Saturday, December 15, 2012

Getting Students to Think Challenging Thoughts

Whether they realize it or not, my students are influenced by every interaction in life, if only in the smallest of ways. All humans are impacted daily as a result of the ways which we socialize with one another. Demonstrating the concept of 'influence' and how it coincides with the creation of the U.S. Constitution might be seen as a stretch, but it provided a genuine opportunity for good learning this past week. It would also be a challenging one for my students as well as this first-year teacher, and the paradox took place on the day of a formalized Teacher Observation by the school's Assistant Principal. It had all the makings of a huge disaster or one which would open the door for long-term success.

My freshmen classes have been embedded in a four-week unit on the Constitutional Convention, U.S. Constitution, and accompanying Bill of Rights...subjects which are not often warmly embraced by a generation which is oriented for visual learning. The first 10 years of our nation's history were wrapped around the Articles of Confederation, a unique concept in itself, but a time which did not allow our country to fulfill expectations of its citizenry. Representatives arriving in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention sought change, but couldn't agree on how this would all come about. Each of these fifty-five men were influenced by writers and books from not only their era, but a time reaching back over 500 years prior. My ordeal was finding a way to apply this concept into "real time" so students would identify with the big idea.

There are times when teaching can be simplistic in nature and minimal effort is required by the teacher. For the record, I avoid this teaching style as it is stuffy and b-o-r-i-n-g. I like to mix it up by challenging my class with "stuff" which ties to 21st century learners to an exciting perspective like U.S. History. I began by asking students to explain the word INFLUENCE. What did it mean to be INFLUENTIAL?  Would they agree with me that their lives were influenced by their friends and family?  I instructed each student to use my blank handout to compile a list of books, movies, music, and TV shows that have influenced them, providing no more than two for any one media. This was easy enough for them to do, but the hardest was yet to come....

I asked students to put this paper aside so we could review the purposes behind the Constitutional Convention, a subject which they had been well-versed on in past days. I reminded them that state governments appointed delegates to attend the convention, twelve states sent delegations (who was missing?), delegates were civic leaders, members of congress, leaders of state governments, and revolutionary war veterans, and that the convention was held in Philadelphia, the largest city in the United States at that time. What they didn’t know was The Library Company, one of the nation’s first libraries, provided books and reference material for the Convention delegates. Imagine that, a library which was located next door, was shuffling books and documents back and forth to the closed-door meeting so delegates could use this material to construct a new constitution. These reference materials were INFLUENCING the very men who were debating a new structure for our government. The books offered up ideas and and information, some of which was written over 500 years before their birth. I displayed the words PRIOR KNOWLEDGE on the screen and probed as to where they (my students) received this information from. "That's easy, Mr. D...from our parents, friends, teachers, and life." Do you think that PRIOR KNOWLEDGE played a role for those attending the Constitutional Convention?

Now, the assignment.....I preassembled packets of excerpts from the different writings of Locke, Machiavelli, Blackstone, Swift, Paine, the Bible, Magna Carta and others for the class to examine. Based on the available time and overall difficulty of the lesson, they didn't have to look at them all, only 3-4 writings which I randomly highlighted. I preselected groups by targeting six individuals who were mature enough to keep their groups centered on the task and other students were assigned by personal learning skills. Rather than risking challenged students ending up all in the same group, I mixed them up so individual strengths could assist with those who need additional help. Handouts were distributed with the idea that this was "The Founders' Library" and they were being asked to identify segments of writings which were then integrated into both the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Tough stuff but an opportunity for true learning!

Students were off to the races, anxious to socialize about this difficult assignment which Mr. D had given them. As much as I had explained and asked if there were any questions prior to their group work, there were still those who looked at the handout and instantly threw their hands up in the air with pleas of "I don't get what we have to do!" This was a normal reaction and I knew that each group would need individual attention; after all, this is was true teaching is all about. I reiterated the instructions which those groups who struggled with the task and slowly they got it. They matched specific ideas with the First Amendment or 4th Article....then went on to the next writing. It was 15 minutes of absolute learning, moving from group to group, waiting for total chaos to break out, all while being very much aware that my performance was being evaluated by a superior in the corner of the room. Yikes!

The chaos never once erupted and students remained on task for the entire class period. Five minutes prior to the end of class, it was time to tie everything together. I asked students to pull out their original handout which outlined 6-8 things which influenced them and their thinking in life. By understanding how our country’s leaders had been influenced by books and writers, I asked them to respond to a writing prompt of “How do our lists of 'favorites' influence the ways in which we think about life?”  Their writing would not be graded on punctuation and grammar, but on content which they offered up in response to what they had learned in class today. "Bring it back tomorrow and turn it in for credit."

This had been a good day for many reasons and "connections made" was at the top of that list. Their in-class worksheets noting the ties between thinkers and the Constitution was one thing, but then to read students' understanding of how influenced they are by movies, music, and other media is totally priceless. This is genuine learning to the max and I was satisfied in knowing that my risky lesson plan did everything I hoped for and more. And the formal evaluation by my school principal was pretty sweet, too! She observed everything which took place, probably more so than I did. As a result, this teacher reinforced an important concept that the best teaching is engaged learning.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Should the Norm be an Acceptable Behavior?

This morning I drove into town to complete some errands before the first winter storm of the season descends on the area. It's a beautiful day with plenty of sunshine and somewhat mild temps. As I headed back home I passed a stretch of the county road which had been the resting spot for someone’s VCR cassette tape many weeks ago. It had evidently fallen out from a vehicle and was removed from its case. Over the course of this time period, the combination of passing cars and westerly winds had strewn the tape back and forth across the ditch, creating an ugly eyesore for anyone taking notice. In my estimation I've probably driven past this eyesore at least a dozen times, thinking that someone needed to stop and pick it up before the winter winds made it even worse. It was when my vehicle got about 100 feet past this mess that my conscience got the best of me and I back up to address the issue. It had gotten substantially worse since the first time I spotted this back in early October, and it probably took me an entire THREE minutes to clean up both sides of the road. I asked myself why hadn't I done this before? And because of this new-found love for teaching, I began exploring the issue of how we ALL accustom ourselves to the norm as acceptable behavior.

