It’s About Relationships.

“This kid stood up and told my wife F*#@& you right to her face in front of me and that kid didn’t even get suspended.”

“Classrooms are wild these days. Kids are so out of control, it didn’t use to be like this. And the Principal never suspends anybody, that’s why it is so out of control. All these out of town kids moving in.”

“This administrator is always undermining teachers. I don’t know what it takes to get suspended at this school.”

I have heard these kinds of comments my whole career. They seem to be more frequent lately. Perhaps it is because of public pressure, including legislation,  to school districts to reduce suspension rates. How can you teach a kid if the kid is not in school? I think this pressure is a good thing.

In my career working in inner-city schools, I have worked with a lot of kids with disruptive behaviors. I have seen many kids kicked out of class for being disruptive, aggressive, or disrespectful. I will admit to kicking a few kids out for these things myself, especially in my early career when I didn’t know any better. Removing the student from the classroom never solved the problem. Sure, the immediate issue was gone; the outbursts were gone for the day, or for a few minutes, but the problem was not corrected. Usually, the problem was not even addressed.

I have found that when kids lash out in class it is a result of some combination of two reasons:

  1. Something bad (often horrible) is happening in that student’s life or environment and the student does not have the ability to deal with it in a healthy way.
  2. The teacher has not been as skillful in their craft as they could be.

In either case suspending the student will not solve the problem. Sending the student home means the student misses instruction and falls even further behind. When the student returns, nothing has changed. Rinse, lather, repeat.

As teachers, we can not solve all of the world’s problems. We are not psychologists. We are not social workers. We are not law enforcement officers. We are educators. Our job is to educate all of the kids that are enrolled in our classes. In order to do our job, we need to have a healthy supportive relationship with every student in the room. Kids need to feel safe in the classroom. A person can’t learn at an optimum level if they do not feel safe and supported. I have found that when a positive supportive climate exists those disruptive students magically go away. They are replaced with students that want to be in class. If they are in class they can be taught. If the student feels supported then those other issues of terrible, awful, very bad things happening in their life can be addressed.   It all begins with a positive healthy relationship between the teacher and the students. All of the students.

A colleague of mine recently gave a talk about this that can be found here. (Warning: tissues may be needed.) If you are one of those teachers struggling with disrespectful kids, ask yourself about those relationships. Have you done the work to develop those relationships? It is never too late to work on it.

 

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Yet Another Example of Great Professional Development

 

Yesterday I had the wonderful fortune to be able to attend an Edcamp. It didn’t take much to convince me to go since it was held at the little elementary school in Yosemite Valley. Yes, THAT Yosemite, the one that also happens to be a national park, and one of the most beautiful places on this earth! It never takes much to get me to take the drive to Yosemite. But give me the chance to go there and hang out for a few hours with other educators who want to talk about how we can all get better at what we do, and I am in! Throw in an Instagram pre-session, and I don’t know how to stay away.

#edcampyosemite

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The edcamp model is  something fairly new to me. You do not have to sign up months in advance and walk a stack of paperwork through the school district system hoping it does not get misplaced. Once the paperwork is done you find yourself going through the program and figuring out the schedule for the event. Nor do you have to submit a proposal for a presentation for the conference to get a free admission. All you have to do is sign up for a ticket. They are free, and usually on Saturday (at least in my limited experience) so you don’t have any district paperwork! Can I get a woot for no district paperwork? You do have to sign up, because they often sell out! But that is not the best part. The best part is the way the sessions are scheduled.

When you check in at an edcamp you are given a pen and a piece of paper and asked “what do you want to learn about?” You write down a topic and it is placed on a schedule board. All of the different topics are clustered into logical groups and assigned rooms and times. Yesterday several people wrote that they wanted to learn more about Minecraft, so a Minecraft session was held during the first session in the multipurpose room. John Miller, @room162 on twitter, was on hand and is a passionate user of Minecraft in the classroom and attended the session to lend his expertise.  Other people had heard of “App Smashing” and wanted to learn more, so a session was held on that. A session called “Things That Suck” was a big draw, and a lot of fun. The great part is that the schedule is built that day, based on the needs and interests of those there that day, not months ahead of time! You get to learn about what you want to learn about.

I really wanted to learn, as Jon Corippo says, to “Avoid the Suck.” (Jon is on twitter @jcorippo) The suck is that time in the middle of an assigned project when the enthusiasm has waned, but the work isn’t done. Jon says when the teacher says “I am going to give you lots of time for this project” students hear “I don’t have to start this for a long time!” There was a session about avoiding the suck. I don’t think I found a silver bullet on this topic, but I am thinking about it a little differently.

