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.