This went way beyond the idea that a 50 ft stretch of littered landscape needed to be cleaned up, and I pondered how all of us (from kids to adults) become ignorant of conduct which once was intolerable. Why would the good citizens who travel this road, not just once a day but several times, close their eyes to the need to stop their vehicle in order to attend to picking up the mess? Maybe they saw it the first time, but after that did they close their eyes to what needed to be done? And I am no better than anyone else since I could have done this many weeks ago, too! It’s one thing to see this trash as disgusting, but altogether more alarming when people begin to accept it as the norm without doing something about it.

Over the past four months I’ve witnessed something similar in the realms of education. All too often I have a sizable portion of students who come to school deprived of sleep as a result of staying up late in order to chat online, text, or play the latest video game. Assigned schoolwork becomes second priority (if that), and they are null to any sense of urgency. I’m not against young people having fun outside of school, but I have concern as to how this is ‘new norm’ could impact their future. As I contact parents in order to voice concern, I find more and more of them are acceptable of this behavior…and I’m often told “they will grow out of it.”

While most likely they will move beyond adolescence, they renege on a time in their life when they need to learn structured routines, in addition to placing education at the forefront of their lives. I have colleagues who are frustrated with the lack of response and I feel their pain. My approach is to take each student one day at a time, working whatever persuasion I can into every lesson plan. I am far from being a one-man army in this quest, and above all else I want to make sure that I never lose my sense of concern…just as so many local residents lost sight of the trash along the road. Although little is known about Aesop, the legend speaks of ways which he was able to inspire the least-likely of learners. Let us learn from him and never lose sight of how our roads should look when they are clean of debris and how our children can learn when they stand clear of diversions.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Leading Horses to Water

This quarter I have the opportunity to teach the subject of 'American Government' to a group of senior students via a block class format, and the first three weeks have provided a handful of memorable occasions when I was able to introduce new concepts. While the subject of Federalism means little to nothing for most people, it represents one of the fundamental principles for how our form of government was devised. It also separates us from other governments in distinct ways by providing the direct election of our leaders, placing responsibilities in the hands of leaders which can sometimes come into direct conflict with the interests of the common people.

The ways in which federal and state government have evolved over the years is a subject in itself, and I emphasize to students that it's important to be aware of what public officials can and CANNOT do with the powers granted to them within the confines of the constitution. I am guarded in sharing my personal opinions with students as I want them to make their own conclusions about current events and matters regarding issues which concern both present and future happenings. There are times when I act as devil's advocate in order to get them thinking about all sides sides of an issue, not just the side to which they gravitate to naturally. I want them to understand why liberals think one way, conservatives another, and how people can then get stuck in the middle. I find that young people tag themselves as "liberal" or "conservative" as they see a connection with being open-minded and fair when in fact it should be more of a relation to the responsibility and scope of government in our daily lives.

As we completed a portion of the unit, I asked my students as to how many of them were aware of a topic called Eminent Domain. Out of twenty-nine students, there was not one hand which went up and I jumped upon this opportunity to proceed with a discussion about whether local government could seize personal property for the common good of society. This issue does not take on the glamour whereby sides are easily defined, such as Democrats vs Republicans and liberal vs conservative. A pair of videos, one by Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes and another by a local TV reporter in Pennsylvania, brought the concept into a better light and students saw how the issue impacted quiet communities whereby 'progress' was defined as the demolition of neighborhoods in order to improve upon the existing tax base. Halfway into the video I paused to ask my students whether they could envision something like this taking place in Beaver Dam in order to build a new school, expand the highway, or improve upon the downtown area. It was here that the connection was made and my class was immediately divided in half. "It worked!"

Regardless of which position a person takes in the issue of eminent domain, I was seeking a connection of the unit theme (Federalism) with a pertinent topic of interest. Once that linking takes place within the mind of an individual, the magic of learning kicks into high gear and you see, hear and feel the correlation they've made. As a teacher I relish those moments and it is then that I am thankful for being in this time and place of my life. It gives me satisfaction and hope that more of these opportunities still lay ahead.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Making Connections to History

One of my favorite exercises in this new career has been providing opportunities for my students to write about themselves, and whether they realize it or not, I can often set the stage for ways which allows them to connect historical events. Two weeks ago I used an Analogy Chart to compare the concept of colony with that of being a child seeking independence. As we wrapped up the period of the Revolutionary War this week, I interjected a prompt whereby each student was asked to free-write one page about a day in their life when they tried something for the very first time. How did they feel? Were they successful? Did their success or failure affect their determination to attempt it again? And what did they learn about themselves?

Once the prompt is fed to my students, I like to walk around the room while expanding on the concept as response time differs from person to person. I often need to offer up additional information such as: "Tell me about the first time you went swimming into deep water all by yourself. Were you scared or brave in your approach? Maybe you rode the roller coaster for the first time or went on another carnival ride which turned you upside down. Once you found out how much fun it was, were you ready to do it again? What about the first deer that you shot? Or the first fish you caught all by yourself? How about the first time you danced with a girl or a guy?....."  Sometimes I have to feed them ques for 5-7 minutes until every hand is scripting a response, then I take a step back and watch them make music (the kind which comes from transcription).

As has been the case in the past, once they get their minds headed in the right direction, a student’s work is masterful and intriguing. As to why I had them write about this, it involves the concept of how the United States came about after receiving its independence from England. For the first 10 years it was a very difficult time for everyone associated with this country. They had to make some adjustments as to how our government was structured and run. There was much quarreling among our founding fathers, but they worked together to get the kinks worked out. Determination and fortitude laid the foundation for great success in our country.