Because I often present at conferences to “pay my way” I am often stressed out going in. I am worried about my presentation; have I prepped enough, am I going to have network issues, what if no one comes… Traditional conferences are all about sage on the stage. If you know me and my classroom style it is anything BUT sage on the stage. I don’t do direct instruction well or often. I do not like being the expert in the front. At an edcamp there is no sage on the stage, just a group of people talking about a topic they are all interested in, and that, in my book, is great professional development.

From here on out, if there is an edcamp in driving distance, I am in!

Lets Make a Conference Team

I go to a lot of conferences. Maybe not as many as some people I know, but certainly more than most teachers. It is important to me that I get out of my school and district and see what other people are doing. I need to talk to other teachers to understand the challenges they are facing and how they are overcoming those challenges. It helps me in identifying and overcoming the challenges I face in my own classroom. I do try to manage the conferences so that I am not out of the classroom more than I really need to be. This means a lot of workshops and conferences on weekends and breaks, on my own time.

Some of the conferences are paid for by my district, some I pay for, and still others are paid for in trade for my services presenting at the conference. My biggest expenditure for this PD is my time. I invest a lot of time, and I want that time to be used effectively. I often wonder after attending a conference if my time would have been better spent not presenting, but by paying for my conference registration and attending all of the sessions in which I was interested. I usually am left wondering if my presentation was effective. I sometimes receive feedback from session evaluations. The feedback occasionally is timely, but it is rarely useful.

I have asked my PLN for advice; how can I become a better presenter? I have even asked if it is important for teachers to present at conferences. The answers I got were not overly helpful. Yes, it seems, it is important to present at conferences, because that is what teaching is, presenting. To get better you keep doing it, and watch others, and you will get better. I call poppycock on that last one. Practice, without effective feedback, does not make perfect.

I think I need a peer presentation team. I need to team up with someone and team teach these conferences. We would submit a proposal as co presenters. Each team member would review the other’s proposal, and provide timely, effective feedback. Each would review the other’s presentation, again providing feedback. And they would sit in on each others sessions, not to co-present, but to be a critical friend, to watch what is happening, and to provide areas to improve. By submitting as co-presenters we would not be scheduled against each other and be available to watch the actual presentation.  If I am going to improve my presentation skills, this is what I need to do.

So the deadline for Fall Cue is right around the corner. Does any one want to be on my team?

Vocabulary

The topic of teaching vocabulary has been coming up a lot in my circles lately. The conversation goes like this:

Teacher: “These kids need to get motivated. If they don’t want to try I can’t do it for them.”

Me: “Well, what are you asking them to do that they aren’t doing?”

Teacher: “Like vocabulary. We have to do vocabulary, they can’t learn the concept if they don’t know the terms. But they aren’t learning the words. I just don’t know what else to do.”

There are some assumptions in this dialog, and I suggest they are  false assumptions. The first assumption is that we have to “do vocabulary.” I don’t think I know a single teacher or student who enjoys the activity of writing a word, looking up the definition, putting it in a sentence and whatever else ritual is tacked on to this exercise. Nor can I find many people who can honestly claim that is a particularly effective  exercise. Yes, students do it, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that any real learning is taking place. But so many continue to inflict this exercise on their students, because, well, we have to. Why do we have to? Because thats the way our teachers did it way back in the day? I sure didn’t get a lot out of it in those days, did you? Maybe we do it because the textbook or pacing guide says we should. Or because that is the way it is done in the department/grade level/school district. I suppose that may be the issue in some cases, but if it is, it should be questioned.

The second assumption is that they can’t learn the concept if they don’t know the terms. Really? I understood the basics of fire behavior long before I understood that fire is rapid oxidation generating light, heat, and smoke. I learned a long time ago that fire is hot, and it burns. I didn’t have to write a synonym, or use it in a sentence a single time. I learned by experience that if you take away the heat by putting water on the fire it will go out. I learned that if you take away the oxygen it will go out. I learned these things long before I heard of the fire tetrahedron.

I guess what I want to say to these folks who are recognizing that what they are doing  isn’t working is that maybe they should try something different. You can’t wait for “the kids to get motivated.” Maybe one day all of the  students in your room will magically be highly motivated, but probably not. Maybe there will be this mysterious shift and your school will be full of  academic high achievers, but probably not. Most likely, if there is going to be a change, the change will come from the teacher, not the students.

So if you are one of those teachers struggling with things not working, change something. Learn how to do it differently. Don’t know how? There are lots of places to learn. Twitter is full of awesome teachers who are full of ideas, and there are lots of web sites out there to teach you how to use Twitter. Google  “Twitter for Teachers.”

