Friday, December 27, 2013

The Postage Stamp Link

    If you have been employed in education or even hung around educators for a while, you’ve likely heard this question: “Why can’t the students remember what I’ve taught them?”  I was guilty of asking this question when I was in the classroom. I remember the frustration of sitting in on a scholars bowl event when my students were not coming up with the correct answer to simple history questions.  Afterward I came up to the kids and groaned, “We covered that information last year in our history class!”  I whined, “I can't believe you guys don't remember that information!”  I’m not sure who felt worse, the students missing the information or me in not creating an environment that would allow them to retain and apply the information in their lives.
     After spending several more years in the classroom and then moving into administration, I learned more about instruction and how the brain works.  The key to students learning and retaining what is taught is getting the information that enters the brain indexed in the correct category so it can be pulled out at the right time.  So how does this process work for the students?
     Above the right eye everyone has an area of their brain about the size of a postage stamp that serves as a scratch pad.  This area of our brain holds pictures, smells, and sounds for a few seconds and then will discard them into the long term memory of the brain.  As a person remembers something, such as someone's face, the postage stamp area will send a signal to the long term memory of the brain to retrieve that information. When these signals are sent, a new link to neurons are made.  If the link has already been established, then it is strengthened.  
      The key for educators in getting students to remember information is to put more emphasis on retrieving it from the long term memory than sending it to the long term memory.  How can we do this?  Let me give you example.  Most educators do a very good job of explaining how their content can be used in real life.  Some teachers will tell students that they will need to know this information in order to balance a checkbook, or measure the square footage of a room for carpet, or serve on a jury, etc.  Doing so is great way to relate the content to real world experience.  The problem is that just explaining it doesn’t strengthen the neuron link to the long term memory.  We are just filing information into the long term memory.  If it is not filed correctly, however, students may not know when or how to use what they've learned in the future.  
      If a business class is teaching students how to run a business, why not actually run a business to reinforce the neuron strands?  If a math class is teaching students algebra that applies to some type of engineering feat, why not have them design and build a bridge in the classroom?  Same thing in a government class.  Set up a mock government or have the students have a mock trial.  Better yet, implement the skills they’re learning into the school system and have court proceedings over disciplinary issues.  These are just a few ideas of my own.  I’m sure classroom teachers could design far better lesson applications than what I have covered.  
      The brain is just like any other organ in the body.  If it isn't used properly or usefully, then it won't function the way it was intended to function.  The good news is that the brain has a great ability to bounce back.  Through practice it can grow stronger in retrieving information properly.  As educators we should be at the forefront of this development in our students’ brains.  The key is setting the table for our students to continually pull the information has been covered in the classroom from their brains for use in real life situations.  Let our motto be "Strengthening the Neuron Link" for our students. 

Monday, December 2, 2013

When Do You Need Fed?

    There are certain times in our lives that we just can't do specific things for ourselves. Eating is something we all must do, but at one time or other, we are unable feed ourselves and need someone else’s help. Being fed as an infant or as an elderly person is something nearly every human being on this earth will go through. Other situations that would prevent us from feeding ourselves include crippling disabilities or physical trauma in our lives.  Either way we have to eat to live a healthy life or to live period.
     The same can be said with our professional development as an educator. Early on in our development as a student, we all had to be "fed" by the teacher. This can be at any level of school – Kindergarten year, freshman orientation at high school and college, or even the first year on the job. It can also be said in specific situations – first days of class, the beginning of a unit, or the start of a lesson. As educators we fall into the same circumstances. Our professors may have fed us, a mentor teacher may have fed us, and the building principal may have fed us.  Sooner or later the phase of being "spoon fed" information has to stop. In order to grow, we have to learn to feed ourselves.
     How successful people are from that point on comes down to how strong their personal learning network (PLN) is. How strong is your PLN? If you don't remember what a PLN is, be sure to check out my blog Got PLN? It does an educator good!  An educator's development is only as good as the PLN they are involved in. This might leave you thinking a couple of things. How do I know if I'm part of a quality PLN? If I find out that I'm not in a good one, what do I do? These are both good questions and I have some suggestions on how to measure your PLN and what to do if it's not measuring up.

