Saturday, September 14, 2013

Building a Strong Foundation

With the first two weeks of school behind me, I'm enjoying this year more so in many ways. Long before I ever committed to becoming a teacher, I made a promise to myself to NEVER recycle lesson plans unless they were exceptional; leading to careful scrutiny on my part each and every day. I find my Unit Plans becoming better and better with age and experience, and my students are better engaged with the learning process. While I am not familiar with the teaching styles of other educators, I offer my students an assortment of activities during the block schedule (90-minutes per class), and I consider their ongoing feedback as a key ingredient to their long-term success.

I open each class with a bellringer which integrates one or more of the four components of literacy. Some days I ask them to write (1) a short reflection using Collins Writing techniques. Another day it might require discussion with their table partner, hence speech (2) and listening (3) skills. The final way involves reading (4) a short historical perspective which is quick and direct in its approach. Rather than just talking about old history, I choose a present-day individual for whom I can build a direct correlation with someone from long ago.

We're just beginning a unit on famous explorers and their impact on the world during a time when Europe "discovers" America. Individuals such as Columbus, Cortez, and Da Gama had to display specific leadership qualities in order to motivate crews accompanying them on long uncertain journeys. In addition to supplying an explorer with a grant, it was commonplace for the King and Queen to unload their prisons with individuals to serve as shipmates. Although this provided downtrodden criminals with a second chance, it also challenged  leadership skills of the aforementioned explorers. Leadership? This was my Friday Bellringer activity and it transitioned into everything I hoped it would....

"What characteristics define a good leader?" Responses included: bravery, sacrifice, knowledgeable, strong, inspiring, able to communicate, confident, committed, honest, and passion. We discussed recent leaders as well as figures throughout history who led their people in difficult times. I inquired as to how many in the classroom had ever heard of Zach Hodskins...and to my expected surprise, not a single individual knew of him. I added teasers about Zach being 17 years old, highly sought after recruit for college basketball, and LOTS of special-interest stories on ESPN, ABC, CBS and countless other medias over the past month. Still no takers about knowing who he was! I loaded a video clip from last night's national newscast, turned out the lights, and stepped back to view their facial expressions as they watched.... Zach was a one-handed basketball wonder! He could also articulate and inspire those around much so that Florida University has promised him a spot on their college basketball roster. Zach was a born leader!

While this was a great fell-good story, I reminded my classes that leadership does not always necessitate athleticism, strength, or money. It requires heart, compassion, and willingness to set yourself apart from be willing to do things that others would not. We discussed opportunities for leadership at school, home, and community...the little things they could do as individuals to make a positive difference in their world. While Zach Hodskins' parents provide him a great support system, this isn't always available to every person, much less every leader. Perseverance, determination, and fortitude were then introduced to the class, all of which were qualities which led to the success of 16th century explorers. (Zach Hodskins, too)

I know that I don't always have 100% buy-in from every student, but they have the fisherman's hook is actively dangling in front of them right now. I'll continue to impress upon them the qualities which can ensure their success by interweaving tales of success and failure in early American history. It's a process that works if only to plant seeds for further thought down the line. As their teacher, I have an opportunity to tie it all together and make history something to value. And best of all, this is just another reason as to why I love teaching high school freshmen!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Round Two and Ready To Go

Over the past week my back-to-school routine consisted of taking the covers off my classroom. When I opened the door to room 503, I discovered an ambiance similar to a long-forgotten mansion which lay dormant for years. Dust, cobwebs, musty humidity, the smell of staleness, and a longing for new life. All this was compounded by fallout from construction in the Science wing that is found parallel to the Social Studies hallway. It was no ordinary recovery and required full attention by my cohorts from start to finish. On Thursday afternoon the custodial staff ushered us away for the weekend in order to strip, scrub and wax our 500 hallway. While Labor Day will be a time of rest and relaxation for most, there will be many teachers like myself who will hunker down in their classrooms, prepping for Tuesday's first official day of school.

Looking ahead, I find myself in a better position to begin my second year of teaching. U.S. History for freshmen has been tweaked and strengthened in content. National History Day returns for not one, but two semesters of projects. And Economics has been transformed into AP Economics, a college-credit course with higher-thinking and intense rigor. This will be my single greatest challenge for the new school year; not so much for the content, but the goals which I've established for both students and myself. As the eighteenth AP course offering at BDHS I know there are expectations from administration, and I'm not about to back away from high standards already put into place by other AP teachers. If anything, I expect to take these standards to a higher level and beyond. It may take time to get my rhythm, but I intend to mold this class into the model of excellence for which it deserves. I have a lifetime of experiences to pull from as well as a deep pool of resources to tap into. I feel honored to have been asked to teach this class and expect every one of my students will "Strive for a 5" x 2 (one for Macro, one for Micro).

Finally, as excited as I am for my students, I'm equally pumped for the opportunity to elevate my personal learning. Pablo Picasso said it well when he noted: "It takes a very long time to become young."  These are indeed the best of times!