While adults keen on American history may see the historical significance of this period in time, young people often think that people inhabiting this country were all on the same page. As much as Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hancock and all the others loved the concept of independence, their "first time" with democracy was anything but a picnic. They were scared, yet optimistic...calm, yet anxious...supportive, yet critical...confident, yet precarious in their approach to government and the role it would play in this new country.

After they've completed the task, it is here when I feed them a pitch which serves as a magnet to the concept of American democracy undergoing struggles in their first go-around after independence. For many in the class, the light bulb goes off and the connection is made. For others, the seed has been planted for another time when they see the signifigance of the events. In the meantime, their individual responses shed light on their unique personalities and ways in which they've been impacted by the world around them.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reflection at Nine Weeks

On Friday afternoon I put the finishing touches on my first quarter of high school, logging grades and comments into the gradebooks of over one hundred and thirty-seven students. I not only have all of their names and faces burned into my memory bank, but I'm fully aware of all past-due assignments and the excuses which are most-often associated with them. Despite their faults, my classroom experiences with young people have been very rewarding and I wouldn't trade them for anything of value.

Near the top of my most memorable have been those encounters with a handful of autistic students. Working with these individuals requires more than just an alternative lesson-plan, and I found my extra laptop to be a great resource. While our minds know when to slow up and shift into safety mode, these students are working overtime in ways which few could ever fathom. In the long run this takes a toll on these students and there are days when I feel their stress. My Econ class completed its block schedule this week and one student offered up a presentation on the gaming industry which was exceptional in every sense of the word. This person came SO FAR since the first day of school and I was proud of what they accomplished in my classroom.

While my freshmen are all returning for another quarter of U.S. History, on Monday I begin a new venture on American Government with 29 seniors. On the eve of a national election and a fresh financial crisis looming on the horizon, the next nine weeks should offer up an assortment of new challenges....and I can't wait for it to start!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Challenge of Listening

Throughout my career in the business world, I was amazed at how many times both employees and customers had to be told something before they fully comprehended it. No doubt this was something which frustrated even the most skilled sales professionals who attempted to right the ship, and once again I am experiencing this same mindset with high school students. I fully understand that not all 100% of my students will always hear everything I say the first time, and their glazed look of amazement can sometimes get the best of me when I expect a minimal effort.

The true challenge is getting them to understand the benefit of listening not only to me, but their fellow students as well. After all, the ability to hear is part of the overall concept of WHY do some individuals fall short in realizing this benefit? As a society are we becoming so focused to providing our comments and opinions that we lack the ability to listen to another person?

On the average we remember only 25% to 50% of what we hear, but I am convinced that these figures are much less for high school students. Whether I am presenting an important idea or concept, as much as I think they are listening to me, chances are they don't hear me. When the assignment is due in two days, they are confused as to when I spoke about it and what they had to do. While other educators are frustrated, I seek ways to attack this problem in order to correct it.

Another sidelight to this concept is our failure to listen to the inner voice inside, the conscience which each of us is born with. If we choose not to hear it and neglect to listen to its message, it becomes all the more fainter and fainter until even if we wish to listen to it, we are completely null of its existence. In watching the development of my students, I consider listening as one of the most important skills that they can ever develop. How well a person listens in life has a major impact on their job, much less the quality of their life at home and with friends. I constantly remind students that we listen to obtain information, to understand, for enjoyment, and most of learn.

More than ever before I believe that listening is a skill that we can all benefit from improving. By becoming better listeners, my students will improve their productivity in and outside of school. They will also add skills which will allow them to influence, persuade and negotiate with others later in life. And better yet, they'll learn to avoid conflict and it in the workplace or at home.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Learning abut the "Fiscal Cliff"

My block class of senior students studying Economics can sometimes be a challenge as they are mandated to take (and pass) this course in order to graduate. For many this topic is not the most interesting as I have found that they fear math concepts they do not understand and vocabulary they find strange. My job has been to break it down by simplifying it to the world around them. Our discussions have included talk about opportunity cost, competition, simple supply and demand, inflation, and the business cycle. Yesterday I backed off a bit and I injected the current events topic of "The Upcoming Fiscal Cliff."

When you mention "video" to high school students, they often reply in a positive way since their generation is loaded with visual learners. I opened the class period by asking how many of them had heard the expression "fiscal cliff" and I was flabbergasted by a total lack of knowledge. 100% of them had NEVER heard of it, despite the ongoing conversation on network and cable news, and if anyone was going to feel its impact it would be them once they graduated next June.

I began with two distinct segments which introduced the term "fiscal cliff" in different ways. The first was an offering from RT News, a Russian news agency which ironically publishes some credible reporting- so much so that Pew Research has labeled RT News as the #1 source for the most popular videos on YouTube. If you'd like to sample that video, here's the link: Another informational video was served up to the class, this one by Paddy Hirsch, an acclaimed artist who explained it in a different light...again with a visual lesson. I knew I had the attention of my class when I asked them to think about the consequences of driving off a steep cliff without any security of having a job, much less an education to rely on.
Based on the responses offered up, they were able to directly associate the terms of inflation, depression, recession, GDP, and unemployment. Suddenly these had meaning and association with their life, and they were ready to wade a little deeper into the pool of opinion and politics of the day. I reminded the students that I was not there to promote my opinion, but rather I wanted them to think for themselves. The next two segments would include perspectives from opposite ends of the political spectrum, one from Howard Dean, a liberal politician who believed that the fiscal cliff will bring about necessary change in the economy. The other opinion came from Peter Schiff, a conservative investor who fears that such an event would be catastrophic for the economy.

