Monday, December 2, 2013

Five Unconventional Ways to Promote a Positive Classroom Environment

This is not a peer-reviewed article. This is not a book on educational theory. I bet I won't even be asked to write for this blog again in the future after this post. Don't expect to see me writing for educational journals because what I am about to share has nothing to do with educational psychology, theory, or method. In fact, I bet it goes against a lot of what is taught is these classes and books. What follows are five simple things I have done to show the students that I care about them, their lives, and their interests. Care equals cooperation and cooperation makes for a great classroom environment. Enjoy.

  1. High Five Fridays – Imagine a high school biology teacher that was the head coach of the football team, had handlebar mustache, and wore snake skin boots. He was my biology teacher and every Friday without fail he would greet his students with a high five and the greeting “High Five Friday!” It was awesome. This simple act further reinforced the fact that he cared about me as a person. Now that I am a teacher, I try to do this every Friday as well. P.S. - he was my favorite teacher in high school and this is one of the most vivid memories I have of him.

  1. Viral Viewings – I think we can all agree that youtube has revolutionized the teaching profession. Here is my question for you. Would viewing a 30 second video of a man playing a trombone with his toes to start class hurt or help your classroom environment? Or what about the 7 minute video documenting a team that let's a special needs player score a touchdown in his last game? Does that help or hurt? Sometimes bigger lessons can be taught using a 2 minute video than a 2 minute bell ringer...just a thought.

  1. Hallway Hellos – There is a student at the school I teach at named Morgan. I have never had her in class but at the beginning of lunch you can find her standing next to me saying hello to any and everyone that walks past on their way to eat. I do not remember how this started but it has become a can't miss tradition in each of our days. There is one student that I remember saying hi to after learning their name and I have now had several conversations with this individual. It is amazing what a simple hello can do especially in a high school filled with maturing adolescents.

  1. Random Topic of the Day – I have a colleague that starts his Men's Health class and Men's Christian Decisions class with a “random topic of the day”. It really has little to nothing to do with the class but he told me this, “The time that we spend talking to each other about any and everything makes it possible for us to have the real conversations that make a lasting and eternal difference.”

  1. Social Summaries – In college I had a professor that would end each of his Friday classes with a simple question, “Well what fun and exciting things are going on in the bustling metropolis of Seward, Nebraska?” We would then proceed to share weekend plans, or lack there of, with our professor. I doubt that he really, truly cared about what we were doing that weekend but I have always remembered and respected him for taking the time to let us know that he was interested in our lives.

Don't expect to see “High Five Fridays” in any academic journals anytime soon but hopefully we'll see it or something accomplishing the same goals in a few more schools soon.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Three Free Web Tools

In every teacher’s digital toolbox is a collection of online resources.  Some sites become part of the everyday tool collection. Consider the ubiquitous Wikipedia. Previously shunned by educators as the villain of reliable information, now many publicly acknowledge their use of this popular site. However, many of the seemingly promising tools to be found online are bookmarked only to join the ranks of that gluten-free recipe you’ve been meaning to try.

Here are three high-quality sites to add to that everyday collection that may already include sites like Evernote, TEDEd, or Khan Academy.  Applicable to multiple disciplines, I challenge you to follow the links and spend 60 seconds exploring each site.  

Wolfram Alpha
This “computational knowledge engine” helps teachers and students solve any data based question.  Need to solve ax^2 + bx + c = 0 for x?  Or how much interest will be paid on a $150,000 mortgage over 30 years at 7.5% interest?  Or what percentage of the US population is named Fred?  It won’t tell you what to fix for dinner, but it will let you know that “dinner” is worth 7 points in Scrabble.  And yes, now your math students have the answer key to every problem in existence.     

This site doesn't just apply to English teachers--but mostly.  NoRedInk is a “fun” online interface that targets students’ individual writing needs.  Students create accounts to complete various grammar exercises catered to their interests. Teachers can view student progress, track the needs of the entire class, and assign tasks based on need. Great for individuals, classes, or entire school populations.  Immediate feedback for kids, no grading for teachers.

This site allows students to build virtual poster boards. It’s the 21st century version of a tri-fold project.  A great alternative to a Prezi or Power Point,  students build a single page presentation using this site.  Applicable to any subject, students can insert links, videos, pictures, text, and drawings.  Don’t be fooled by the many examples of elementary school projects.  This tool has serious idea sharing potential.

They are all free.  You have nothing to lose but another username and password.  Try one and see what you can learn.    

Monday, November 4, 2013

Eliminate Guess-work with Intentional Routines and Procedures

In the midst of the confusion, drama, and social pressures of the teenage world, students crave routine and procedure.  One great piece of advice from Harry and Rosemary Wong’s The First Days of School is that shaping class culture by stating and practicing procedures is worth the time.  

Do your students know what the first five minutes of class will look like as soon as they walk in the room?  Do your students know where to find their assignment and how it relates to their success?  Do your students know exactly what their options are when they finish a quiz or a test?  Do they know how to ask or answer a question in your class?  This week, take a look at your classroom routine and find three (or more) ways you can eliminate the guess-work for your students.