  • Is the information coming from my PLN keeping up with the current trends? We have to stay current in education. There is always something new coming out in any business and education isn't and shouldn't be shielded from change.  
  • What if my PLN isn't currently up on the trending education topics? You don't ditch anyone or anything in the PLN, because you never know when you need the information at some time in your professional life. Plus that would just be rude to listen to people only when you need something from them. This is when you add to your PLN. Your PLN should always have trending sources to insure that you are staying up on the changes in education.  
  • Spend some time honestly reflecting on yourself. When it comes to development who are you relying on? Are you depending on others to feed the information to you or are you going out to get it? There are two kinds of people in this world: those that have something done to them most of the time and those that are doing something. Don't sit back in your classroom or office and wait on someone to bring you an idea, article, solution, etc. Be the one that does something or at least part of the something within your PLN.
  • Is my PLN diverse? Add something that allows you to think differently.  I like to get an entrepreneur’s perspective. It gets my mind thinking in an abstract way. I can then come back to my education world and problem solve better. The general rule is if it makes you a better educator, it's a good addition to your PLN. If it's enjoyable but sucks time away from your profession, then don't mess with it until after hours or on weekends.
These are just a few suggestions to make your PLN better and, in turn, to make you a better educator. It's not called SELN (Someone Else's Learning Network). It's your personal network. Someone else isn't going to read trending articles or visit with colleagues that are on top of their profession, or stop by the principal's office and ask "how can I become a better educator" for you. You have to do it. If you don’t, someone else will be feeding you and you may not like the taste of it. 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Lesson in the Final Confrontation

I pulled up to curb just as my friend from church was coming out of his garage. We shook hands and started walking toward the boy’s house. It was in need of repair – a new coat of paint, the fixing of window screens. So much would be needed to prevent further deterioration.

I stepped onto the front porch. The front door was wide open with the screen door shut. The top window was gone. Nothing would prevent bugs or birds from flying into the living room on this hot summer evening. The light and TV were on. I knocked on the screen door. Someone had to be home. I waited. I waited some more. I began to wonder if they were going to ignore me. I was about to knock again when a woman stepped up to the door. She was an older lady, rough around the edges. I introduced myself and said, “I need to visit with you about your son.” She turned away. “Let me get you his mother.”

As she disappeared into the back of the house, I looked back to the street. Two barefoot and shirtless kids were running along the sidewalk. They had the same facial features as the boy I was pursuing. I assumed they were younger siblings. Turning my head back towards the house I saw the mother approaching. Tightening the knot on her house coat, she stepped out onto the porch. She had a ragged, worn out look about her.

I introduce myself and my friend. I apologized for having to bother her about this issue, but I wanted to make sure she knew of her son's behavior. Without waiting for a response, I got straight to the point. I told her about the incident at the pool and the issues at my house. She asked me when the incident happened at my house. “After ten,” I told her. She said it couldn't possibly have been her son. He was on probation and his court-ordered curfew was at ten o'clock. I asked, “Was your son home last night?” She turned her head away.

Her pause gave my friend an opportunity to speak up. He had told her of the trouble he was having with her son. He reminded her of the stolen bike they had visited about early in the summer. His gentleness was evident as he spoke. He emphasized that he wasn't here to condemn her son.

I was not as kind. I continued to pound home the point I come to make. I told her that I wasn't there to get her son in trouble. I simply wanted my house left alone. I told her if it continued the police would be notified. “Surely you can understand my frustration,” I said.

“I don't blame you for being angry,” she said as she pointed to some broken trim on her front porch. “Him and his friends are always tearing up my house.” She didn’t know what to do with him. “He is mean to me and his younger brothers.” A wave of frustration and exasperation crossed her face as she stated, “He is mad that I don’t buy him the clothes that his friends are wearing. And I can't afford those clothes.” I could see that she was struggling to rein in her son and wondered if she had any help. I inquired, “Ma’am if you don't mind me asking, where is his father?” “I don't let my son be around him,” was her matter of fact reply. “He is in prison for raping me.” Suddenly my little problem became very small. My emotions changed. I scolded myself mentally, Okay you need to get a grip and be more gentle. I tried to be supportive. “I don't blame you for not wanting your son to be around his father. I wouldn't want my kids around someone like that either.”

Thank God my friend had come. He started to started to talk with her. “You know your son used to come to our youth group. He is always welcome to come back.” As he was speaking I thought, She’s probably doing the best that she can. I asked her if she would mind if we prayed with her. She didn't mind at all. As neighborhood kids played in the street and families enjoyed the summer evening on their porches, we joined hands and bowed our heads. I asked God to grant her strength and to protect her sons. As she gently squeezed my hand, I concluded my prayer thanking God for his great love for us and her sons.

My friend again offered the opportunity for her and the boys to attend our church. He even went so far to say that they are always welcomed to ride with him Sunday mornings. As we started to leave, she let me know that she would talk to her son about staying away from my house. I thanked her as my friend and I turned to leave.

Walking up the street to his house, I told him thank you too. He was kind and said that I did a great job speaking with her. I told him he helped me see through my anger and have compassion on her. We gave each other a hug and parted.

As I drove to my safe, clean home, I thought about the kids at my school. I wondered how many of them have situations at home that cause them to not be successful? I know when I was in the classroom, when kids didn’t perform as I expected, either academically or with their behavior, it was upsetting. I realized the kids with rough home situations needed the safe environment of school. As I pulled into my garage I thought to myself, Did I always make these students feel safe and welcomed in my class?