Upon completion of all the videos, I opened the floor for discussion and was amazed at the good thinking take place in front of me. Not everyone agreed in the same way, which is only human nature. Some were passionate in their speech, others somewhat confused as to WHY they had not heard of "fiscal cliff" before in their daily journey through current events. Regardless, they now knew what might be in store for them and the rest of the country after December 31, 2012. Rather than opening class with a written prompt, I saved this routine for the back end of class, asking each student to reply with a minimum of a half-page which offered up their opinion on the subject. Total silence ensued as pencils and pens made contact with paper like never before. This lesson was a true success if only to get them thinking about eonomics and the world around them! Cool stuff!!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

My Classes Discover that Mr. D is Serious about Learning

For my freshmen students, they experienced their first unit test this past week, and for many it was a wake-up call for the new learning environment called 'high school.' Up until Tuesday they had completed in-class activities consisting of worksheets, videos, quizzes, and guided discussion. One week prior to the test I announced that the unit test was a measure of everything put forth in the first three weeks, stressing how important it was for them to allocate time for study and review. I also explained that the test would provide me with insight on my ability to teach the concepts and for them to retain it. When I distributed the test on Wednesday it was a moment of truth for many in those four classes for the realization that they didn't invest the time nor the effort for study, and there was a realization that Mr. D was serious about what he was doing.

I spent Wednesday evening correcting all of the tests and logging scores onto Skyward, knowing that some students would see their cumulative grade plummet from an A to a D or F. It was tough to see that happen, but it would provide an opportunity for another learning moment about life. Some students had done quite nicely and their efforts were rewarded with scores which reinforced prior high marks. No sooner had school begun on Thursday morning when the first e-mail arrived from a concerned parent..."Jimmy went from having an A yesterday to showing an F today. Something must be wrong." Once students began arriving to the classroom there were similar moments of displeasure and disbelief..."How could I have possibly gone from an A to a D- in one day?"

Thursday's class was the moment I'd been waiting for and I had the attention of 100% of my students during the entire 45-minutes of class time. I explained their school's policy on Formative and Summative Assessment and how it was weighted for testing. I reviewed the policy on Retake Exams and how they had an opportunity to reverse the damage of one blown exam. But most of all I put forth my assurances to them that NONE of them were stupid and without hope...for I believed that each of them had the ability to succeed providing they would allocate time for studying the material and completing assignments on time. "This is your wake-up call for the semester. If you don't understand something, you need to take responsibility for your actions by speaking up, either during class or when you have time to stop in and see me." We discussed test strategies and the benefit of using time after the test to re-check their work.

I can always tell whether my students 'got it' by looking into their eyes, and this was one of those occasions when I knew that 100% of them heard and saw it for what it was. At one point in the exchange, I asked every student to look me in the eyes at the same time in order to convey their acceptance of my message. As the final explanation point on the day, I told my class that unless they chose to make positive changes in their approach to academics, I would begin getting their parents involved in the conversation as well. It was then that you could hear a pin drop from the back of the room. Message received AND GOTTEN!

Friday was a new day at school and for many of them a new start to their class. Notebooks and pencils were engaged like never before, and there was a rejuvenation of good learning taking place. Once Monday rolls around I'll be curious as to whether they will retain these new traits...or if some will resort to prior habits. If so, I'll be there to reinforce in a positive way which will demonstrate my commitment to their ongoing learning.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cultivating the Ability to Write

With three weeks under my belt, I'm in a good position to make a quick observation about my first impressions of youth in today's classroom. I begin each of my class periods with a writing prompt exercise which requires the student to jot a response to a question I pose. Sometimes I make it fun with "If you could be on a game show, what would you choose and why?" and other days I ask them to get serious with "At this time in your life, what is the hardest thing you are pushing yourself to do?"  During those first few days of school, most of my students thought that I was probably going to relinquish this daily task, but then they saw that I meant business with the daily routine. I laid forth the premise that daily reflections provided them with an opportunity to organize their thoughts, and in turn this would benefit their ability to complete essay questions on future tests.

This past week I collected their notebooks for the first time, making a quick examination of their responses to make sure they were in compliance if only in the simplest way. With some I found just that, the bare minimum, but with others I found a wonderful transformation taking place. Over the course of three weeks a sizable amount of the students had begun to develop a style to their writing, and whether they realize it or not, they are enhancing their ability to think and then communicate those thoughts on paper.

As much as I'd like to think that all is well, I am also aware that there are those who are not putting forth much of an effort, producing only the bare minimum in their work. This is the challenge at hand, getting them to see the big picture behind what I'm attempting to communicate. Some will buck the system simply because it's someone of authority trying to tell them what to do, while others are totally uncomfortable with the prospect of having to put a pencil in hand to write.

My challenge is getting both ends of the spectrum to move along with the process, to push them to find new ways of thinking so they don't get too comfortable with where they are in life. To aspire more by thinking outside of the box and being able to see the big picture. I knew this wasn't going to be easy, and in so many ways this is the challenge I love in teaching!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Constitution Day 2012 - What does it mean?

Monday, September 17, 2012 is the 225th Anniversary of the signing of our country's Constitution. I took notice that by law all schools who receive Federal funds within this specific year are required to hold an educational program, and I will hold it before my students with the esteem it is most worthy of as the foundation of the branches of government and rights of the people. No other country in the world has such a document as this, and it is important that we know its true meaning and regard, otherwise it risks being tossed aside and forgotten over time. While we may not always agree on individual issues, we provide respect for both the opinions and rights of others. This is the mark of a republic, not a democracy, and hence becomes the true pillar stone for the United States. I may not always agree on all the issues, but I will defend their right to advocate for the consideration of their opinion. This is what makes us strong as a country of people and ideas, and may we forever hold this close to our heart!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

One and Done...NOT!