Here are some areas  for scrutiny suggested by Harry Wong:

-Entering the classroom
-Getting to work immediately
-End-of-period class dismissal
-Listening to and responding to questions
-Checking out classroom materials
-When a student needs pencil or paper
-Indicating whether a student understands
-Coming to attention
-Getting caught up after a tardy or absence
-Passing in papers
-Returning student work
-Asking a question

Isn’t it too late to be introducing a new procedure now that we are more than half-way through the semester?  Instituting a routine during the first week of school is ideal, but I have been amazed at how quickly students adopt a new procedure when I introduce and practice it with them- even in the middle of the year.

Take a few minutes to do some of the dreaming you always do at the beginning of the year.  What part of the period can be more efficient?  In what small ways can you add structure to your students’ lives?  It’s worth the time and it’s never too late.  Try something new this week and see what you can learn.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Creating Dynamic Online Discussions

I have used online discussions more regularly in my courses the past few years. There are several reasons for this. First, these discussions extend the learning outside of the traditional class period, sending students a message that learning is not for only certain times of the day, but rather is a continuous life experience. Second, most of our students will be taking multiple classes online in their future, so navigating the online world in a meaningful way at an early age has value, as does being able to help them understand their responsibilities from a Christian perspective.  Finally, online discussions give a voice to each student in the class, where a traditional classroom discussions typically have a subset of students participate.

At first I used Edmodo as a course management to facilitate these discussions. This free service offers a variety of online course tools. However, this year I switched to another service called Schoology for one specific reason, that being the post first feature. This feature does not show students the posts of classmates until they have made their own initial post. This limits the ability of students to mimic the ideas of classmates, thereby adding value to the entire discussion.

Here are suggestions for running effective online discussions for your class:

  • Make sure your students all have reasonable access for completing online discussions.
  • Provide specific guidelines for responses to posts. For instance, give examples in advance for how to disagree with a comment without giving offense.
  • Share specific expectations for the amount and quantity of responses to posts, giving examples where appropriate.
  • Monitor posts for cheerleading (praising a post of another student without adding additional value) or criticism that is not constructive. Expect all posts to contribute positively to the discussion, even when there is disagreement.
  • Refer to specific posts to facilitate classroom discussion as well.

Monday, October 7, 2013

What's your Favorite Color?

After interviewing for a  teaching position, at a school known for its college prep courses and commitment to excellence, I was told, "Your lesson was just too elementary."  I thought to myself, how could that be?  I did this activity as an undergrad education student.  Students created leveled questions to represent comprehension, analysis, and application after finishing a classic novel by Mark Twain.  They participated in a "silent discussion"--others name it "chalk talk"--in which they posted, answered, and debated each other's leveled questions.

What is elementary about this?  Apparently, the part of the lesson that was elementary was allowing students to write in a colored marker of their choice.  Really?

I immediately went to a former professor with my dilemma, "What it really that bad?"  She quickly responded, "Students should always have choices!"

To this day, I try not to take the criticism personally, and continue to give students choices.  Every student interprets learning and presents knowledge differently.  It would be unwise to give a fully multiple choice test without allowing students to express knowledge in writing, or even verbally.

We can all relate to this idea.  Some of us enjoy being "lectured at" while others enjoy group discussions, videos, physical movements, or artistic representations.  Therefore, we should be providing students with choices.  Allowing students to choose their favorite colored marker is not elementary, but rather allowing students to express some personality and individualism.  Learning is not a one size fits all model, but individualistic and unique.  As educators, it is important to include students in their learning; encourage ownership and initiative.  Impress upon students that their education in in their hands, in their control, and learning is ultimately their choice.

Choices can include anything from colored markers to presentation avenues, but most importantly students should always feel that they have a "say" in how they learn and how the express their learning.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Radical Endeavor For the Common Idealist - Be a Student

Because today is the 5th Monday of the month, we are proposing a radical idea that every teacher is welcome to try. It is "radical" because of the time commitment, but the intention of it will of course be to improve your in-class skills. 

I'll never forget my 9th grade math teacher, Ms. White. On the first day of class she told us about herself and how she loved and majored in English and History. She was never any good at math, and according to her, that's why she got her teaching degree in math because she thought she could relate better to students because of her personal struggle. This stuck with me and has been a fascinating concept ever since.

Any expert of any field will tell you that one common trait among those who are great  is their insatiable curiosity and love of learning. Or as legendary Coach John Wooden liked to say, "If I'm through learning, I'm through."

Thus, the Secondary Farm Challenge for this month is to put yourself outside of your comfort zone and become a student once more. It's easy to get too confident in your subject as the years go by. And, it's easy to say or think to a student, "how could you not understand this? I said it 5 times in 8 different ways!". It's easy to forget what it was like to be in the student's seat. There are other factors at hand and for you to revisit those factors will make give you insight and empathy. Also, it could be fun.

As to where you might take a class is up to you. A good ol' fashion Google search is a good place to start, but here are some specifics:

1. MOOC - If you don't know what a MOOC is yet, then now is the perfect time to learn. They are college courses online, often from major universities, for you for free! You can sign up for as many as you want and there is no price nor penalty for early termination (nor credit, but still). The best catalog as you begin your MOOC is: COURSERA. Look through the options. You'll be amazed. These courses are a bit more of a commitment, however, maybe you'd prefer something easier.