Since I’m no longer in the classroom, I can't make an immediate impact anymore, but I hope sharing this story will encourage educators to reflect on how they approach each of their students. Are they having empathy when working with students?  Do they know all of the circumstances of each student and their family’s struggles? How can they help a struggling student during the school day? With each story in a child’s life, there is a lesson for all of us. Are we willing to listen?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Lessons in the Hunt

As I headed back to the pool, I decided to ask one of the employees if they knew who this kid was.  Somehow his reaction to me asking his name didn't sit right with me.  As I walked into the pool house, I immediately spoke with a pool manager.  I described the kid and said his name.  The manager gave me a inquisitive look and asked, “Don't you mean so and so?”  I told her I wasn't sure because this was the first time I had met the boy.  I described the boy again and told her what had happen.  She assured me it was this other boy, because he had just left the pool and was walking across the same street I was riding my bike down.  I told her my plan of talking to his parents, but she wasn't sure were he lived.    She also wasn't so sure how supportive the mom would be regarding correcting his behavior.  She was going to write his behavior down and suspend his pool privileges for the next three days.  I told her I appreciated it and thought to myself mom still needs to know.  I jumped in the pool to cool down from the chase, but my intentions to teach this young man a lesson was still heated.

The process of finding this young man's house was slow.   Through my connections I had found out that a family in my church was having trouble with this same boy.  My intent was to ask the dad of this family where the boy lived.  Because of my work picking up, I actually started thinking about putting it off.  My rationale was that he probably paid the price by losing days at the pool.  I also started to think that the mom may not even care about correcting her son.  I even started to think to myself, Who do you think you are trying to teach this boy a lesson?  You're not his parent!   I kept putting it off until a storm and eggs entered my life.

The worst wind storm of the summer hit our town a week after the pool incident.  Wind measured almost 110 mph in our town.  The next day I spent the evening picking up limbs.  I also noticed that a church sign promoting a community outreach function had blown away.  I had put it up in my yard the week before the pool incident.  I didn't think anything about it until a few days latter when I received a phone call from my daughter.  By the sound of her voice she was a little upset.  "Dad, did you know someone egged our house!"  "No I didn't. Where is it located?" I replied.  She said, "It's on the front of the house".   I asked her if she had seen any other spots and she "No I don't think so".  As I hung up the phone I thought, I’ll clean it up after work today.  After work I looked around and noticed another egg splatter on the front of the house and remaining egg shells on top of my roof.  My guess by the location of the splatter was that they would have had to come up on my lawn to hit the front of my porch and miss the overhang.  Finding out where this boy lived wasn't going to be put off any longer.  That evening I would be going to church and getting the information I needed.

Before our Bible study, I tracked down the dad of the family who had trouble with this boy.  I told him of the pool incident and the boy's name.  I asked if he would be willing to let me know where he lived.  He did and also offered to go with me if I wanted him to.  I told him he was welcome but it wasn't necessary.  As I struggled to pay attention during the night's study, I played through my head what I would say to the mother.  I had made up my mind that I would be direct and to the point.  I would emphasize that he needed to stay away from my house or the next call would be to the police to file a complaint.  Once the class was over I made sure my wife caught a ride home.  I met up with the other dad.  He said he had talked it over with his wife and decided he should go.  I thanked him for his support and I told him that I would follow him to the house.  As I started up my vehicle and pulled out of my parking spot I thought,  It's probably a good thing he is coming along. I don't know what I'm getting myself into and a witness might be good to have.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Lessons in the Chase

As I headed up the hill, I noticed one of the kids took off running to a nearby parking lot. When he started to hide behind cars, I knew exactly what I was up against.  Make like a tough guy, yell at someone when they are well past you, and then run off when they try and chase you down.  What would you call this type of person?  Sounds like a coward to me.  I suppose it is much better than someone that might try to fight their way out of the situation.  In all honesty the thought did go through my head, What if this kid tries to throw a punch at me?  This circumstance is a little different than at school where kids wouldn't pull this kind of behavior on a school administrator.  My next thought was, Are you sure you want to do this?

By now I was halfway up the hill and there was no turning back.  As I passed the other boy that was with this kid, I asked what this boy's name was.  “I don't know,” was his response.  I replied, “Sure you don’t” and kept moving toward the parking lot. When I turned in the lot I could see the perpetrator moving from one car to the next.  After a few moves past several cars, he decided it was all in vain and walked out to face the man he thought "sucked".

As I pulled up on my bike, I could tell he was bowing up his chest and ready for anything.  At least he is facing the facts, I thought to myself.  I came up on him at a fairly high rate of speed mainly from going into a sprint up the hill and then the downhill acceleration into the parking lot.  I came to a stop a couple of feet from him.  He was facing me with arms down and fists clenched.  I knew from other experiences in my profession and personal life that this was a position for two things. Defend or attack. His back wasn't to me in order to run off.  He was ready to defend, but my approach wasn't going to be physical.  I was going to work on his conscious more than anything else.

