Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The new year

Tomorrow marks the start of the new school year, my seventh at my current school. My room's set up, handouts for the first day are copied, seating chart's done, and the tissues/hand sanitizer/lotion station's resupplied and ready to go.

I've made a few tweaks to my grading system, and clarified a couple of initial lessons. I still want to tweak my summer reading essay assignment, revise a quote of the day analysis activity I've used as a warm up in previous years (which will serve as my "Do Now" on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday), and create a "non fiction reading log" type of assignment that students can use on Tuesdays and Thursdays when we read the newspaper.

One of my goals this year is to incorporate regular reading of the newspaper into all my classes, not just Journalism. There's a lot of value in knowing about what's going on in the world. There's also something to be said for the element of choice that comes into play when one picks up a newspaper. Helping students to better read non-fiction texts while simultaneously fostering a positive association with reading are two great things. To this day, there are few things I enjoy more than Sunday mornings with a fresh cup of coffee and the latest Boston Sunday Globe.

Aside from getting kids to read the paper, I'm going to want them all to have Gmail accounts, so they can become familiar with Google Docs. Almost all of my students who have used it in the past love it, as it's user-friendly and makes it easy to work on assignments at home and at school without having to worry about USB drives, e-mail attachments, and the like.

This weekend I hope to create my first vocabulary video, which I can model for the kids. I'm excited about the potential this idea has, but like anything new, it needs to be explicitly taught. And before I can explicitly teach it, I need to be sure I know what I'm doing and why I'm doing it!

While it can be easy to let the weight of local, state, and federal mandates sink our spirits as educators, we're also buoyed by the opportunities to create and help our students make meaning of this amazing and complex world.

Happy First Day!

Buoy image by jouste

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A delayed return

Due to Tropical Storm Irene's touchdown in Massachusetts this morning, my district's opening day for teachers has been pushed back to Tuesday. While this means that technically my summer vacation is one more day, the reality is I have one more of "my own" days to work and prepare for the new year before doing so in official capacity.

My district, like my wife's, only requires teachers to come in one day before the students arrive. As you likely know if you are or have been a teacher, one day is grossly insufficient to prepare for a new academic year. Aside from the literal logistics of unpacking items from storage and setting up the classroom, there's mental setup to do as well.

For me, that means reviewing the various notes I've made to myself from the previous year about what didn't work so well and what needs to change. It's also incorporating ideas from various journal articles, newspapers, and pedagogical texts that I think will engage the students and help me be a more effective teacher. Sometimes I'll scrap something I'm bored with, or try a different approach just because I'm curious about the results.

In no particular order, here are some of the things that I've either been doing or need to get done for the start of school:

- Print class rosters
- Create seating charts
- Review my syllabus and make changes to my "teacher expectations"
- Revise the interview activity I typically do on the first or second day
- Make any changes to my grading system I feel are necessary and put them in writing
- Revise my list of staff descriptions for the newspaper students
- Decide how I am going to assign and assess outside reading books this year
- Create a new non-fiction writing assignment that incorporates research
- Decide how I want to integrate the reading of newspapers into my classes
- Figure out what I want to do for the "Do Nows" mandated by administration for all 9th grade teachers
- Rethink how I teach vocabulary, and possibly introduce vocabulary videos.
- Revise the summer reading essay assignment I plan to give students  on the second or third day of school
- Create a survey to administer to my students about their previous experiences reading, writing, and speaking, both in and outside of school
- Decide exactly how I want to blog with students this year. Will we use Blogger? Something else?
- Tweak/create my permission forms for parents to sign (movies, blogging, YouTube)
- Remember to collect parent e-mail addresses
- Install the Smartboard software onto my computer
- Create new class folders
- Decide where on my boards I want to place the agendas for each class
- Think about how (if) I want to use Twitter this year to post assignments
- Finish updating my netbooks and classroom computers
- Write a letter to parents and students explaining my educational philosophy
- Place students' names on Post-It notes on my classroom desks so students know where to sit on the first day
- Put up a couple of labels describing the various parts of my classroom and where things are

And these are just some the things I want to do. My department chair will have other things, and so will my principal. Now, I enjoy my job. It's meaningful, important, and allows me to be creative and work with some great people and students. It also is a job. It's a lot of work. People who think teachers have it easy, or are overpaid, really don't understand what we do. And again, this is an incomplete list of things I need to do, notwithstanding creating engaging lesson plans, executing said lesson plans, designing assessments, delivering assessments, evaluating assessments, communicating with students, communicating with parents, communicating with colleagues and administrators, studying and implementing special ed accommodations and modifications, filling out administrator-mandated rubrics, deciding how I want to run a new mandated advisory group, overseeing production of the school newspaper, taking classes for a second master's degree...

