Being a new doting dad to the greatest 6-month-old son is simply incredible (did I mention I’m biased, too?). And starting a new job at the same time has been rewarding but hectic at times. I’ve learned to eat faster, sleep less, and somehow jam pack 25 hours into a single day, and yet I feel like I’ve accomplished very little. I’m learning firsthand why gyms make their customers pay upfront, and at some point, I will bring my car for an oil change and grimace when I see the bill for all of the other stuff I’ve been neglecting. I have no time.
Or do I?
I’ve missed this blog, and I’m happy to be contributing to this profession, to some degree, once again. And I must admit that the lapse in postings can simply be attributed to “life,” but what kind of excuse is that? If you’ve ever heard the saying, “If it’s important, you’ll find a way. If it’s not, you’ll find an excuse,” perhaps it’s especially timely to how many of us in education – and in life – are feeling at the moment. After all, none of us can actually squeeze any more than 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, or any more minutes added to our precisely scheduled class times. Maybe the good thing to remember here is that although the ability to control the clock is beyond us, our approach towards what we do with that time is (for the most part) up to us, isn’t it? Players in the NBA have only 24 non-negotiable seconds to ensure the ball hits the rim, but how they use that time is literally in their hands.
But what if we stopped fixating on the lack of time and started changing what we did with it? What if we all subscribed to that notion of “finding a way” for those things that we believe are important? What would happen if we found a way, or made time, or deemed it important to: do whatever it takes for kids who are not learning; build a relationship with our most challenging students; communicate with and not just to parents; create a Personal Learning Network (PLN); find ways to become a connected educator; create innovative and engaging lessons to motivate and inspire our students; take ownership of our professional growth; recycle that worksheet; take a logical and professional instructional risk; go back to school; lead a workshop; open our classroom doors to our colleagues; give up a lunch to eat with our kids in the cafeteria; say “please” and “thank you”; actively listen to one another; rethink assessments; expand our classrooms beyond the four brick walls; help teachers become unforgettable; be great everyday, etc.? What might happen inside our schools?
When you think about it, our classrooms are like mini-companies, and all of our decisions and actions either further our mission or get us further away from it. So, as CEO of your classroom, what’s going to be different on The First Day of School? How will your kids be greeted? What will they see when they first walk into your classroom? How will you make them feel welcome? What will you say? Where will you stand when you say whatever it is that you’ve decided to say? What won’t you say? What will you do? What will they do? What will they hear? How will you start the process of building strong relationships with and among your students, yet balance it with establishing high expectations for learning and conduct? How will your classroom, on The First Day of School, be a memorable and exciting experience?
What I know for sure is that I just don’t know.
Trust me, I have plenty of idealistic ideas, but I just don’t have all the concrete solutions. I don’t have the silver bullet that is going to close the achievement gap; I am not in possession of the golden ticket that will ensure that all of our students receive the necessary life and academic skills that will translate into success; and I am certain that I haven’t concocted a super potion that will remedy all student learning problems from this point forward.
I just don’t know, but luckily, I don’t have to.
I’m starting to believe that, much to my dismay, Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) may be gaining a bad connotation and even tougher reputation – another initiative; one more thing; it was done before; this too shall pass. Along with this, I’m noticing stress like we’re never seen; levels of patience that are about to run out; bashing from media outlets; and uninformed opinions aplenty. Maybe the gas is running low, and perhaps at times our own beliefs and confidence in our abilities may waver. It’s not even September, and I’ve spoken to colleagues who have determined that this is the right time to hang it up and ride off into the sunset.
I’m really not trying to paint a dismal portrait here, but I’m worried. I’m worried that we have really great teachers in this profession who feel that we’ve reached a professional crossroad and that the thought of embarking on new ways of learning are as scary as the consequences of digging our feet in the sand and remaining stagnant; I’m worried that there is a prevailing need to prepare our students for the 21st Century, yet we’re already over a decade deep. I’m worried that this year’s kindergarten class will graduate high school in 2025, and we’ve got a lot of work to do between now and then to ensure their readiness for a world that is going to be drastically different than today.