When my bike came to a stop, the first thing I did was ask his name.  He paused for a few seconds, which I thought was strange, then he told me his name.  I asked him, “Who are your parents?”  He replied, “Why do you want to know my parents name?”  I said, “I'm sure they would like to know how you are behaving.”  He said, “I don't know my parents’ names.”  My response: “You don't know your parents’ names?  Everyone has parents!”  He could see that the conversation wasn't going anywhere and starting to walk away.  As he walked away I told him that I would find out who is parents were and where he lived.  As I got back on my bike. I noticed his body language.  He was slumped in defeat.  He wasn't in the cocky aggressive position he was in before.  Was it because he had been held accountable for his actions?  As I made my way back to the pool, I couldn't help thinking, What if he doesn't have parents?

Join me in my next post to see how I tracked down where this boy lives.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Lessons in a Confrontation

I enjoy running.  I know for some of you the two words just simply don't go together.  I got into running in high school.  I ran mainly long distance.  The mile was my favorite. The 880 yard dash was too fast for me and the two mile was too far.  If you know anything about track, I just confessed that I'm old because what I ran was yards not the "new" measure of running of today, meters.

For a period of my life, I actually gave up running.  With a family, teaching, and coaching three sports, I couldn't seem to find the time to run.  Any extra time that I had was early in the morning.  As much as I like to sleep in on a Saturday, that wasn't going to happen.  The past few years I have picked running again and thoroughly enjoyed the feeling of exercise.  Running allows me a "get away". There are no phone calls, no questions to be asked, no work to be done while running.  If there is a good clearing of the mind activity, running is certainly one.

Sometimes I like to mix up my running with bike riding.  This was exactly what I was doing on the day that I had the beginning of a lesson in confrontation.  I had a great idea of riding my bike a few miles and then going to the public pool to swim a few laps.  In my mind, the cool water would be refreshing after a hot, middle of the summer bike ride.  Unfortunately my bike ride would turn into a something less refreshing.  

As I was nearing the end of my ride, I noticed three middle school aged kids walking across the street.  They were taking a little longer than usual to get across because of the angle they were walking up the hill.  I thought they should probably get across so no one hits them coming over top the hill.  As I approach them they were about halfway across and again thought to myself, If you keep walking, it shouldn't be a problem for me to keep going straight.  As they were clearing my path, one boy on the end decided to have a little fun.  His fun, not mine.

He made a motion like he was going to walk in front of me.  I tensed up and thought, Okay kid just stay were you are.  I then decided I was going to have to brake because he didn't seem to change direction.  Just before I hit the brakes he decided to "fake me out" and pretend to try and knock me off my bike.  At this moment I went from leaving the brake alone to just keeping it straight.  He could see that I wasn't fooled so he backed off.  As I went past him and then turned into the pool parking lot he must have realized that I wasn't fazed.  He wasn't going to back down in making a point because as soon as my bike came to a stop I heard from the top of the hill, "Mike Sanders Sucks!"

The first thing that came to my mind wasn't anger.  It was confusion.  How in the world does he know my name?  He isn't one of the kids at my school.  Surely I'm not that notorious as a school administrator that other school district kids think I suck?  As it turns out one of the kids he was walking with was a girl that attended my school.  With all of the distraction, I hadn't even noticed her.  I'm guessing that once he tried to pull his intimidating stunt, she told him not to do that because that is Mike Sanders her school superintendent.  I'm not sure that's exactly what she said, but she is a good girl at school so I going assume the positive about her.  

After the split second confusion, I decided that this young man had gone too far.  I wasn't going to let him smear my name at the top of his lungs in a public place.  I got back on my bike and pursued him.  Since I didn't know this kid, I wasn't sure what I was getting myself into.  Some of you may be wondering about my common sense chasing after a unknown student.  Fortunately this was in the small town that I lived in so I believed I was safe in trying to teach this kid a lesson.  I wouldn't have done this in a big city, in a dark alley.  I would save that for the superhero on the screen or for law enforcement.  So up the hill I went in pursuit.

Join me in the next post to find out how my chase ended.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Who is Number One on Your Trophy?

The past several posts have been targeting my first few years in teaching, but haven't addressed the BT era of my life.  BT meaning before teaching.  Before teaching, mainly in high school or in college, I loved playing sports.  Anything from football, basketball, track, baseball, whiffle ball, kick ball, indoor hockey during physical education classes or paper field goal football.  In paper field goal football you would fold a piece of paper into a triangle "football" and "kick" it with your finger through your buddy's goal posts (made using two hands, joining your thumbs at the end and holding up your pointer finger).  The goal was to “kick” the paper football through the "uprights" and hit your buddy in the face.  Extra points we always told ourselves, especially if it we hit the other guy on the end of the nose!  We would laugh and then decide to move the goal posts to the side!  Hey, I didn't say I was smart, but I loved to play sports.