As much as I looked forward to my first day in the classroom, the end of the first week requires a moment or two for personal reflection. Since my classroom assignments involved two very distinct groups of students, freshmen and seniors, there is a natural tendency to examine the status of rookie versus veteran. The differential of three years can be huge when it comes to maturity, self-esteem, appearance, and attitude. Freshmen are slow to judgement, while seniors tend to rush to judgement. Regardless, it has been a week filled with opportunities to expand upon everything college prepared me for, whether it's working in front of the classroom, roaming the room during a presentation, or evaluating the work being done by small groups of 3-4 students.

My students are diverse in so many ways and their learning styles vary considerably. On that first day I addressed the concept of respect, not only for myself, but for all students in and out of my classroom. I let it be known that no one agrees with another person 100% of the time, and it was important to stop and listen to what others have to offer. Ltieracy is more than the ability to read; it also involves speaking, writing and listening. That is one reason why each of my classes begins the period with a 5-minute writing prompt, and I emphasized that no student would have their work evaluated on proper use of grammar, punctation, or English langauge. I simply wanted them to THINK....and WRITE.

Day One: What is the most impactful event (so far) in your lifetime? And how would a Historian view it?  (My Economics class wrote about how an Economist would view it)

Day Two: If you lived in Wisconsin 1,500 years ago, which would be the best to own: a horse or a cow or a dozen chickens? And why?

Random Objects.jpgDay Three: You are an archaeologist thousands of years in the future. Try to imagine what it would be like to know absolutely nothing about these random objects that were recently unearthed in an archaeological dig. Pick a few objects to describe, and speculate about how they were used.

Day Four: If you had an unlimited plane ticket for a month, what would you do with it?

This first week I asked for volunteers who were willing to share their their ponderings, and I was pleasantly surprised how some students have already evolved. The core concept of literacy is being witnessed in my classroom, and the long-term effect will enhace student ability to construct good responses on future essay questions. While many Social Studies teachers are focusing on the teaching of history, I am infusing literacy so my students can actually see, hear and contemplate other perspectives. This is NOT easy work; but then, I never anticipated that it would be. It requires considerable thought and perseverance on my part. I know there will be days when students will struggle with my lessons, and I'll most likely be frustrated with their efforts...but this is what good teaching is all about.

When I gave each student a 3x5 lined card in the final minutes of class yesterday, I told them it was "Feedback Friday" and I needed their input on my first week. No names were to be put on the cards and it was completely optional on their part. I assured them that no one would be penalized for their comments, and I needed to know whether I was going too fast, too slow, too boring, too high-strung, what they wanted more or less of, what they liked the most/least, and anything else on their minds. Their comments, as simple or complex as they were, tugged at my heart in a good way...and I could see that this first week was everything I wanted it to be. Game changing and very real!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Livin' the Dream

My classroom is spit spot and ready for the first class of the day. No doubt before the final bell of dismissal on Tuesday I'll find some other "things" which could and should have been included in the decor, but after all the preparation I'm ready as ever. This has been a long time coming, but just as a good soup takes time and effort to brew to its ultimate taste, this individual is seasoned to perfection...nurtured with the finest spices, cultivated by the finest chefs, and now served to patrons who seek unique offerings of magnificent lesson plans. (okay, the "magnificent" might be stretching it a bit)

My colleagues at my new school are interested in why this veteran of business and real-life is wading into their end of the pool where the water is rarely disturbed. Why would someone like me want to attempt a triple-lutz-cannonball-highdive into the chaotic world of teaching? As I have done from the very start, I always remind my peers that creativity and change is good for the world of education as it represents a true vision of the world as it is today. Once my students leave the classroom and walk out onto the street, the world is not knocking on their door asking for their input, and they will have to take matters into their own hands with a positive and proactive methodology. And as prepared as I might think I am, I'm more aware of the importance of being quick on my feet, to adapt to the contrasting learning needs of my students.

Yes...I like what I see, feel, hear and taste so far, but the final product is far from being completed. It will be an ongoing process until the music stops, the lights are turned out and everyone goes home. For those who wander into my postings, you are invited to follow along in the days ahead on my classroom Wiki:   This is used as a starting point for my students, their parents, and fellow members of the faculty in order to communicate expectations, extend recent lesson plans and put forth challenging thoughts. It is not (and never will be) there for social media, but it will change from day to day. Buried within the individual folders are starting points for daily conversations to inspire new ways of looking at history, economics and everyday life. While most people think of literacy as only reading, the Common Core Standards actually define literacy as reading, writing, speaking, and listening...a four sided square of equal proportions. This is the cornerstone of good thought in my universe of good thought, and it will be forever practiced in Mr. D's classroom.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Room without a View (as of yet)

My first day at school was everything I thought it could be and more. New Teacher In-Service Week has been a blast...meeting fellow rookies like myself and sensing their anxieties. Best of all, I found an empty room waiting for my arrival....without life, form or meaning, sterile and open, screaming for character and creative thinking, odorless and void. Four walls, one door, and no windows. The first item for my desk was the wooden sign that Pat Fee, my cooperating teacher at Weyauwega High School, presented to me back in June. It looked pretty sharp, and in time it will come to be all the more special. The room had everything except a SmartBoard and me, but we're working on the first item. What you see here is NOT what you'll find one month from now. It will be swarming with creative thinking and active learners. By the end of September you'll find things never imagined, sounds never heard, and thoughtful ideas never conceived. Look out Beaver Dam High School, here I come. The Golden Beavers are about to discover the exciting world of Mr. D!

Monday, August 13, 2012

An Ode to Mayberry RFD

This isn't about Andy, Aunt Bea and Opie as I'll always hang on to the images of my Mom and Dad, Grandma Andrews and my siblings while growing up in Janesville. Rather, this is about a setting in life which each of us always holds close to our hearts. It's a time of innocence when we understood the world around us (or at least we thought we did), and people seemed genuine in their everyday conversations. Our neighborhood was always safe and people felt secure in their homes at any time of day. No one violated the privacy of another home, much less even walked in uninvited.