The good news? None of us has to claim to know it all; none of us is expected to know it all; and none of us is able to know it all. Perhaps it’s a matter of listening, reflecting, and coming to the realization that the challenges of education are not going to be miraculously remedied by one person, one organization, one theory, one side of the table, or one side of the aisle. It’s only going to happen when you, me, and any number of motivated people become committed towards earnestly listening, rolling our sleeves up, and working together towards the same mission, vision, beliefs, and goals.
I bring all of this up because the U.S. Department of Education has declared August as “Connected Educator Month,” and social media has been off and running towards providing a plethora of opportunities for teachers and administrators to think differently about how we learn and to ultimately form online professional communities. I can’t say enough of how much I owe part of my own professional growth to something called a Personal Learning Network (PLN) and I owe it not necessarily to Twitter, but instead to the growing list of teachers, specialists, principals, superintendents, and organizations I’m “following” and thus learning from each day. Because of these connections, I learned of a whole new approach to professional development called an “un-conference” where like-minded professionals get together to collaborate and discuss topics that they are interested in further exploring. At EdCamp Leadership this past week, there was no set agenda; instead, it was driven by passionate and motivated people who subscribe to the notion that anything great can happen by listening and learning from others. I deepened my own understanding of how evaluation could be used to facilitate teacher growth; how carefully implemented social media can improve home-school connections; how change can be managed; and, how technology integration can successfully happen in classrooms. I learned from educators right here in New Jersey, as well as those in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Illinois and others, too. But most importantly, it was the development of congenial and collegial relationships and the subsequent conversations that made the day incredible, and I now have some new ideas as to what meaningful “PD” can really become when it’s individualized for professionals, driven by participants, and examined from a 21st Century perspective.
Use this month as a springboard to learn from others. Jump onto social media sites such as Twitter to follow educators from around the country and world; use Facebook to “Like” professional organizations. But as goes with anything else, it’s not the act of starting by means of "Registering" or "Creating an Account" that will broaden your perspectives, connect with others, or make you a better professional; that would be like getting a driver's license but keeping your car in park. Instead, it’s what you do with your newly acquired knowledge; it’s your active participation that makes all the difference; it’s the ensuing conversations that will make you that much better at what you do each day.
The number above, one quadrillion, seems to appropriately symbolize all things June. As you are reading right now, don’t you actually have at least one quadrillion things to plan?
There are so few school days in June, yet we pack more events, socials, parties, presentations, plays, ceremonies, rehearsals, celebrations, deadlines, and exams that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of everything. But with a quadrillion things going on, I ask one question:
As a teacher, how will you say, “See you later?”
When you add up the number of days and hours that teachers spend with their students, it’s quite a lot. As inconsistent as parts of a child’s life may be, think about the consistency to which they get each day while spending time at school. They know their teachers’ quirks, personality, or even which buttons to push and conveniently at exactly what times. They know at 9am each Monday they will see this adult, and when the bell rings signifying the end of school, it’s this particular teacher who wishes them a “Good Afternoon.”
So, is it any wonder why some of our students may be feeling some anxiety as the school year draws to an end? I’m especially thinking about our kids who are transitioning schools and/or levels (e.g., elementary to middle; middle to high school; high school to college).and even those who may be leaving the district entirely. Consider those kids who have been at one school for over four years: could they be uneasy while thinking about what lies ahead? What do you have planned for your students to offer a smooth closing to the year? Sure, in past years maybe you’ve ordered pizza; dusted off a few movies; handed back assignments and projects; collected textbooks; had kids bring in food for a “class party,” but do these adequately address the sometimes covert anxiousness kids might feel? I guess, stereotypically, the bell sounds, and then students are supposed to skip down the front steps, tossing their textbooks into the air while Alice Cooper’s School's Out is mysteriously cued at high decibels for all to hear, right? But, what about those who linger behind? What about the ones who are a bit teary-eyed when they pass their teachers for the perceived “last” time?
What’s going to be different in your classroom this year? You may have noticed that I previously asked how you will say, “See you later,” rather than “Goodbye,” and that was completely intentional. In my opinion, it’s especially important to see that students know that just because it’s the end of a school year, it doesn’t mean that your support and encouragement will fade into the summer months. Here is one idea that I can personally vouch for that was successful in providing closure to our class.