I think what attracted me to sports was the activity and competitive nature of a game.  I loved to win, to get the better of my opponent.  Sometimes I carried it too far and became more of a jerk about stuff than I should have been.  I can still remember my displeasure and a teammate’s reaction during an indoor hockey game when our goalie let someone score the winning goal.  I wasn't close enough to participate in the sequence of events, but I let my displeasure be heard.  I still remember the reaction of a teammate who was within hear shot. She turned to me and said, "Not all of us can be perfect, Mike!" Wow!  That was a jerk moment.  I do want to make a clarifying point.  Both teams were equally split male and female.  I wasn't the only guy playing with a bunch of girls and displeased with their efforts. So does that may make me less of a jerk?

Were the teams I played on highly successful because of my drive to win?  Not really, in fact it was the exact opposite.  The teams I played on were rarely competitive.  In fact, I never won a single football game during my school years. Jr. High and high school career combined: zero wins, nada, none, big goose egg, or whatever catch phrase you want to use. During high school we held a record.  A record, for a losing team?  Yes, we had the record for the state's longest losing streak: 48 games!  It wasn't that we had bad teams, it was just that everyone was always better at the end of the game.  We tried to have some fun with it through my middle high school years.  We would turn popular songs into our theme song. Remember the rock-n-roll group Queen?  We changed one of their popular songs, "Another One Bites the Dust", into “Another Beats our Butt!” We sang it well, but with little cheer behind it.  Hmm, I wonder why?  

In my last year of school I put a lot of effort into trying unsuccessfully to help us end the losing streak.  Although I received some individual recognition for my efforts, it was still not the same as winning a game.  I wouldn't have been selfish about it.  Just one win would have been fine.  That would been enough to break the streak.  Eventually my high school did break the streak.  The first game after I graduated.  Thanks fellas!  Actually I was very happy for my friends and proud of them.  The school was so excited they left the scoreboard on all night long.  Even though I wasn't a member of that team I liked to believe that I had something to do with helping them break the streak.

When I started college classes, my passion for sports eventually led me into the area of teaching.  I enrolled in the teaching program so I could coach.  Yes, that is correct.  Before I wanted to teach, I wanted to coach.  That is by no means a slight on coaching.  Coaches can have a positive lifelong impact on students.  With the right attitude, a coach can influence student athletes positively.  With the wrong attitude, he or she can have a negative impact. My attitude, as you have already picked up, was not the most positive.  I was all about winning just as I had been in high school.  I didn't want to be known for losing.  Which meant I was very high strung in my practices.  I expected a lot from my players.  I tried to instill a great work ethic and high expectations in my players, but I never seemed happy with them unless they won.  It was a philosophy that would never lead to fulfillment for my players or me.  It would change in my second year of coaching.  I ran across book by Rainer Martens called, "Successful Coaching."  Great title, I thought because I wanted to be a successful coach.  Problem was I had the wrong definition of what success looked like.  Very quickly, on page five to be precise, Mr. Martens changed my philosophy.

It was with one little illustration of two trophies that made me change how I would coach. One of the trophies had a winning cup at the top with a number two engraved on the bottom pedestal.  The other trophy, taller than other one, had a student on the top with a number one on it.  Athletes first and winning second was Martens’ philosophy.  Son of a gun, I thought to myself.  Have I been putting winning ahead of my players?  Am I treating them like objects to achieve the goal of winning.  I took at honest look at myself as a coach.

The other problem with me was that I carried the people as objects to help me win into the classroom.  As a teacher I was treating my students like they were little industrial workers in a factory.  Lined up in neat little rows, which allowed the custodians to clean the room rather neatly, and working on their neat little worksheets.  If they weren't winning – getting an A or weren’t in the 90th percentile on a test – in class, I was disappointed in them and myself.  It took me awhile to figure out how to stop getting the same results.  I finally realized that I had to stop doing the same thing. Instead of focusing on how I taught, I focused more on how students learned.  Teaching the same way for everyone wasn't going to work.  Teaching the students just to win in my class wasn't going to work.  I had to get to know them individually and take different approaches with each person.   It was time consuming, but well worth the time invested.  The irony was that it started with the thing that got me into education.  Wanting to be a "Successful Coach" made me revaluate my teaching.

What about you?  What is your approach to the classroom?  If you are coach, what is your attitude toward the athletes you lead.  Are you an athlete- first-winning-second type of coach?  As a teacher are you a student-first-teacher- second type of teacher?  I would encourage you to take a deep look at your approach to kids.  As you are reflecting, remember your students are always people first, then a member of your class and team.  I wish you the best in this process and hope that no one "Beats your Butt!" when it comes to putting kids on the first place trophy.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Stealing the Student's Carnival Rides!

I am sure most of you have seen the History Channel show, American Pickers.  If you haven't, let me summarize.  The show follows two guys around the United States looking for old antiques in people's sheds, barns, garages, or even old junk piles.  These two guys are very well versed in antiques and what would be good to "pick" out of some one's barn.

