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.