The Memory Minute: This was adapted from Ross Burkhardt’s book, Writing for Real: Effective Strategies for Engaging Adolescent Writers, and it can easily be modified and/or applied to any grade level or subject. I gave my students a half sheet of paper that explained that they will complete one last presentation (during the last few days of school) to which they will have one minute to present a song, story, poem, essay, skit, or anything else, which would allow them to successfully capture some memorable aspect of our class. They were able to complete this individually or in a small group; they could record it and play a video; or, they could move the whole class to another place (the library, cafeteria, front steps, etc.) but they were responsible for all the arrangements. They signed up for a day and time, and I was adamant on holding them to 60 seconds. The big thing that I emphasized: this assignment was 100% optional, received no grade or credit, and had to be organized on their own time. Now, you may think that since this was done only a few days from the end of the year, it was not mandatory, and received no grade whatsoever, few kids would participate. Instead, I witnessed: student poetry; trios of students singing songs; laughter; tears; imitations of my “greatest hits” (which throws you for a loop when you realize that they noticed, remembered, and rehearsed your idiosyncrasies!); apologies for being “difficult” to me or to the class; and even “thank you” notes and essays to particular friends who had helped them through a difficult time or situation. Many of our presentations went over the time limit, but none us were watching the clock. And as we build momentum, students (who hadn’t prepared anything) asked if they could say a few words too, and before we all realized it, nearly everyone participated in their own way. I can say with 100% certainty, that nobody moved when the bell sounded at the end of class, and it was amazing to watch my students look around and see their peers as those who had significantly impacted their lives more than they had realized the day before.
I didn’t mar the integrity of this activity by giving them a rubric; I didn’t make anyone go through the writing process; and, I didn’t kill creativity by making it count for some type of quiz grade -- there’s a place and time for these, but this was not it. Instead, this was taking into consideration the fact that these little humans are kids -- not just students – and we owe it to them to provide sincere and intentional closure to their school year. On this day, it wasn’t about tending to the academic side of things, but it was consciously taking stock of the highly important (and sometimes forgotten) emotional and social side of school and growing up. For over 180 days we worked hard at creating a community and this needed to be acknowledged.
He found success from missing more than 9,000 shots.
He found success from losing over 300 games.
He found success from letting his team and fans down 26 times on missed game-winning shots.
Putting yourself out there and taking a risk is not easy; in fact, whenever we take a chance and try something that is perceived to be unsettling, we are well aware of the potential consequences.
Is this fear what keeps us from taking new steps? Trying something new? Growing? Maximizing our potential? Settling for good but not going for great? But what if it goes well? What if we learn something? As Jordan implies in the video, failure is what allowed his successes to happen. In fact, he’s taken a risk to say that he’s failed over 9,000 times!
I’ve seen some “risk taking” in many classrooms over the past few months, and in speaking to those teachers, the words persevere and persistence were quite common. I’ve watched kindergarteners have paired conversations about Easter – completely on task – while the teacher and I just watched. When I asked her how she set her students up to do this, she told me that it definitely didn’t happen the first time…or the second. She told me that she had to “persevere” to get it right; that her students weren’t going to be on –task right away. In essence, didn’t her students fail at first, too? In a third grade class, another teacher took a risk to completely shuffle her lesson plans to continue a math lesson, as her students were having difficulty with identifying lines of symmetry. As I watched, she frequently said to student after student, “Can you go help them out?” and again, as we watched together, these students were learning through collaboration. When I asked if it made her nervous to have kids rely more upon one another – rather than her – to deal with abstract ideas, she said no. And finally, in another third grade class, I watched kids, who were sprawled out on the floor, learn the elements of fairy tales by partner reading on iPads. Without hesitation, they were scrolling through the text as a means to show how various parts of the story supported their claims. The teacher explained to me, at first, there were issues with students using other apps or playing games; however, with persistence, she was able to reduce off-task behavior. As for allowing kids to choose comfy spots on the floor? She says they are productive and overall there are few issues.
