Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Wake-Up Call to Life

All too often it is the final weeks of school when there are moments I long to remember as being extra-special. One such occasion occurred at the end of May during late afternoon when I sat alone at my desk and looked up to find a young man peering down at me. His face was one I remember from Sept 2012 when I found a silly, immature group of freshmen students inhabiting my locale on the first day of school. Tim (not his real name) was not only silly and immature, but suffered from attention deficit disorder. He was often cooperative in class, but could never complete any assignments, even when they were written down and provided days in advance. This was my first semester of teaching and I often went out of my way in communicating with parents as to celebrations of achievement or concerns for failing grades Tim was one of those students who never got to second base, failing tests without any regards for the consequences. Despite several phone calls and letters to home, I was never able to roust a response from either of his parents, much less his guidance counselor. I felt as if I was flying solo on all fronts, and as a result Tim earned the first "F" in my short career as an educator. At the end of January 2013 I felt I let him down, somehow thinking that a different outcome was possible had I taken immediate action on the first day of class. Over the next three-plus years I moved on from Tim's failure, making him a distant memory in favor of students who demonstrated greater concern for their studies. But memories quickly return from the abyss when that individual suddenly appeared in front of me.

"Hey there, Mr. D! If you have some time I'm in need of a little help." It was Tuesday afternoon and represented my final day overseeing our department's ELO (Extended Learning Opportunity). As it is with many of the students who pop in after school, I put everything aside and provided Tim with my immediate attention. When we finished reviewing his material, I couldn't resist the opportunity to inquire about life over the past few years. He explained how he was cramming for a makeup test in another social studies class that would determine whether he'd graduate with his class. Tim opened up about wishing he could return to my classroom for that first day of school when I attempted to grab his attention. "I should have listened to you as it would have made my life so much easier. My dad told me I need to graduate from high school if I expect to attend MPTC in the fall. Everything's on the line with this test and I can't afford to fail it." His tone was serious in every way and I sensed it was one minute before midnight in his young life.

A few days later it was graduation day at BDHS and I looked forward to seeing Tim make the walk with 225 other classmates. The gymnasium was packed to capacity on a warm Sunday afternoon, and the procession of soon-to-be-grads was impressive from start to finish. This group represented my first batch of freshmen and they were somewhat special to me. During their tenure of high school I watched many of them grow in maturity and stature. However, missing from their ranks was Tim and I quickly grabbed my program in search for his name. There was no trace of him upon the list and I later found out that he fell short in his run to the finish line. There was a pit of disappointment in my stomach that day, much like it was a few years earlier. When students fail a class, they rob themselves of opportunities later in life. Sometimes the best lessons are learned from our falls...and hopefully Tim will learn much from his mistakes.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Student Input and Buy-In

"I'm a Social Studies teacher, not an English teacher."  I've heard that phrase since college days (which isn't that distant in the past), and every time I do I cringe at the concept of anyone thinking that it's not their job to help others improve upon their thinking and writing skills. Imagine a brain surgeon making a similar statement when their patient is hemorrhaging blood while addressing a skull fracture?  In many ways a social studies teacher is in the best position to help students who struggle with various skills associated with writing assignments.

This year my focus is addressing various skill sets with my students, and during the first week of each semester I ask them to make a personal assessment of areas that need improvement. In a non-threatening way I share a time in my past when my writing skills fell far short of personal expectations. In order to advance in my professional career, it was necessary for me to find ways to become a better writer. At that specific time I was well-removed from high school so there was no immediate help at hand. I recall sitting down at my Macintosh computer and typing sentences, then attempting to improve vocabulary and sentence structure, while being proficient with my time. In many ways it was hair-raising experience which I'll never forget. However, over time I became better at what I was doing and not with just writing, but all my language skills improved: reading, speaking and listening.

I introduced the topic of improved writing by revealing a listing of various components which are often associated with it: expand vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation, more descriptives, elaborate, advance planning, more structure, capitalization, run-on sentences, use of commas & periods, write complete sentences, accurate sentence structure, write neatly, write more, comprehension, and write faster. I assure students that together we can work to improve individual performance with these skill sets, but I need them to self-assess and identify three specific areas they want to enhance. This itself makes a great writing prompt and I cue students to explain why they're making those selections.

After collecting their responses, within an Excel spreadsheet I assign point values of 3,2,1 (3=most important) and count the number of times each element is identified within that specific class. As I analyze this information I've discovered that different classes have diverse values for the aforementioned components. For example, one class identified spelling (19-8), expanded vocabulary (13-5), write neatly (13-5), and advance planning (8-5) as their featured goals. (19 is the total point value in that class, 8 is the number of times it was identified)  Another class ascertained expanded vocabulary (33-12), write neatly (21-9), write faster (16-10), and more descriptives (15-7). In addition their explanations offered further input on why they chose specific areas. For example, "write faster" was directly associated with note taking skills and "advance planning" for pulling ideas together when responding to essay questions.