The purpose here is not to devolve this post into a rant, but rather to illustrate some of the things teachers must do and consider before the school year commences.

Having one extra day to work on them is nice.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Principal encourages social media in the classroom

It's nice to know that educators like Eric Sheninger are getting recognized for their sensible approach to technology and learning. Sheninger, principal of a high school in New Jersey, believes in tapping the power of social media to engage students.

"The Internet as we know it is the 21st century," Sheninger says in a recent article from USA Today. "It is what these students have known their whole lives. They're connected, they're creating, they're discussing, they're collaborating."

I have been very fortunate to have worked for a principal who embraced technology and supported my efforts to use digital tools and social media in the classroom. While he retired last year, his replacement seems equally interested in using Web 2.0 tools, and has plans to start a blog in order to allow him to communicate with students, parents, and faculty. I think it's a wonderful idea.

If you're an educator, and you aren't blogging, you should, according to Wired Educator's Kelly Croy.  Click here to get started and join the conversation!

Social media image by Stephen Traversie

Creativity on the decline

University of Oregon educational psychologist Ron Beghetto observed the following about the effect NCLB and Race to the Top are having on America's students in a recent study on creativity

"The current focus on testing in schools, and the idea that there is only one right answer to a question, may be hampering development of creativity among kids. There's not much room for unexpected, novel, divergent thought."

What a sad commentary on the state of our schools, which seem to be rewarding regurgitated factology and uniform verbiage. And just what are the repercussions of this creative drain caused by the beauro-corporate testing squeeze? Research scientist Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William and Mary:

"If we just focus on just No Child Left Behind — testing, testing, testing — then how can creative students survive? If this trend continues then students who look different, nonconformists, will suffer, because they are not accepted."

We are a culture obsessed with being "right." We've got to get the right car and the right house in the right neighborhood. We need the right music and the right phone. We need the right dress and the right style and the right attitude.

Students need the right answer, with the right bubble filled in the right way in the right amount of time. Teachers need to be giving students the right (corporately sanctioned) education in the right (one-dimensional) way, with the right (jargon-filled, administrator-approved) agenda and the right (factual, memorizable, testable) skills in the right (curriculum-dictated) order on the right (scripted) day.

Well, maybe right now is the time to call an end to this nonsense.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A review of Fish!

Based on a recommendation from a fellow journalism teacher, I picked up and read the book Fish! - A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results. It was a quick read with a simple parable about how the qualities of a successful fish market in Seattle can be applied to any business or organization to make it a more productive and enjoyable place to work.

As the advisor to my high school's newspaper, I am interested in ways to make the staff more productive and engaged in their task of creating a quality scholastic publication. Fish! gives its readers a glimpse of the inner-workings of Pike Place Fish, analyzing the business for the qualities that make it a world-renowned market.

The authors found that the market's employees demonstrate the following: 1) they live in the present moment, 2) they aim to truly make their customer's day, 3) they infuse elements of play with their work, and 4) they're aware that they have the power to choose their own attitude each day.

That last concept is the most important. While we can't always choose the work that we do, we can choose the way we do it. By bringing positive energy to what we do, and by doing it to the best of our ability, we can transform mundane tasks into meaningful ones.

I am currently on vacation at the beach. A couple of miles down the road from where I am staying is a small coffee shop. Its ice coffee is flavorful, its breakfast sandwiches are hearty, and its wraps are a delectable balance of meat and accoutrement. What makes it special, though, are the employees who work there. The last time I was in, the woman behind the counter engaged me from the moment I placed my order until the second the door closed behind me on my way out.