2. Local Free University - In Denver, there is Colorado Free University. I don't know if this exists in every major city, but I imagine it would. It's a company that gathers teachers who are willing to teach workshops on whatever topic then they connect them with students. They also have a huge catalog. These courses aren't actually free, but they do usually involved hands-on and real people. Their biggest genre of classes are Spanish language, but they offer a myriad of topics. I can personally vouch for the woodworking class.

3. Free Classes Offered by Your City - It's really your tax dollars that provide classes like this so it's in your best interest to take advantage of them. By just googling "Denver free classes" I found acting, cooking gluten-free, yoga, and several others. As anyone who has conversed with me in the past 6 months knows, my favorite of these is the "How to Compost" classes they offer.

4. R.E.I. - This only works if you have an R.E.I. in your city. Of course in Denver, we have one for every Starbuck's. R.E.I. always offers classes; some free some not. Most of them are more workshops as well and typically are outdoor oriented. The Course Catalog is my favorite part about visiting an R.E.I store (it's also the only free thing there). Have a look.

5. The Public Library - Admittedly, at least in Denver, this is the most pathetic catalog of the bunch, which is sad, because it should be a lot better. Personally, I think that because the public library is no longer the go-to source of information for anybody, they should put more emphasis on offering classes to the community. In their defense, they do what they can and it is better for kids. Some good stuff if you're interested in writing a resume, using a computer, or knitting.  

6. Church - Most churches that are larger than 100 members offer classes. Obviously, these classes are usually of religious flavor and involve improving your life, your relationships, or your knowledge of the religion. I have yet to see Beginner's Ukulele offered, but I wouldn't be surprised if St. John's Lutheran in Denver did have it. They do have fitness and paintball apparently.

As I look at the above list, I realize that I am only citing programs that I have personally tried in the last year (except the library but I always look)*. That's lazy research, but even then it's still enough, which is a testament to how available these opportunities really are.

What's important is that when you do take a class, that you not only learn from the teacher, but you also learn through observation and metacognition. Ask yourself questions like these:

Is this challenging?
If so or if not, how am I tempted to react to that?
Is the teacher approachable?
How confident do I feel asking questions?
How confident do other students seem to feel in asking questions?
Does the presence of other affect me positively, negatively, or not at all?
What are things this teacher does that I do/do not like?
Am I motivated? Why so or why not?
How might I be motivated if not?

As adults with general stability in life, we can easily live in the world we want to live in and avoid situations where we feel uncomfortable and/or vulnerable. We're tired, we sleep. We're hungry, we eat. We don't like the show, we change the channel etc.. Students do not yet have all these liberties. Most of them are in school and in class for other reasons than "they want to be." If you can relate to them on that level, you might have an easier time being a teacher that has a class they do want to be in. And, you'll learn how to compost. Give it a try, see what you can learn.

PS: Anyone who has another suggestion to add to the list, please do so in the comment section. Also, anyone who gives this a try, please let us know, also in the comment section. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Potpourri - Letting Your Personal Side Teach the Lesson

One concept that was drilled into my head during my college years was establishing strong boundaries between your professional life and your personal life. Anything from online etiquette to desk placement to communication with parents and students outside of the classroom was covered. I am very thankful for these lessons that were shared with me. They have been extremely valuable for me through my first years of teaching.
One thing that I'm learning though is the power of a personal story in your teaching. Sometimes, when the students get a glimpse of the real person behind the teacher, it opens up the door for much bigger lessons to be learned. Here is a great example of that:

Monday, September 16, 2013

Re-up: Inspirational video: Ken Robinson: How to escape education's death valley

Ken Robinson: How to escape education's death valley

In this installment we are looking at the second video of a Ted Talk by Sir Ken Robinson. His first Ted Talk is the number one most popular Ted Talk and happens to be about education. This second one is just as good, and just as about education. 

He makes some great points about how "alternative schools" are personalized and take a real world approach and are successful at winning kids back into education, but they are the "alternative" approach rather than mainstream. As for his "death valley" metaphor, it comes at the end and it's good but I'll still spoil it for you: 

The Death Valley in California is the dryer and deader areas of the world. Nothing ever grows there. But, a few years ago they got an unexpected rainfall and for the first time ever, stuff grew there. Meaning, Death Valley isn't actually dead, it's more like Potential/Waiting to be Alive Valley once the right conditions appear.

Watch the video. Be inspired. See what you can learn. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Literacy in the 21st Century--A Focus on Multi-Literacies in the Classroom