I still remember the summer of '65 when our family experienced the land around Wild Rose for the first time. My folks had gone to the Milwaukee Sports Show in late-winter, and they wanted the family to spend some quality time in a local campground. They purchased a Winnebago truck camper, the kind which mounted to the top of a pickup truck, and off we went on a two-hour jaunt to Waushara County. The guys went trout fishing in the morning, returning to camp with their limits, then snoozing in the afternoon before enjoying a roaring campfire at night. It was a great time to be alive and I can't remember a negative experience on any of our journeys. I'm sure there were days when it rained and we grumbled about the six of us being stuck inside the camper, waiting for the weather to clear. There were times when the mosquitoes made their way into our living quarters, only to wreck havoc on unprotected skin. And the minuscule bathroom facilities inside the camper's closet made for a quick exit by the rest of us whenever one of my brothers had the urge. Yet, as the years progressed our world changed in ways which I did not deem important at the time. Suddenly my oldest brother didn't make the weekend trips because of a job at home, then my other brother seemed to enjoy the company of other guys that were closer to his age. That left me with my younger sister, and I'm willing to bet I wasn't that much fun for someone seven years older, much less the opposite sex.

While I still locate the places where my memories were etched, those friendly surroundings have all changed in ways which few would recognize. The small campsite is now inhabited by another family, and a roaring fire is often left to no one's enjoyment. The kitchen table within the camper is no longer filled with hungry youngsters and bowls of hot cereal, but left empty and unkept when kids take their boxes of dry cereal to bed along with their ipods and tablets. Mom has custody of the kids this weekend, and dad will get use of the place in a couple of weeks with his girlfriend and her children.

Main Street in today's Wild Rose looks so much different than it did 40+ years ago and I accept it for what it is. No doubt someone living in 1912 would hardly recognize my neighborhood in 1965 either, and settlers in 1840 wouldn't understand the benefits of paved roads and telephone poles.  We are what we are today, and the world is constantly undergoing the evolution of change. I miss those days for what they were...a time of great simplicity and anticipation for the fun our family would have on next weekend's camping trip. Things happen to each of us for reasons we often can't explain, and life remains a progression of events which determines the cultural surroundings of tomorrow's Mayberry.

A few weeks ago I found peace and solitude on the Pine River one early morning while trout fishing with my son. It was another one of those "Andy & Opie" moments when I thought of a simpler time with my Dad and brothers, but it was one which may never happen again due to the constraints of time and semblance of life. However, it happened for a reason....if not for my recollection, then for that of my son when he looks back on his seasons of life.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Virtue of Patience

With college behind me, I find myself sitting on the sidelines waiting for the coach to call out my name to get into the game. In practice I did all the drills to perfection, in scrimmages I mastered the playbook, and in team meetings I zeroed in on every word put forth by the coaches. The playclock is ticking, but nothing is happening. The players are in movement, but I’m motionless. “Come on coach…just put me in the game and watch me perform!”

Impatience is the frustration, anger, and resentment you feel when you’re not able to control a situation to your liking. Throughout my life I have always considered myself a patient person, although there have been moments when I pushed it to an extreme. While others would jump ahead with zealous anticipation of the event at hand, I was content to wait it out until the very end. Patience at this point in my life is so difficult to achieve because it requires me to be actively passive about the situation. It’s like trying to forget something. The more I think about it, the harder it is to forget it. I know I have to overcome this emotional feeling because impatience can rob me of my happiness, and I truly have much to be happy about.

There is a reading in the book of Isaiah (40:31) that tells us that “those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength.” When eagles soar to new heights, they make use of the wind beneath their wings in a very unique way, and rather than spending needless energy, they patiently glide along the currents above.

I remain confident that in time the right opportunity will present itself. My name will be called and I’ll respond with all the enthusiasm and confidence that’s been pent up inside for the past number of months. My father always reminded me that “good things come to those who wait” and this is one of those times when I need to pay real close attention to his wisdom.
“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.” Aristotle

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Back-to-Back Graduations

The time of graduation is one for everyone to enjoy, especially the individual who has achieved the feat. However, for our family our son’s graduation from ITT Tech represented a one-of-a-kind event which no one will ever appreciate more. Enrolling in an institution of higher learning after high school is one thing, but seeing it through to completion is an altogether different matter. In so many ways he inherited some of his mannerisms from me via his birthright. Not just in his determination and mannerisms for independence, but for the way he left school the first time eleven years ago. Being 18 years old did not have the ‘feel’ which age 25 did when Jacob chose to return to the classroom. When I left college I was 22 years old and it took me almost 30 years to resume my education. Like me he is driven by the urge to attain something which few gave him the chance to do….succeed. What he accomplished over the past four years was to defy odds of magnificent proportions. He not only worked a full time job in construction during the daytime, but he fulfilled his commitment to higher education by attending night school two nights each week since the spring of 2008.

Jacob has yet to realize his true potential outside of the classroom, but there is little doubt in our minds that one day in the foreseeable future he will be presented with several opportunities for enhancing his career. After he had his diploma in hand that Friday night, I asked him if he’d ever thought his dream would be realized, and he responded with a poised “no.” While I was somewhat surprised by his response, it did not alarm me considering there must have been moments when he felt the pressure and burden of working full time as well as attending night school. I must admit that during my tenure as student-employee it was a difficult juggling act at times, and I also experienced moments of doubt in my mind.
Our Father-Son Graduation Party of Sunday, June 10 represented more than just another celebration in passing, but rather signified overcoming odds which only Jacob and I will fully understand. Together we know the meaning of bumpy roads and hazardous detours. In the long run this has seasoned our journey and made it all the more worthwhile!