As educators we can learn a lot from this show.  You are probably saying to yourself, "What can I learn from a TV show about two guys going through a bunch of old stuff"?  It's not so much about the stuff they are rummaging through, but the discovery process of finding artifacts.  If you ever have watched the show, you have seen what these men go through to find an artifact.  They dig through, climb over, handle, and scrutinize a lot of stuff.  They are ones that are involved.  How fun would it be if they got someone else to do this for them?

Having someone do this for them is like hiring someone to ride your favorite carnival ride. Wouldn't that be a bummer watching someone else laughing and screaming the whole way through what was suppose to be your ride.  It's enough to make you mad, but wait you're the one that hired them in the first place.  So you think to yourself that was plain stupid paying someone else to have your fun!

As a classroom teacher I would sometimes steal the students' carnival rides. You're probably thinking what a rotten educator I must have been to steal rides from innocent children.  Technically I didn't steal anything from them, so don't go calling a private investigator to pursue my teaching background.  What I did take away from them was an opportunity for them to discover on their own.  I would poor my energy and talents, more energy than talent mind you, into planning a lesson for my students.  I had it all figured all of the research for a lecture of twenty to thirty minutes, give them a worksheet or assignment, answer a few questions from the students on the front row (they seemed the most interested) and then sit down in my chair and watch them go at the worksheet or assignment. 

Through this process I was taking away the discovery part for my students.  I was riding the carnival ride and they were watching me have all the fun.  They were spectators and not participants.  Sure I needed to know my content in order to be a resource for my students, but really I was doing most of the work everyday.  Doing this seven times a day (seven period day) made me a little worn out at the end of the day.  It is a no wonder that my students left the day with more energy than I did.  When the ending school bell rang and they would run from the school with the energy and life of young foal kicking and prancing in the back pasture.  I on the other hand would stay and start the process over again planning for the next lesson.  Once I was done then I would drag my tired broken down workhorse body home and collapse in the recliner.

Eventually it came to my mind that this seemed a little backwards.  The students should be spending the energy and time, as I would like to call it, riding the carnival ride of discovery in the classroom.  They should be the ones rummaging through the resources to find the necessary facts for a lesson.  Once I switched my methods around, I was able to step back and watch them learn on their own.  I set up the parameters in the lesson.  Which sometimes was a simple question to get them started.  Which still meant I needed to know my content area well enough to ask the "important" questions.  Eventually the students started asking those types of "what does this mean?", "how did they?", "what if?" to keep the learning going.  The important transition for my classroom was from teacher centered to student centered.  By doing so the students were spending their youthful excitement which in turn rejuvenated this tired teacher. It was a win - win situation for everyone!

How about your classroom?  Who is spending most of the energy in learning? Is the procedure all about the teacher or the student?  Ask yourself honestly and if you're not sure, try asking your students.  Switch it around to be student centered and you will find several "treasures" in the minds and results of your students.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


     In my first couple of years of teaching I was very concerned, well actually I was in fear of my room full of middle schoolers getting out of control and creating such a disruption that my colleagues would complain and then I would be sitting in the principal's office having to explain why my students were "so loud and disruptive".  
     I thought I would be branded as a teacher that couldn't control their classroom.  I pictured myself sitting down in the teacher's lounge and my colleagues getting up and moving away.  Outcast!  On Friday spirit day, when everyone was wearing jeans and their school colors, I would be wearing the Scarlet Letter "O". Fellow teachers would whisper as I was walking by, "You know he is the one!  The Outcast that can't control his classroom!  
     Of course my fellow teachers or principals never treated me like this.  They were always very supportive and kind.  I was probably paranoid about this because of how I viewed my experiences in classrooms when I was a student.  Nevertheless, I was determined to not have my students be a "bad" example to my colleagues.  I didn't want to end up in the principal's office again.  It's understandable to be in the principal's office as a kid, but as an adult, it's a walk of shame!
     I decided that I would keep my kids busy.  You know the old phrase, "Idle hands are the devil's workshop."  I took it to heart. I wanted to keep my kids busy from the time they entered the room till the time they left.  There would be no time to meddle in someone else's business or get involved in a discussion of what happened in the world's news.
     My first school year was in 1990-1991.  One of the major historical events of the decade happened in that school year.  If you are old, I mean experienced, like me you probably remember the day when U.S. troops invaded Iraq. It was January 17, the start of the Gulf War.  You were probably glued to the TV, just like my students were, watching the night vision footage of missiles being shot and exploding over and on Bagdad.  
     The next day in my class we had a chapter test scheduled.  When my kids asked if we could talk about the invasion, what did I say.  Nein, we have a test!!!  Actually I didn't say use the word nein but the look on the student's faces sure made it seem that way. This would have been a great time because the student's attention was ripe for the picking. It was "A Teachable Moment".
     I was the history teacher for crying out loud!  It was a start of a war, you dummy!  I could have been easily justified to stop the content and talk about what was happening in the world.  But no, I was too busy thinking about how we needed to stay on pace with the content and not cause a disruption.  “I will keep the students occupied with my fast paced lectures and when I get tired of talking I will give them a "Shutteruppersheet"!  hat will keep them quiet!”  My reputation as a teacher would be on solid ground for teacher lounge small talk.  
     If you read my last post titled "The How is More Important than the What", you read that I eventually discovered that engaging my students in the lesson or projects became more important than keeping them quiet.  Some projects would get a little loud!  If I knew that in advance, I would apologize in advance to my next door teacher.  What was their response?  Shame on you for wanting the kids to learn, you Scarlet Letter "O" teacher!  No, they were very supportive in what I was doing and told me to not WORRY about it!   My attention was turned from worrying about what others thought of me to worrying about engaging my students in the classroom!  No more long fast "Kentucky Derby" lectures or "Shutteruppersheets" but more engaging lessons that involved students in their learning.  
     The more I engaged kids the less lecture and worksheets were needed.  My world opened up as a teacher. I saw my students as individuals and not factory workers in a system.  When I left teaching and moved onto being a building principal, I literally missed those students because I missed them as people.  I missed those moments when "they got it" in a project or discussion.  Or when they got excited about discovering more about a topic that was being covered in the class.  I never would have had this opportunity to see these kids fully if I would have kept lecturing all hour and giving them those shut up sheets. 
     I'm sure they were better students because of my shift in teaching, but when it came down to it, I was a better person because I stepped out of my comfort zone and got involved with my kids.  What about you are you involved with your students in their classwork.  Do you have them too busy to learn and reflect?  Does your teaching style allow them to be the leaders of the classroom or spectators?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The How is more Important than the What!