  As the evolution of technology continues to advance toward the most convenient methods of understanding and communication, it is inevitable that young people today are caught between their ability to maintain proficiency in literacy and the constant access to technological advancements that require the use and understanding of various forms of literacy.  As a result, teachers have been required to implement literacy into every content area.  However, many teachers are reluctant to implement literacy strategies because of the requirement that all students must grasp necessary content-specific concepts.  Therefore, outside of the English classroom, it seems that literacy is being set aside so that the emphasis is placed solely on content-specific information. 
          The need for literacy instruction is at an all time high.  It is a struggle for students to apply basic literacy skills in order to work with advanced comprehension tasks.  As students develop, they grow in their abilities to decode, recognize, and produce meaning for words and content.  Unfortunately, those basic skills are taught only at the elementary levels.  When students begin middle school and high school, there is no instruction in content area.  In each content area, students are required to actively engage with the content in different ways, such as:  concrete, generalizations, applications, and the like.  Therefore, the provision of content specific literacy skills, paired with relevant instructional strategies through the use of multiliteracies, will allow students to gain in knowledge, understanding, and productivity when they engage with content specific knowledge.
           Today, literacy reflects the current change in communication within society.  Literacy is no longer defined as simply reading, writing, and speaking.  Instead, it has taken a new form as it includes the abilities to comprehend meaning through various aesthetic representations as well.  The definition of literacy is changing as students are exposed to a variety of literacies each day.  Students are now required to comprehend not only what they read, but also what they see and hear.  Knowledge is now being presented in visual and audio forms on television, the Internet, and the radio.
            Multiliteracies is an approach to teaching in which instruction includes a variety of literacy forms in order to actively engage students in learning..  The incorporation of multiliteracies is focused on content, which is presented through multiple modes.  According to Mills (2009), “Multimodality expresses the complexity and interrelationship of more than one mode of meaning, combining linguistic, visual, auditory, gestural and spatial modes” (p. 106).  The use of multimodal learning allows students to make various connections with content because they can perceive the information in a variety of ways.
The 21st Century learner is one who is bombarded with visual stimulation, technological advancements, and ever-demanding social connections. Therefore, teachers must consider the ways in which learners are different today than generations before as literacy begins to take a shift away from traditional learning.  Multiliteracies should not be seen as a separate entity from traditional literacy instruction.  Rather, multiliteracies can be used to teach challenging literacy concepts through a variety of modes.  Students today engage in multimodal experiences; therefore, the use of multiliteracies can provide more opportunities for students to make meaning from content in which high level thinking skills are required.
The 21st Century learner is inundated with technologically advanced ideas and methods of interpretation and application.  Therefore, traditional literacy instruction cannot be implemented fully in classrooms today.  In order to advance literacy instruction to meet the needs of the 21st Century learner, both disciplinary literacy instruction and the use of multiliteracies must be implemented so that students are enabled to meet the demands of being active members in their education and the world around them.

Mills, K. A. (2009). Multiliteracies: Interrogating competing discourses. Language and Education, 23(2), 103-116. Retrieved from ERIC database. 

Monday, September 2, 2013


Off to another school year. For most of us, this means rethinking how we do things with a head full of idealism and pragmatism: "this will be the year I really do it right". Or maybe that's just me. Regardless, one cannot deny that Harry Wong was right in emphasizing the importance of The First Days of School. What happens at the beginning of the year and at the beginning of the class should not be overlooked, and here's what some experts say about it:

In summary, your students should familiarize themselves with a structured routine for the beginning of each period. The rationale here is obvious. It sends the message that a) time is important and not to be wasted, and b) we're here to learn.

According to Doug Lemov, in his book that every teacher should own,  Teach Like a Champion, some tips to get this routine developed include:

  • Have materials ready for students to pick up for that day, in the same place every day. This is better than the teacher passing them out later, and taking the time to do so while trying to explain things. 
  • Assigned seats. Every student should know where they're sitting and go straight there.
  • Homework basket. If applicable, students can immediately deposit their homework into a homework receptacle near the door. 
  • Bell Ringer Activity (a.k.a "Do Now") This is a 3 - 5 minute activity that supplements what is going on in the curriculum. Students should know where to find it and should not need any explanation as to how to do it, so the teacher is free to take attendance or address a specific need etc...
These are some summarized bullet points taken from the experts whose job it is to teach us how to be more effective as educators. Consider them, try them, write home about them, and see what you can learn.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Summer Over: Under Construction


Dear Reader,

Thank you for your support of the "Secondary Farm" blog. We are currently transitioning from summer schedule back to school schedule, which means undergoing some changes. The mission will stay the same, but the content should improve, starting next week. Also, this may be the last cow picture we'll post. And, because of that, we'd like to point out the reason (in case you never caught on), that there is a "dairy farm" pun in the title, thus the cattle.

See you Monday. In the meantime, see what you can learn,

- Farmers

Monday, August 12, 2013

Summer Viewing: What Makes Students WANT to do Work?


One great video here and one mediocre one, each with a similar theme. The theme is, "people investing in their work", which is applicable to humans everywhere, but especially in an educational setting. As you watch Dan Ariely (kind of a favorite of mine, check out his books), think about what his research results say about homework, busy work, or homework that piles up and is put in the "they'll never know if I just throw this away" file. Also, take note of how easy it is to keep people motivated.
Summary: When the finished product is something that will be used or viewed by others, people are more likely to invest in the process. 

This second video is extra credit. The message is essentially the same as Ariely's IKEA effect, though he does say more. There are three reasons I personally like the Steve Joordan video though: 1. He plays guitar even though he's not that good. 2. Accent. 3. He is a university professor giving a Ted Talk but he still takes the time to answer and defend himself in the comments section of his own tedtalk. Not only have I never seen this before, but also his comments are actually good summaries of the whole talk. You could just read those if you want. Either way, check it out and see what you learn.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tips for Communicating with Parents

Parents can be awesome supporters or nightmarish critics or something in between. This article I'm sharing here by Ben Stern I found a twitter a while back. It may make most sense to elementary teachers, but has lots of useful stuff for teachers of all levels, even if you don't have trouble with parents. He also features a lot of useful apps and programs to help you along the way.

click here: A Teacher's Guide to Communicating with Parents. 