Monday, June 11, 2012

"Let's Do Something" Stirs Some Excitement

My group of freshmen students in our Intro to the Social Studies classes were nearing the end of a unit entitled "The Future" and I was eager to find out how motivated they were in impacting the world around them. It required more than just classroom discussion as talk is always easy, and I firmly believe that talk, backed by thought, leads to action.

In lieu of a written exam for the final, they were going to embark on a two-day assignment which required that students work in groups of 2-3 students. I instructed them that we "needed to do something" and if they put their best effort forward with passion and knowledge, they stood a chance of acing the project. I laid out the written instructions in a clear and concise way, go to the website and identify a cause which interested them. They were required to construct a 3-5 slide PowerPoint presentation identifying WHY they chose the topic, WHY people needed to know about the topic, HOW they were going to promote a greater awareness of the topic, and WHAT problems they expected to experience along the way.

After each class spent two period in the computer lab, their work revealed an exciting new awareness for each of their topics. Each group provided a 6-7 minute presentation and they all surpassed my every expectation. Some of the best projects were recycling cell phones for overseas troops, creation of a local rain garden, increased awareness of high school dropouts, and remembering out troops. I was in awe of the way that these students went about the task and then conveyed their strategies to the class for voicing both concern and action. It gave me satisfaction in knowing that these students "got it" -if even for this one class. For some it could be an exercise in futility, but for others it planted the seed of awareness of how they can effectively deal with an issue in the way of inquiry and communication to the general public. Mission accomplished!

Friday, May 18, 2012

My Turn to Walk

It was one of those late-winter mornings in March 1975 when I made the decision to bail from school once and for all. My return to college failed to reignite the passion for teaching which I thought was inevitable, and if anything, I was at the bottom wrung in life. As I departed Madison traveling north on Hwy 51, I looked back in my rear view mirror to catch a glimpse of the silhouette of our state capitol, always a beautiful sight. I always held on to that image, much like the stain on my basement carpet reminds me of my Old English Sheepdog. In many ways it motivated me in later years, after I sought to pick up the pieces from college life in a time when I was neither ready nor focused on higher education.

After our son graduated from high school in May of 2001, my good friend Jeff suggested that I consider going back to school, even going so far as to say that I would make a good teacher. Little did I know how much his suggestive 'seed' would one day sprout and then grow into a vine strong with passion for the classroom. I learned a lesson from Jeff that will never be forgotten, and over the years I've returned the favor to others as well.

Tomorrow (Saturday, May 19, 2012) is the day I left behind in Madison 37 years ago, and it has special meaning in ways which no one will ever fully understand. It represents an accomplishment that few will appreciate in the magnitude that I do, an epiphany for which I respect the true power of positive encouragement. At 2 PM I'll be assailed by an emotion that has been felt only on our wedding day and the birth of Jacob. Having friends and family members on hand to witness this event is also very special, but I also acknowledge the spirit of Mom and Dad nudging me on in the background. My departure from Madison in 1975 always left them questioning what 'could have been', and over the years each reminded me that there was always time in my life to go back to college. Again, another one of those positive cues about hanging on to a dream.

Tomorrow I reach the mountain top I never thought I would see, but the journey is only just beginning. I will finally purge that ever-shrinking black and white image of our state capitol from my mind once and for all, replacing it with a colored illustration of pomp and circumstance. My ill-fated lesson from 37 years ago has finally been stacked in the completed pile, graded and commented on by the teacher I've long desired to be. Thank-you Jeff, for sharing that vision. And thank-you Mom and Dad, for always prodding me along.

God is good, all the time! All the time, God is good!!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The 'Ah-ha' Moment in Teaching

There are moments in one’s life when you get the infamous “ah-ha” moment, and as an educator it is all the more special an occurrence when it happens in the classroom. This past week I witnessed that moment with three ESL students during a first-hour class. We were working on an exercise that involved the use of adverbs which determine frequency (never, seldom, sometimes, usually, and always), and Diego knew the concept hands-down. I sensed that Cesar and Eduardo were struggling and needed some individual attention, but I wasn’t able to attend to both at the same time.

I turned to Diego and asked him to explain directions in detail to Cesar without giving him the answers, then I focused my attention on Eduardo to do the same. As I was working with Eduardo, I looked up and glanced at Diego to note his progress with Cesar. It was an incredible sight to see him in a teaching role, listening to him give careful instructions about the concept. HE GOT IT! Never before had I experienced such a feeling of satisfaction and gratification in teaching.

And better yet, later in the class I was faced with yet another situation, this one dealing with mealtime habits and writing questions about breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This time is was Cesar who understood, and the other two students who needed some attention. Just as I had done with Diego, I asked Cesar to work one-on-one with Eduardo so I could help Diego. Again, the student became teacher for five minutes and he did a great job explaining he exercise. When class ended I wanted to run outside and shout out something good for the rest of the world to hear, but time did not allow that to happen. It was THE “ah-ha” moment I was looking for in my Student Teaching, and one which I will never forget. Some student teachers hear about epochs such as these, but I actually was able to experience one first-hand.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Halfway Home

As this point I’ve now reached the midway point in my student teaching experience, and it has yet to shake my confidence in what I am doing and why I am doing it. There are days when I see students in total disarray with their lives, appearing to stare forward without any contemplation of people passing at their side. Then there are times when they seem to have eyes on all sides of their head, meeting and greeting everyone in sight. Whether their baggage begins or ends at home, I know there are other factors at work, be they positive or negative. Some of them have good support systems in place at home, and I’m willing to bet that their parents are nurturing individuals. Others live in a vacuum where personal energies are likely sucked by anyone and everyone living under the same roof. I want to pull them aside and assure them that somebody cares, but it’s better that I save this line for the classroom where they need it the most.