The server spoke to me with energy and passion, excited about her culinary offerings and invested in making sure I got everything I wanted, in as pleasant and joyful a manner as possible. She referred to me as "honey" and "sweetie," and asked her coworker if he could "be a doll" and get her an iced coffee. The fancy chicken wrap sandwich I ordered not only had the word "fancy" written on it, it also had a picture of a bow, as if it had been wrapped up all nice and special, just for me.

These actions are those of employees who are engaged, living in the moment, and bringing energy to what some might consider the basic, even menial task of working food service in a small coffee shop. The way these people approach their job makes for an enjoyable customer experience. It also leads me to believe that their attitude helps make Cape Ann Coffees a fun place to work.

If you're looking for insights on how to boost the productivity of your workers and cheer up your workplace, I'd recommend this book. Its effectiveness lies not in the depth or profundity of its message, but rather on the few simple truths it manages to capture clearly and convey earnestly.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Vocabulary Videos

One new idea for this coming school year involves having my students create vocabulary videos. While I have yet to formally think everything through, the gist is that every week or so, students - working in groups of two to four - would create a one-minute video on a given vocabulary word, Latin or Greek root, or literary term.

Each video would contain certain ingredients (a brief history of the word, its usage, parts of speech, synonyms, antonyms, appropriate background music, use of props) and would be uploaded to a private YouTube account which only students in the class could view.

Students would be given one or two class periods to do research on their word, strategize for their video, film, and edit. What they didn't accomplish in class would be homework. Then, on "viewing days," I would pull up the class's YouTube page, provide each group with a critique sheet, and we would watch the videos. Each group would be assigned to assess another's video. The assessment sheets would ask students to think about the required video "ingredients" and ask them to observe if they were absent, present, or exceptional (or something like that).

The idea is that if the video had all of the required pieces and conveyed the meaning of the word in an accurate, entertaining, and creative way, the group would get an "A" for the video. Points would be deducted accordingly for videos that didn't meet the various criteria. Students would be shown sample videos and given an opportunity to assess them before actually grading each other's. This way, students would hopefully be "calibrated" and have a grasp of what constitutes a complete and well-crafted project.

After all the videos were viewed, students would share their rating sheets with the respective groups whose videos they evaluated. This would give students an opportunity to discuss with each other the strengths and merits as they saw them. In the event a disagreement arose about a group's rating, I would step in as mediator and help the students work things out. In the end, I will have the final say about what each group gets for a grade, but I'm optimistic that the students will be fair and accurate evaluators of each other's work. When I've done peer assessments in the past, I've found students to be as - if not more - critical than I. The key is getting students to look for strengths as well as weaknesses. 

The creation of these videos will serve as a substitute to more traditional vocabulary quizzes. Too often I've seen students cram for vocabulary quizzes, get the necessary information into their short-term memory, do well on a quiz, and then fail to use the words later on in their speech or writing. My theory is that by producing something and being actively engaged in "meaning-making," they'll retain the words and their meanings better (and hopefully use them more frequently).

The nice thing about uploading the videos to YouTube is that they'll be available for viewing later on. Then, maybe every four or five weeks, I'll have some kind of written assessment where students have to use the words in sentences or fill in the blank or match or write an antonym or something. In order to review for the written assessment, they'll be able to cue up the YouTube page and peruse the videos of the words they don't know.

While I'm sure there will be some kinks to work out and quirks I won't have planned for, I'm confident we'll be able to overcome them.

As for the technological end of things, I've been able to acquire a number of computers for my classroom over the years, and, thanks to websites offering educators steep discounts, I have a handful of Flip video cameras I can lend to students. They'll also, of course, be able to use their own devices to create and edit the videos should they so choose.

Look for me to post my own vocabulary video(s) in the coming weeks. Also, if you've ever done something like this before, or know of any possibly helpful resources, feel free to drop a note in the comments section. Thanks!

Video camera image by chelzdd

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A School [We'd] Love To See

Chris Lehmann from Practical Theory recently shared the following idea for a high school:
Every morning, the first thing everyone did was read the New York Times for an hour, [and] using some kind of Kindle-style software they can annotate with ideas, questions, etc... such that at the end of the hour, the school community could see who had similar questions from the day’s paper.