Another great read on the topic of parents, coming from Rock Star teacher, Ron Clark (a movie was made about him). This is just a good article, the kind that one teacher at my school recommended "can we just print a bunch of these and hand them out at parent-teacher conferences?"

click here: What teachers really want to tell parents

Read it all, see what you can learn.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Inspirational Summer Viewing: Hackschooling Makes me Happy (Tedxtalk)


This video is interesting. It's a smart kid who is a good speaker and he talks about school. I can't tell if I like him because it's a good video or if I like him because we're both fans of Sir Ken Robinson and Shane McConkey. Either way, it's centered on education, it's unique, and it's worth the watch. See what you can learn

Monday, July 22, 2013

Inspirational Summer Viewing: Race to Nowhere

"I'm afraid that our children are going to sue us for stealing their childhoods"

I have a theory about AP testing, though it is still mostly a question that has yet to be answered. I haven't, and don't plan to argue it with the cyber pedagogue pundits, but I have always wondered if the extent to which students sacrifice themselves for the sake of the almighty AP test is worth it. Feel free to comment as you wish if you are convinced one way or another.

Four good friends of mine have argued in favor of the AP slavery, but they also all were top-of-the-class ivy leaguers (a prereq for being my friend). I have yet to hear the testimonial of someone who regrets giving all they did for the sake of the AP, or the IB, or whatever, but I am convinced they are out there, and this highly recommended movie is what makes me so confident: RACE TO NOWHERE (I learned about this film from the book "How Children Succeed" buy Paul Tough, another must-read to be blogged later).

There is a related news segment from CNN on the topic and the movie itself, also worth 6 minutes of your time (especially if you don't watch the whole movie).

Or... if you have poor connection quality, give this article from the Washington Post a go.

How to see the actual film: I'm not totally sure of the answer to this question. They do have viewings occasionally and you can check the website for those. Otherwise, your options are to buy the dvd ($30) or buy a huge package containing rights and a dvd. (same link). I'll be honest, the version I watched was on loan and had Chinese subtitles at the bottom, which is unfortunate not only because I don't read Chinese, but because a film like this should be more readily available. You could show this blog to a couple teachers and get them together at your house then "pass the hat". I don't know, you'll think of something.

Also related: I believe this film also references the book, "The Case Against Homework" by Sarah Bennett and Nancy Kalish. I don't recommend this book because you get the point after reading the first few pages. You especially get the point, if you read this pdf file that sums up all the main points.

With most documentaries or books making an argument about something societal, there is a counterargument and twitter blows up with haters and experts etc.. In the case of this film and book, there is very minimal to say against it. The film/book never promotes a "no homework" or "hard work is overrated policy" at all. Instead, they promote being aware of why and how much and suggest that in recent years we have pushed the "AP mentality" all the way down to kindergarten, which is like adding plates to the weight bench before the kid has learned to lift the bar.

You could be the first hater! If so, leave it in the youtube comment section, not this one. If not, give it a try and see what you learn.

Footnote* also this tweet. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Video Post: The Importance of Relationship in the Classroom


Dr. Rita Pierson, who passed away only one month after giving this Ted Talk, has some insightful and inspirational words to share with educators everywhere concerning a basic, yet often overlooked need in the classroom, "the value and importance of human connection; relationships".

 Here is her eight minute Ted Talk. It's worth your time to see what you can learn.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Summer Viewing: Txting is killing language. JK!!!


This week is a bit of a personal favorite. It's another Tedtalk, and it is specifically of interest (probably) to English and/or writing teachers. It's a favorite to me not because I love texting or am a purist of American written language, but because I am a big fan of this guy, John McWhorter. I ran several miles with his linguistic lectures in my ears a few years ago. He's brilliant and funny and in this talk he gives a breath of fresh air to those of us who are afraid that texting is ruining written language. Watch and see if you agree or disagree and while you're at it, see what you can learn.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Inspirational Summer Viewing: Sir Ken Robinson; Do Schools Kill Creativity?


Of all the Tedtalks, this is one of the most famous. It is also one of the funniest, and most interesting. Lucky for our purposes, it happens to be about education. It's really good! Watch it, and see what you can learn.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Inspirational Summer Reading: Daniel Pink's "Drive"


First off, I apologize for today's Tuesdayedness, I opened my inbox to a barrage of angry emails asking if I knew it was Monday.

This week your recommendation is a strong one. I don't recommend books lightly because reading a book is an investment and you want to hope for the best. This book, "Drive", by Daniel Pink, is one of the best non-fiction I have ever read. I recently finished it for the second time a few weeks ago and it was just as good as the first. The book is about motivation, and what gets people motivated, and under what conditions people give their best performance. The most popular guess (which comes in a tone of "obviously, we all know the answer") is "money". However, the fact that so many people are confident in their wrong answer is largely what makes the book so fascinating. (It's not money)

If you're not actually interested in all the proofs and stories, then I found a really good summary of the "just the facts" version of the book.

