I can show my students how studying history allows us to take a step back in reflection of the lessons that are offered to those who become all the more aware of it. While I back away from following too much of today's teen music, there was a song offered up by One Direction, a British boy band, late last year called "Story of My Life." If you're not aware of it, there is a link on the title to YouTube where it has now been seen by (only) 265+ million views. The tune is catchy but it also offers up a vision of how our lives more forward with changes in friends, family, values, and so much more. While teens are most likely aware of the words, I doubt they've ever considered the "historical" twist within the video.

This "hook" will get their attention, but the "line" which pulls them in is the accompanying video created by "The Piano Guys," a group which none will be familiar with. It has NO WORDS....but the video tells a story just as special and unique as it's predecessor. Released six months following the original, it requires students to follow the life of a little boy to that of an old man reminiscing about life in his drawings. Shown alone, either would tug at one's emotions. Shown back-to-back with some helpful insight will provide the total "sinker" which will set the stage for many opportunities to see history from an entirely new perspective.

When students leave my classroom on their first day, their initial assignment is to find one or more pictures of special people in their lives...either in the past or present. Together we will create a picture wall much like the one seen in the original One Direction video. And throughout the next five months we will explore the many lessons found within U.S History. We are a people moving forward with past filled with various traditions, cultures, and heritage. We explore our entwined roots and look at ways which provide strength for today's generation of learners. This will be my best "Opening Day" yet!

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 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 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 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!