An important element in this focus is sharing results with each class so they can better understand what I'm attempting to do in the coming weeks with various assignments. It's one thing to collect data, but another in implementing a game plan with proper execution. I may not achieve 100% buy-in from every student, but I've found that a great segment will cooperate once they sense someone is attempting to help them with their deficiencies. And indirectly I become a better teacher as a result...something that I value very seriously.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Focusing on Vocabulary

There are days when I sense that my students are anything but in the same room as I. Much like a person on one side of wall who is attempting to make human contact with those on the other, I understand the disconnect many students experience when delving into new material. For second-language learners, this is a regular experience in every classroom throughout the school and it must be incredibly frustrating. As educators we assume that young people understand words which are commonly accepted, but recently I've found this to be anything BUT the truth.

This semester I've focused on specific vocabulary words in an attempt to heighten understanding of concepts associated with reading and writing skills. Back in September during the first week of classes, I surveyed students to identify goals for their first semester of high school. We discussed the benefits of having a specific goal which would allow them to grow both academically and intellectually. To my amazement, over 75% of my students identified the need to expand their vocabulary, but none had any feasible insight on how to do it. The next morning I opened with this statement... "Who plays video games?" In all likelihood I sincerely believe that 100% of all hands went into the air and I quickly realized that the hook had been taken.  "How many of you have improved in your ability to play these games? How did you do it?"  Again, the fishing line went tailing into deeper waters with responses such as: ask friends for help, know the rules, read about the game on the internet, try over and over again, practice, and many more.  "So how might you work to improve your vocabulary by expanding your word selection?"

Suddenly their minds were filled with ideas which quickly came into practice. Many of my students are making use of flash cards, studying with friends, and actively participating in weekly read-arounds. When we begin a new unit of study, I take time to reveal the definitions for featured words. I also make it a point to review meanings associated with prefix and suffix words, a common ground for misunderstanding throughout the English language. In our group writings, I constantly look for ways to include new descriptive words throughout the lesson. Suddenly I'm teaching "English" to Social Studies students, but I'm fine with this in the end. I'm finding that my teaching is more effective when I encourage students to be aware of their own strengths and needs. Students have the ability to set meaningful goals for themselves as long as they let Mr. D ask a few guiding questions in order to lubricate their brains. This new focus on vocabulary is definitely worth expanding upon in future classes.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bringing the Real World into My Classroom

I've always enjoyed making "real life connections" in my classroom, as it allows students to identify with the world around them. My freshmen students are just beginning their unique projects for National History Day and I've asked them to look for ways which people, ideas, movements have persevered with resilience and determination. Most young people know what determination is, but perseverance and resilience are new concepts for them.
Last August my wife and I had the opportunity to have dinner with a former employer, and towards the end of our meal their son joined our table conversation. Austin is a friendly and energetic young man of 23 years, who has dealt with issues pertaining to chronic Lyme disease. While some people have experienced a tick bite, few have experienced the ultimate hell of fatigue, body pain, and feeling of helplessness that is all-to-often associated with chronic Lyme disease.

While the idea of bringing an ill person into my classroom isn't a glamorous must-have topic, the accomplishment of traveling over 2,700+ miles at 37 MPH from Portland, Oregon to central Wisconsin ON A MOPED is the ultimate marquee event for Mr. D's classroom. I insisted that Austin bring his moped right into my classroom, as a prop for students to see and feel while he engaged on a personal story of journey, through America's heartland with but a duffel bag, gallon gas can, and saddlebag of healthy food. There was little doubt in my mind that would connect with Austin in ways which would impact both their outlook on life as well as connecting history with strong, focused individuals. He was warmly received by both of my classes and his message hit home just as I hoped it would.

But it was during the second half of class when Austin's shared his story about his inner struggle, both physically and mentally, that they were surprised to find how this energetic young person had dealt with issues pertaining to chronic Lyme disease over a three-year period of his life. This was a time when others his age were enjoying life to the max, not lost in the despair of utter hopelessness. He spoke about the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, setting aside time just for fun, and keeping a positive attitude. It was about perseverance, determination, and resiliency....qualities which define our character in special ways. Austin has it....and he made sure my students got the message loud and clear. He's a genuine inspiration for others his age...moped and all!

an image of a chart

Monday, August 31, 2015

"Preparing for Take-Off"

While growing up, I became accustomed to Walter Cronkite making that comment while one of NASA's planned missions was in countdown mode. Back in the 1960s there was eager anticipation of each trip, be it placed into orbit around the Earth or making the trip to the Moon. It involved more than just packing the spacecraft with enough food and vital resources, but required the gathering of an enormous amount of information and planning. One mistake and catastrophe would doom the fate of everyone in the space capsule.

Over the past 24 hours, I've found myself in countdown mode for my fourth year of teaching. Everything checks out fine as far as spacesuits, oxygen, pressure, rocket fuel, and motivational speeches to calm the nerves of technicians. In lieu of plotting the course for a simple orbit around the Earth, it's Mars and beyond in the months to come as we kickoff "Global Studies: Eastern Hemisphere" to incoming freshmen. Rather than putting on an act in front of my class in an attempt to convince them that I've aced the material, after much thought I've chosen to be brutally honest in confessing that this is my first 'trip' through the lesson plans. It offers up one of those rare opportunities to show my colors as a 'teacher' on their initial journey crossing the desert rather than a seasoned guide who knows the trail blindfolded. It's an exciting opportunity to lead the way, but in many ways we're walking hand-in-hand. I've got a compass and map in hand...so let's get the troupe of students moving in the right direction. It's going to be an exciting year!

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!