If you're REALLY not feeling like reading anything, here's a very well done, condensed version of the entire thing done in a few minutes, with some great cartooning.

The principles in this book are interesting and enlightening. I promise you'll be surprised and there's plenty of evidence so show the proof in the pudding. The ideas you learn will be applicable to any individual, any group of co-workers, and definitely to a classroom. Try it out and see what you learn. 

PS: I did forget to mention above, that one very  big difference between the actual book and the other two things is that Pink provides a list of schools around the country who practice smarter methods of motivation. At least for me, that list was as interesting as the book itself and I spent lots of time looking up each of them reading their home pages and watching their project videos etc.. A lot to learn there as well. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Some Inspirational Summer Viewing: Geoffrey Canada TEDtalk

If you have not yet seen the documentary, Waiting for Superman, then you should put that on your list. Just to be sure, it will be featured on this blog some Monday this summer. In that film, there are interviews with a progressive educator, Geoffrey Canada. This is his TEDtalk. He is funny, interesting, and inspiring, just like a good teacher. And.... his voice sounds like Marge Simpson (another characteristic of a good teacher). Seventeen minutes of quality. Watch it and see what you can learn.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Improving Student Engagement


The following post comes to us from a friend and guest blogger, Dave Black. See more from him on one of our favorite other blogs. 

We all have experienced those times when nothing we do seems to engage our students in learning. Our entertaining presentations do not spark interest, nor does video content, discussion, or seemingly any other technique. What should one do at this point to light a spark?

Some relatively new research outlined in the March 2013 volume entitled Stratosphere: Integrating Technology, Pedagogy, and Change Knowledge provides some interesting insights in how we might better engage students in learning. This research, referenced from multiple sources, led to the following findings:

  • ·         Creating short exercises that focus on the feelings and attitudes of students can lead to improved student achievement and the closing of academic gaps. The opportunity to express subjective experiences results in a more personalized and engaged approach to learning since our students are craving the chance to have a meaningful voice in discourse and in the sharing of ideas.
  • ·         Another discovery is that, with most students, 20 minutes of intentional time in working with a student is often enough to bring about a measurable change in a student’s attitude and behavior in the classroom. Subconsciously, learners desire to be honored and noticed. The 20-minute time frame seems to be the tipping point for significant improvement in student engagement.
  • ·         A third strategy involves an investment of time over a period of days. Try opening a conversation with a student about a topic of THEIR interest for two minutes a day over ten days. This approach will almost always yield a behavior and learning engagement improvement.

These strategies seem so simple. Yet the challenge for us as educators is to be intentional about their use in the classroom. Additionally, these approaches open doors for us to have surprising faith conversations with our students, providing opportunities to share Jesus Christ with them in more tangible and applicable ways.

Feel like you have been tuned out? Then intentionally apply one or more of these approaches to better connect your students with classroom activities. Honor them by engaging them in research-tested ways to bring about positive change in their motivation to learn. Try it and see what you can learn.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Movie Recommend for Your Summer Viewing

Movie Recommend for Teachers: Bully

For the majority of summer posts on this blog, under the assumption that most followers are on break, there will be several recommendations of books, films, videos, articles and whatever else that serve the purpose of sharpening pedagogical skills and/or inspiring us to improve.

Thus, the first one is a recommendation to see the film, "Bully". It's a documentary released fairly recently about bullying in schools. Bullying has since then become a hot topic in the educational world - and for good reason. If you don't know why you should definitely watch this film. If you do know why, you should still watch this film it's available on Netflix.

An added bonus is you'll appreciate your administration so much more after seeing the complete ineptitude of the vice principal featured in this film. See here: If she did not get fired after this film was released... then shame on the entire state of Oklahoma, and probably more.

If you don't cry, say so in the comments section and I will send your money back*. Give it a watch and see what you can learn.

*that is, your money for reading this blog, not for seeing the movie. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Real and Cumulative Final

Though I’m sure this post may not be entirely new or anything groundbreaking, I want to make a case for the true cumulative final.

When I was in high school, I remember nearly each and every class having a cumulative final.  Teachers would go over information with us and we would have to think back to the mass of knowledge given throughout the semester.  Once I hit college, this was not always the case.  Cumulative finals were exchanged for projects and regular old tests.  Though cumulative finals seemed intimidating, and I gladly accepted the change, as I reached junior and senior year, I realized I actually missed having cumulative finals.  As strange as it was, I actually wanted to go through the old material and have a chance review things from months ago.  Though I certainly had the ability to go over it regardless of if I was tested over it or not, something about having it on a test helps it to stick better, right?

This realization greatly affected my first year of teaching, as I made a commitment to having students do a real and cumulative final.  Though I was very positive about this being the best option for student learning, I was sure the students would not be excited.  I decided to take a page out of a few previous teachers’ books.  I decided the test would be made up entirely of questions from their old tests.  This would save me time in creating the test, and it would allow students to have every question available to study (plus they have answered all of the questions before).  To make things even easier, I decided to go through old tests with the students and tell them what questions are going to be on the final, and read through the correct answers.  At this point, it may seem too easy, but let me explain:
  •          Students still need to think back to questions from 4+ months in the past.  Though the information didn’t change, it tough for many to think back that far.
  •          Students still need to review the many questions, especially those they got wrong.  It is an intensive and thorough review process.
  •          Finally, there is still a lot of information – I make sure the final hits all major topics from our old tests, usually resulting in a 175+ question test.