Interested in taking a “game changing shot” with your kids? I just saw on Twitter that middle school students in Alabama were Skyping with scientists in Alaska to learn about oil spills; in another tweet, kids in New York were able to learn about creating characters and how the editing process works -- directly from the author they were studying! Did you know that students at Rahway High School (NJ) recently met with a Holocaust survivor? If you’re up to it, there’s a 4th grade teacher in Minnesota who would love to have her young writers Skype with another class to assess writing via the 6 Traits of Writing. “Photojournaling” with a class in Asia, anyone?
To find success, our technology could break.
To find success, our network might crash.
To find success, our kids may act like kids.
To find success, a risk must be taken….
Have you ever come across this “word” before? About four years ago, one of my students plopped this down on my desk and said, “Mr. K, how would you read this?” His curiosity fueled my own, I must admit, but I don’t recall my answer at the time. So, in 2012 how would I read this?
“Opportunity is now here.”
In my opinion, we are entering a time in education that changes the game for our students. We’re at a point where, as educators, we must transform our classrooms into 21st Century learning spaces that stretch far beyond the concrete walls that metaphorically keep learning confined to regimented intervals. Opportunity is here for students to see a parallel between their own digital lives and their school worlds. In Marc Prensky’s Educational Leadership article “Turning On the Lights,” he offers an interesting perspective as to how students have two types of education: school and after school. When they leave at the end of the day, our students “power up” their devices so they can text, talk, tweet, blog, and connect, but what happens each morning when they enter school? Now, the implications of the Common Core State Standards acknowledge that many of these same skills are paramount to their college and career futures. Now it’s we who must adapt to a fast-paced, multi-tasking world for the sake of our kids, rather than expect them to learn in environments that may no longer function in ways that kids learn best.
Some may believe that “opportunity is nowhere” with streamlined standards across a great majority of the United States and corresponding assessments that could be quite different than what we’ve known – all painting us into a uniform corner of content. But the Common Core acknowledges that there is plenty of flexibility in how skills and knowledge will be taught – and this is where the many great opportunities await for our kids. Many of our students right here and across the country are venturing into new learning experiences: there are first graders blogging about their favorite pets; fourth graders creating wikis about historical events; eighth graders collaborating on Google Docs using the writing process; and, high school students debating with classrooms on the other side of the world!
Opportunity is now here!
If I could track down my former student, I would be happy to answer his question. But knowing him, he’d expect me to do so in 140 characters or less.
Here are three things I know for sure about poultry:
1. It's great with barbecue sauce. A lot of it.
2. Wings make a great companion to the Super Bowl. Hot wings are even better.
3. Not everything that is claimed to “taste like chicken” does. Trust me.
Today I learned much more about the chicken.
The Common Core State Standards expect our students to be college and career ready by the time they leave high school, and one of the many ways we can put them on the right path is by providing authentic learning experiences. The students I visited today in Ms. Agosto’s fifth grade classroom at the Samuel E. Shull School are engaged in real world learning as they continue their study of life cycles. To illustrate this process, students have watched over and cared for baby chicks as they hatched for all to see. Now, ten yellow puffs chirp around in an incubator to the wonder of these elementary students. One student explained to me the process of turning the eggs to ensure the yolk hadn’t settled; another student informed me the reason why the chicks had to be under a heat lamp; a girl explained how the newborns eat; and, one boy demonstrated the proper way to hold one of these and then placed the little chick in my hand (I can’t say I had ever done this before). All of my questions were asked casually and with honest curiosity, and the students had answers. Later in the week, these fifth graders and their newly found fuzzy friends have invited first graders to learn all about life cycles through partner-reads, visuals, and the important hands-on experience, too.
Of course, the point here is not to find a way to incorporate poultry into every content area or grade level; instead, it’s to emphasize the importance of transforming classroom learning so our kids can experience the world around them. In the Educational Leadership article, “What Makes Kids Do Good Work” the author cites purpose, relevance, choice, and ownership as keys to making learning meaningful. In this case, the students weren’t able to go to the farm, so their teacher brought the farm to them. I heard students give details about the correlation between what they were reading and what they were witnessing; I saw kids care for animals like they would their own iPods.
Yes, today I learned much more about chickens, and it came from some very curious and engaged kids.
Maybe I'll reconsider my love of wings...just not until after the Super Bowl.