I will be up front with you in this post.  I have one sole purpose and it is to get the reader to think about the main topic.  The title of the post has probably already got you thinking.  It could been any thoughts from, "What is he talking about?"  to "What is the How and What is the What?"  I promise this isn't going to be an Abbott and Costello type conversation, similar to their comedy skit, "Who’s on First?"

To be clear in my title, I have explained what my topic is.  The topic is the teaching in the classroom.  From what we teach to how we teach it.  How we teach is more important than what we teach.  Now before any of you strict curriculum people get your britches in a bind, I want to clarify something.  I am not saying what we teach is not important.  If fact, what we teach is one of the most important components in the future of a student's success.  What if we left out addition in math?  Or didn't cover the definition of a noun or verb?  Would our student have success in future settings?  I think it would be safe to say that we would be limiting the success of our students if we believed the "What" of the classroom was not important.

The main point I'm trying to make is how we teach is more important than what we teach.  Let me put it to you this way.  If the students never remember what we taught them because of how we taught them, then what good does it do to emphasize the what in the classroom?  Wow, that really does sound like an Abbott and Costello skit.

When I first got back into teaching back in 1990, the majority of my college instructors lectured in their classroom.  When I got into the classroom, what do you suppose was my style of teaching?  That's right, I lectured most of my way through the class I taught.

It didn't take me long to recognize that my students were not paying attention.  My students had the best intentions. They would pay attention for fifteen or twenty minutes, but eventually they’d give into their day dreams and glaze over.  Before I knew it I had a room full of glazed over students.  Almost sounds like something you would pick up at Dunkin Donuts.  Except this was suppose to be school and my students would not learn a thing of my content if they were a glazed over donut, I mean student.

Still I pushed forward with my style.  I told myself, "I will make them take notes. That will get them to pay attention!"  It worked like a charm, because they had to stay on top of their note taking to keep up with my Kentucky Derby lectured pace.  My version of "And Their Off" was "Take Out Your Notebook".  Students knew once I made that statement it was full speed ahead.  What I discovered was that the students were on task but were so busy taking notes that they missed comprehending my content.

Eventually I would learn to pace my lecture, ask students questions to check understanding, and even stand beside the ones that were almost ready to turn into a glazed donut, I mean student.  I became better at my art, but in the end, the students were not getting any better at grasping the content.

So I decided to do something a little different in my class.  I decided to turn the tables on students. Instead of me doing all of the teaching, I would let them lead the class.  I broke my classes up in groups and told them to teach the next chapter to their classmates.  They had three class days to prepare their lessons and then they would teach their content to their peers.  I would be in the back of the room grading them on their content and presentation.  Guess how they taught?  Yes, that is correct they lectured most of the time.  Sure they took turns in speaking, but pretty much had me glazing over in fifteen or twenty minutes.