Imagine what it would look like if the kids spent the better part of the day researching those questions and seeing where that took them, with the end of every day being a "share out" where kids shared what they learned across a variety of media.

Wouldn't that be a better high school experience than many of the schools across the country? Wouldn't it be an amazing way to encourage life-long learning, inquiry-based learning, research, collaboration and presentation if kids did something like this every day?

Yes and yes. What Lehmann is really speaking to is the value and relevance of using newspapers in the classroom. As a former journalist and current classroom teacher, newspapers are a great way to expose students to professionally-written prose that is accessible and relevant. For seven years I've used various newspapers (The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, The Daily Hampshire Gazette, USA Today) in my journalism classroom. This coming school year, I'd like to extend this use to my other English classes.

One good thing to come out of the Common Core Craziness is a renewed focus on using non-fiction texts in the classroom. While I haven't figured out exactly how I'd like to structure it, I would like to begin most of my classes with a 10-minute newspaper reading session to catch up on the day's events. After the 10 minutes, we might have a discussion, respond to a prompt, or simply segue into the next activity.

I'm a big fan of meaningful routines, and it's hard to think of one more valuable than starting each day by reading about the world we live in.

Friday, August 5, 2011

A redesign... and a return?

As you might have noticed, I recently changed this blog's template. The text area is wider, and the font is larger. There's also a nice background image of a field and a trail leading up a hill. It's been a little while since I've posted regularly to Mr. B-G's English Blog. This is certainly not for a lack of ideas or a lessened desire to be a participant in the dialogue. Rather, obligations for my master's of educational technology degree with Boise State University have taken up much of the time I used to dedicate to blogging.

As part of a "culminating activity" for my degree, I will need to create an electronic portfolio full of blog post reflections, discussions, and "artifacts" from each of the 10 courses which will comprise my degree. So far I'm about halfway there, ready to begin my fifth class, "Theoretical Foundations of Educational Technology," in a couple of weeks.

Aside from my EDTECH classes, I also took an online course from Kent State University this past June called "Teaching Photoshop." It was a great way for me to overcome my fear of using some of Photoshop's more advanced features. Each week we had to create a project that utilized a variety of tools and filters. The lessons built on each other, requiring us to truly grasp earlier concepts if we were to have any success on the more complicated projects.

As far as learning tangible skills, it was one of the best online courses I've taken. I'm excited about the opportunity to help my students take their Photoshop know-how to the next level.

So, yeah. Graduate school. That's my excuse for not blogging as frequently. It's certainly valid, but it's not the sole reason. Truth be told, so many of the harmful developments in education, and the hurtful and derogatory ways teachers have been portrayed in the media and, subsequently, treated in reality, have given me pause about the number of years I have left in this profession.

Could I still end up spending my entire professional career in education? Sure. Does the possibility of doing something else also entice me, especially in the wake of the testing craze and the blame-teachers-for-all-the-ills-of-society rhetoric? Yes. 

This summer I taught myself how to build a computer. So far I've built two complete systems, with two more in the queue. I've really enjoyed the process of specing out a unit, amassing the components, and then putting them together so they function at an optimal level. It's very rewarding to be able to take the steps from concept to creation. 

As a kid I was interested in making things from salvaged or second-hand parts. In fourth grade I created an "inventor's club" at my elementary school, which featured regular meetings and trips to area museums. It was neat stuff, being on the cutting edge of an idea or the implementation of a theory. One "invention" I recall involved ripping the guts out of a standard walkie-talkie and retrofitting it with parts from old radios to boost the performance. 

After changing out a few things and stringing 20 feet of wire up a large evergreen tree in my backyard, I was able to listen to and speak with truckers on their CB radios. I remember this being quite awesome, especially because it was made possible by my own tinkering.


I hope to return to this space more frequently as I work out my own feelings about where public education is headed in this country, and what my role will be. Shall I stick it out and work to be an implement of positive change (assuming this is still actually possible), or will politics and an edu-corporate agenda drive me to test the waters of free enterprise?

Stick around to find out.

Pine Tree image by chikachika72