The last thing I made sure to do in my final, is to have it NOT just be Scantron.  Though I understand why many teachers do it, I still felt the need to have students do questions which test their knowledge more thoroughly.  I certainly have some questions that are multiple choice and true/false, but many questions are fill in the blank and many questions where students need to briefly describe something.  When it comes to grading time, yes I am jealous of those who Scantron and are done, but I do feel confident that I am thoroughly preparing students and testing student’s knowledge.  Maybe my theory will change in the future, but for now I stand firm.

Try it, and see what you can learn.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Getting Feedback that Counts

Getting Feedback that Counts

Anyone in the service business knows the value of word-of-mouth referrals, especially in this age of yelp and all the other yelps out there now. Furthermore, anyone who knows how to enjoy their job and do well at it always has the attitude of "I can be better". This is where the value of feedback comes in. And, this is why it is worth your time to give an end-of-the-year survey as we approach this summer. However, all surveys are not created equal.

At our school each student takes a survey in each class and answers on a scale of 1 - 5 (or something) about 20 questions about the teacher. "Does he show up on time? Does he make lessons interesting? etc.." Then the results come neatly packaged with a bar graph so you can check yourself out. I do think there is value to these kinds of surveys. However, the exact results could be found with only one question: Do you like this teacher? 1 for "yes", 2 for "no". For students who like the teacher, they will fill out good things even if they're not true because they feel guilty and can easily convince themselves that it's "true enough". For students who don't like the teacher, this is their chance to get back at them. Let's also not forget, that probably 80% of students taking surveys are probably skimming their way through because they don't actually care.

For me, I have never stressed about the above survey. If I read the questions myself, I know I can accurately assess myself on my own strengths and weaknesses so I don't care that much what the students have to say. What I do care about is, actual constructive criticism, and getting that is more valuable and I dare say a lot easier than 10 minutes online. Here's the method:

1. Make the students write out answers on paper. I usually give it out the day before the final.
2. Don't ask more than 4-5 questions. Think about it. You only really want two things: a pat on the back and room for improvement. You actually only need two questions, but use the first couple to get their memories working so they're into it.
3. Before handing it out, give a sincere talk about how important this is, not just for you as a teacher, but also for future students, which in my school, could easily be those same students. Keep them anonymous.
4. Don't ask for too much. Complete sentences and examples are good, but I find that, "Tell me 1 thing that worked well/was bad" is perfect. If a student has more than one thing, they'll say each of them anyway.

I have done this, I think, every year to every class and read every answer of every page. I still haven't mastered the problem of several students blowing it off and giving nothing of value. But, it doesn't take 27 suggestions before you can find something to work on. Usually, the more insightful and observational students will be happy to have a voice and they'll tell you what you need to hear. They will tell you specific things to your class that were never, and could not be covered in the 1 - 5 computer survey.

 I keep the useful ones all summer and read them a few times, occasionally thinning out the pile with each reading. Then, at the beginning of the following year, I keep the best 3 or 4 with me and look them over before writing lesson plans with an attitude of, "Doesn't return work soon enough? Well watch what I do on Wednesday, sucka!" I know that sounds a bit like "I do this so you should", but what I really meant to sound like is, "We all should. I try to also." You try to also also*, and see what you can learn.

another good source for getting feedback: 

*I don't want to hear about it, English teachers.

Monday, April 29, 2013

When will I use this in real life?

As a math teacher, this is a question I field from students almost daily.  You have probably had to answer it or a question like it, no matter what subject you teach.  I am sure that this question is not asked only in math class, but at times math skills can be especially difficult to connect to a student's everyday world.  Here is a pretty complete answer that I want to give, but have trouble forming in the moment:

"You won't.  You probably will never have to factor a quadratic expression in your life after your college math course.  However, this skill is necessary for doing all the other stuff we have to cover in this class, which is necessary for you to do well on your ACT and SAT, which are necessary for getting into a good college.  Math teaches you to think and problem-solve.  Don't focus so much on how you will use each of these individual skills.  The more important skill you are learning is critical thinking.  In addition to this, math opens up many career opportunities for you.  Stick with it now so that you do not close doors to the future that you might wish were open to you once you head off to college."

I agree with everything in this explanation.  The problem with it is that my students tune me out after the first sentence: You won't.  I am challenging myself to find an inspiring approach to answering this question before it gets asked.  I challenge you to do the same.  No matter what your subject, material must be connected to your students' lives in order for them to be motivated and to fully understand the concepts.

Here are my thoughts about meeting the challenge.  I want to hear yours!  Please comment.

1. I need to learn as much as I can about the careers that use my subject matter.  Who do I know that uses my subject?  What can I learn from them to pass on?  Would that person be willing to speak to my class?

2. Drawing connections with the "real world" is well worth the time.  Many times the question gets asked in the middle of note-taking and I don't feel that I have time to answer it well.  Maybe I can purposefully fill those extra minutes at the end of class  (see previous post) with talk and/or videos about math careers that fit with the current unit.