It was at that point in my teaching career that I decide how I taught became more important than what I taught.  No glazed over student, no matter how many strategies I tried would understand the content I was covering.  I had to find ways to engage these students to be an active part of my teaching.  I had to step back from my teaching role and let the students take charge of their learning.  Once I released control of my classroom I allowed the students to learn more than they ever could have learned from my lectures.  I still maintained high expectations in the class.  Loafing was not an option! Active participation in either the activities I developed (still had to come up with some) or they developed were the expectation.

By giving up this control not only did I become a better teacher my students became better.  They learned to interact with their classmates in their activities.  They were understanding the content more because they were involved in the classroom.  Students started to learn more because the how was emphasized over the what.  With this type of style eventually the what of the classroom became more important to the students.  As a teacher how is the how of your classroom?  Are students really getting the content? Survey them and ask them to be honest.  Look at the results honestly, without malicious intent and you might learn something from your students.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Don't Be a Vacuum Salesman!

Did you ever want to be a kid again? Think about it. Everything is paid for! You can eat about anything in sight and not gain any weight. Playing in the back yard for hours on end is super fun! Your meals are prepared for you! Your laundry is taken care of! Who wouldn't want to be a kid again?!

Okay, in all seriousness, being a kid has some great advantages and some disadvantages. Bed time always falls on the start of the Super Bowl! Having to eat your vegetables isn't all that it's cracked up to be. And puberty?! Once was enough for me.

In my world of leading, sometimes I overlook one of the most important characteristics in leadership. How can I relate with the people I am leading? As a leader it's important to do so. Why? Leaders can get stuck in a vacuum if they are unable to relate with the people they lead. There is only one thing to remember when leading in a vacuum: There is only going to be one person that you will lead and it's yourself. No one else is following because a vacuum leader is usually by themselves in gathering facts and making decisions.  

Need another way to look at it. Being a vacuum leader sounds a lot like being a vacuum salesman. Think of the vacuum salesman when they come to your door. For those of you that don't remember, there actually were individuals that went around door to door selling vacuum cleaners. What did most people do when they saw a vacuum salesman coming to the door? Some people would shut the lights off and turn off the TV. They would pretend not to be home. If your mom had you do all of this when you were a little kid, it's more than likely that a vacuum salesman was at your door. Either that or one of those weird relatives were making a surprise visit. "Hurry kids hide! Your Uncle Ernie is coming up the walk! You know the one that smells like beef and cheese!" Everyone scattered quicker than you could have said, "Who cut the cheese?"

But I'm digressing. Either way, if you are a leader making decision in a vacuum or a person that goes door to door selling vacuums, you won't have a positive impact as a leader. The lesson here is...Don't be a vacuum salesman! Er, I mean, don't be a leader that makes decisions in a vacuum. Get out and gather information from the people you work with and lead on a day to day basis.

As educators, we work with kids most of our days. To get a good perspective on our lesson, we have to put on our "kid goggles" and see how our lessons look to them. If you polled your students and asked them what they honestly thought of your lessons, would you listen to their input or chalk it down as "they just don't know what is good for them"? Listen to this Ted Talk presentation from an expert. If you are open-minded, you might just learn something about kids from a kid. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Using Technology to Expand Your PLN

This is the final post in the my series on Personal Learning Networks. So far I have explained what a PLN is and how you can navigate and expand it. In this post I'm going to give some examples on how you can use technology to expand  your PLN world.

Educators have to learn to be diverse in their training. They have to be able to learn in all settings. Their training used to revolve around workshop or college classes. Those are still ways to learn, but to keep up with changing trends across the globe, educators have be tech savvy.

Listed below are just a few ways to start expanding  your PLN by using technology.

Twitter is a great way to chat with teachers in various content areas. Not sure how to tweet?   Check out this article on Edutopia on how educators can use tweets to build their PLN.

Edutopia also has great community groups that you can join to build up your PLN. They have groups on a wide range of topics. Elementary school teacher can get into the elementary school group. Education leaders can get into the Education Leaders group. Anything from special education, to classroom management, and technology are covered.

Check out this link for these groups:

Educators don't have to use Edutopia or another popular site Ted Talks to build their PLN. It can be as easy as connecting with other educators via Skype.

If you want to go to a direct website you can click on "The Educator's PLN-The personal learning network for educators." It's that simple to build your own Professional Learning Network. Here is the link for this site.

Using technology in my PLN allows me to learn when and how I want to. If I am stuck waiting in the doctor's office for twenty or thirty minutes? I can read an education article from one of my hash tag tweets. Nothing good on TV? I turn to Edutopia, Ted Talks, or You Tube and watch a video on 21st Century Learning in Singapore.  

Either way I'm in charge of when and how I learn. I no longer have to wait for it to be fed to me  on an in-service day or in a college class. I also don't have an out-of-pocket expense like I would for college classes because everything I listed above is free! 

Having your own PLN will change the way you learn and will also force state agencies and school districts to change the way they accept educator's learning for recertification. Using your PLN can help you keep up with change in your profession. Using technology will help you stay on top of the current trends. Good luck on your PLN journey!