When the first school bell rings in the morning, students are more often concerned with the status of their social mobility than whether or not an assignment has yet to be completed. As much as things have changed for youth over the past forty years, they haven’t. Their priorities are not those of a responsible adult and in many ways I’m okay with this. They’re still learning how to cope with high school and the age of innocence, and as much as we think they need to be ingrained with every lesson plan, I know full well that it’s not going to happen. It’s not about me making excuses for their lifestyle, only recognizing it for what it is. Meanwhile I strive to lead by example in everything I do, knowing they are constantly evaluating their student teacher.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Recognizing One's Talent

I know these are challenging times for school officials, not just in the way of balancing budgets, complying with curriculum standards, discipline, special needs, and everything in between. As one generation of educators is being replaced by another, there is an ongoing need for Student Teachers to find public schools who will accept them into their system for eighteen weeks. Classrooms aren't what they were 5, 10 and 20 years ago and neither are the teachers and students. Times have changed...for the worse or for the better, and we have to accept it for what it is.
From my experience in sales and management, I quickly learned that when you had a need, you sought not only the skills, but a person's personal drive and desire to succeed. Whether or not you had an opening in your sales ranks, you scoured the sidelines for reserves and recruited first-class stars for your team. This required networking with other industries and a keen eye for talent. Then, when the opportunity presented itself, you made it known that you wanted that individual, whether they were an aspiring rookie or a proven veteran. Don't wait for them to come to you, but go to them and let them know they are wanted.

It happened one day last summer while working as a cashier at a well-known retailer. The individual came through my checkout line and inquired as to where I would be doing my assignment for Student Teaching. I still had six months to finalize my plans, so I replied that it had yet to be decided. "Great! I want you in my school" was his instant response. My casual comeback, "Let's see what happens" was met with "No, I WANT you IN my school!" It was not a simple statement, but bordered between a friendly demand and emphatic rage (in a good way). After he left I thought, here was someone who really wants me, so how can I say no?

It is almost nine months to that day of our conversation, and in my heart I know I've given every ounce of energy and personal creativity in my role as Student Teacher. It's been an absolute joy to be in this person's school at a time when teachers are challenged on so many fronts. I know I've made a difference in the classroom, not only for the students I interact with on a daily basis, but in the professional life of both my cooperating teacher and school principal. I've drawn from strengths to help those who aspire to learn more, and, in turn, they have placed me in a position to succeed as an educator.

This morning I paused for a moment to thank that individual for reaching out to me last June. From past interactions outside of the classroom many years ago, he recognized both my talents and desire to work with young people. He made the most out of an opportunity to add someone new to his school's team of professionals. He didn't wait for me to come to him, but came to me and let it be known that I was wanted. I am not a one-of-a-kind fluke. There are more like me out there waiting for someone to tap them on the shoulder, and then say "I want you on my team!" It takes guts and personal resolve to stand up for what you believe in, and in this case he got more than his money's worth. (And remember, I have to PAY the university to be Student Teacher for a semester)

This is a lesson worth noting, be it for sales managers or school principals. Always be on the lookout for the best. Don't wait for them to come to you, but scour the countryside for the absolute best qualified individual, letting them know that you want them on your team. They will raise the bar of talent for your school or business, and it makes a huge statement about the level of standards you keep as a professional. Yes, those lessons learned in a past career are proven once more.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Four Week Reflections

My first four weeks as "Student Teacher" have been a great experience, one which I will always looks back on with special reflection. Not only in getting to know a new school, students, faculty, staff, and procedures, but learning more about myself and why I enjoy the classroom experience. No day is ever the same, and I'm always on the lookout for those moments which define good learning (not just on the part of my students but for me as well).

As an ESL teacher I have a first-hour class with three Level 1 second language learners, and I am continuously amazed by their desire to acquire basic English in order to communicate with friends at school. I've watched them pass in the hallways while classmates offer greetings and smiles, but they want more than just "Hello" and "How's it going?" They seek opportunities to discuss culture, news and things that everyday American teenagers talk about...but a language barrier prevents that from being fully cultivated. My Friday Review Quiz indicates they are slowly making strides in common interactions like telling time, counting, and know what day of the week it is, but I'm sure they want to speed up the process in order to improve upon their fluency. It has to be frustrating knowing that you want to get somewhere quickly without understanding everything which has to take place in that journey.

After serving up my first test to the World Geography class, I set some time aside to analyze the various test scores...thinking about why this person did so well and why that person struggled with specific questions. Tests should do more than reveal who 'gets it' and who doesn't...and a good teacher will look into ways to adapt to the learning styles of their students. There are a handful of individuals who I want to double-back and instigate changes in the way I transmit information.
In closing, it is important to note that I find my best thinking taking place at the end of the day when I reflect back on events of the day and plan ahead for coming lesson plans. As it was in the business world, it's about thinking what I would do differently and making good notes. Some people punch out at the end of the school day, but those who truly desire to see themselves grow will keep their focus on the ultimate prize.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Start to Another Chapter in My Book

Tomorrow marks another special occasion in my life, the first day as Student Teacher in a genuine high school classroom. While others may see this as a ho-hum event, it truly represents something unique in my life. I know I must keep my expectations in check in order to avoid any letdown, but I also see this as an opportunity to apply everything I've learned from not only UW-SP, but from the school of life (of which I've been an active member over the past 58 years). I will be able to pull from the many examples of many fantastic educators who influenced me in one way or another. Some of these lessons are simple and others complex, but they still hold special meaning for me as they occurred at a time when I didn't see relevance for anything that happened. I know this won't be easy and there is certain to be a few challenges along the way, but if I treat it as another opportunity to learn and to grow, it can impact all those I come in contact with in a positive manner.  Bring it on!