3. I would like to answer the question before it gets asked.  These connections should be integral to my lesson plans, rather than haphazard replies.  

4.  The internet can provide a wealth of inspiring answers to the question.  Here is a great video from a website I need to explore more:

As you look over your lesson plans this week, take an extra moment to add significance to your content.  Remember that you are not making this up!  The connection exists, but as teachers it is our job to sell it.  Try it, and see what you can learn.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Make Every Minute Count

Make Every Minute Count - The importance of using every available minute you have with students in the classroom. 

There are certain inevitable truths about lesson planning and running a classroom: a) you can approximate closely and do your best but you never really know how long things will last (due to a multitude of reasons), and, b) the amount of free time given is directly proportional to the amount of small fires started/animals tortured/ graffiti on your wall/etc.. (maybe this one is just me).

Addressing the former, however, the frequent default solution for extra minutes at the end of a period is to "get started on the homework" or just "kick it". On one hand this makes sense, but on the more rationale hand, this is a terrible idea. If the minutes you dismiss at the end of a period were only 3 or 4, it doesn't seem like a big deal, but it also doesn't take a math teacher to see what this means long term: 255 - 340 total cumulative minutes by the end of the year. That's almost six hours! Thus, I offer a better solution.

If you keep the attitude that every minute counts, you'll find something to do with those extra minutes do make them count. Here are some good ideas:

- Have a pile of interested FYIs or questions about your subject and pull out as many as time allows.

- Keep some games on hand that students know how to play and require no set-up (obviously, games should be relevant to your subject)

- Some kind of review on hand and go through them like flashcards with your class.

- Teach them a song and then make them sing it during these minutes. (There are thousands of educational songs for your subject, just search youtube and look for the least or most terrible one. Sometimes the lamest ones are the most fun to sing)

- Have them talk quietly while you check email really quick. (Just kidding, this is a bad idea. Your time with students needs to be time with students)

- Read a related book/story/novel over time.

You may see a trend in the list. In short, if you don't have the time to start something new in those few remaining minutes, then you should have one (or really multiple) things immediately ready with which to fill them in. In the foreign language sector here are a few of my favorites:

- Go through the vocabulary cards. I always have oversized vocabulary cards for every chapter (students make them) and keep them in folders by the door. We go through them once during every class but it's okay to go through them again if I find myself with extra time - it's frickin vocab.

- "Salvar al Ciego" (Save the blind man). The logic here is that sometimes communication is in a hurry and we can't go through grammar charts in our head or we'll miss the opportunity to relay an important message so the point is to free associate (or, to tell the blind man a bus is coming before it hits him).  I keep a collection of magazine pictures, or just magazines, and tell the students they have only 7 seconds to say whatever sentence they want to a partner, inspired by the picture I show them. This could easily be adapted to several other subjects by changing the requirement

- Round-the-world. It's an easy review game that can go on as long or as short as needed. This can also be used easily for any subject.

I hope the point is clear. After all, it's like I say when students pack up or line up early, "It's a small school. You don't need a head start." Of course, the unspoken part of "It's a big world. You need all you can get" is really the message I'm looking for. A group of students once complained and nicknamed me the "Classpacker" because of my philosophy on minutes. But, I took it as a compliment because it really is the attitude every teacher should have. Give it a shot and see what you can learn.

Other related resources:
Top 10 Time Filler For Your Classroom
5 Minutes To Go In The Classroom
5 Minute Learning At the End of Class

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Big Picture

Being a history teacher, one may seem to be set up to be a factual names and dates type of teacher.  I have had several history teachers like this in my time as a student.  There are indeed some people and specific dates that are good for students to know, but that isn’t really the point of teaching, is it?  It may make things easy to assign, and I know some students like the ease of just memorizing facts and spitting them back out.

The question you very well may receive from time to time is the question of: why are we learning this?  While seasoned veterans may have developed a crafty response to that question over the years, I attempted to give it an honest look.  I do remember having that question as a student, and I figured students may appreciate having an honest answer.  This question is admittedly tough when studying self-proclaimed “dry spots” in the wide array of history.

My best attempts to answer this question came when I tried to answer a specific question about a certain time period or event:  Why is this significant in the big picture?  Though that question might lead to further hair splitting, generally this helps give perspective.  At the end of each unit, I try to either answer that question myself, or have the students answer the question.

When students answer this question, I try to prompt them towards ideas such as: how can the effects of this person/event be seen today, how would things be different without this person/event, or what specifically made this person/event so unique/significant?  The final history trump phrase is the good ole, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

While it may seem like this may be something that only History teachers can use, the objective of having students relate a topic to the big picture can be applied to all subjects.  I also teach geography, and each time there is a term or place that students think seems insignificant, I have them think about things from the big picture.  If a science teacher fought issues with student’s concerns of relativity, there are many opportunities to show how important understanding the details of life are.  Or for a Math teacher, the dreaded, annoying, and undoubtedly repeated question of, “why do we have to do this?”  For this, God has given the ultimate comeback of the word question.  The questions that put the skill learned into a direct, “real life” situation.  Though some word questions are certainly better than others,the concept of making things more applicable to students is something to give acknowledgement to and genuine thought to.  Though many things students learn may be tough for them to grasp the significance, have them think big picture.  Try it out, and see what you can learn…