Social Media is not your thing you say? Buy a book. There are many, many great books out there to help you look at things differently. My recent favorite is Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess. But thats just me. Amazon is full of great titles. Get some and read them. And then implement some of the things you read.

There are lots of conferences and workshops out there as well. Yea some of them are expensive and require a huge time commitment, but many are just a weekend morning, or are a single afternoon and don’t cost much.

My bottom line is if things are not working well, try doing it differently. Take a risk and admit it could be better. That is the first step to doing it better. If what you are doing isn’t working well, don’t keep doing it. Do something different.

Summer Professional Development

The participants of the CUE Rockstar Teacher Camp aboard the USS Hornet. One of several amazing edtech events I attended this summer. (Photo from http://www.rockstartechcamp.com/)

I just came home from my last professional development of the summer. Today was the first ever EdCamp San Joaquin. This was a free “un-conference” that was sponsored by the Teachers College of San Joaquin and Central California CUE. The event, like all edcamps was free to the participants, and the program was decided upon by the participants themselves once they arrived. I had an amazing time learning all kinds of new things to try in class starting -ugh- next week!

Really the best part was that this was just one of several fantastic professional development events I attended this summer; CUE Rockstar Teacher Camp, Google Apps for Education California Summit, the Google GeoTeachers Conference and more. What did these all have in common? They were all attended by willing participants. No one (that I know of anyway) was “sent” to any of these events. They were all teachers, admins, and others who came out during the summer, on their own time, with the intention of improving their craft. And that willingness to give up their own time to learn something new really truly makes a difference.

So I want to thank all the people- those that I know and those that I do not know- who gave up time this summer and willingly, enthusiastically participated in or organized these events. You really make a difference. And to those who won’t give up your own time without getting paid? Well, you are just missing out, and so are your students.

No More iPads

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Innovative uses of edtech.

The graduate school I attend has announced they are no longer providing iPads for their students. They gave two reasons; budget cuts, and they have observed students don’t use the iPads.

No one can deny the impact of budget cuts, the school is also no longer going to loan textbooks- students will have to buy their own books like most other schools. I get that choice, books are expensive and it is easy- and logical- to pass that cost on to the students.

The same is true with the iPad decision. They are expensive, and if there is no money in the budget, an expensive iPad would be a logical place to cut. But the observation that the students are not using the iPads is bothersome. I am one of those students who rarely uses the iPad. No one asked me why, but that has never stopped me from sharing before!

Part of the reason I chose this particular school is because they gave out iPads. Not that I needed or wanted another one. But I thought that if the school was progressive enough to provide an iPad they would be using technology in innovative ways, and I wanted to learn more innovative approaches. I was wrong, not much innovation here.

As a student I am expected to turn in papers in APA style. Using an iPad to type a several page APA formatted paper is not the most efficient use of tools or time. In one class  papers were required to be done in Microsoft Word! Why would I even look for the iPad if I am required to use Word?  

We were expected to create a portfolio to document our learning. I am a huge proponent of portfolios, I have required my students to have portfolios for years. But I was being required to use a binder for my portfolio. Not a Livebinder, a binder. A binder full of word processed, printed, two dimensional pages.

English: D-ring type 3 ring binder (opened)
English: D-ring type 3 ring binder (opened) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)binder full of word processed papers. I required my students to stop using three ring binders five years ago. But the school that gives you an iPad still requires a three ring binder.

I was required to make PowerPoint presentations. Not just any presentations, PowerPoints. And to print them out. Emailing assignments is frowned upon, they needed to be printed. Once, only once, was I expected to create a video. And I was told to not bother editing it, that was considered a waste of time.

So why did the iPad initiative fail? Because just giving out an innovative tool does not make an innovative program. If you really wanted me to use the iPad ask me, no LET me, do something the iPad is good at! And there is no shortage of things the iPad is good at. Don’t give me the same assignments colleges have been handing out for decades and expect to be innovative. Instead of asking me to make a PowerPoint presentation with handouts on flipped instruction, have me create a flipped staff meeting. The iPads would rock at that. Instead of asking me to make a three ring binder portfolio have me make a multimedia infused online digital portfolio. Again, iPads rock at that. Instead of an APA paper, why not a blog entry. Or a video. Or an animation. Or a Voicethread. Or you get the idea.

So I guess my point is that just handing out an innovative tool doesn’t make something innovative. You have to actually try something different for innovation to happen. But I guess that is not a very new idea either.

So THATS what good teaching looks like.

This year I have been spending one day a week at an elementary school as part of my administrative credential program. At first I was a bit apprehensive; I am a high school teacher, I have no interest or knowledge in the k-8 world. I have found the experience to be very interesting. I am learning a lot about elementary schools, and I am learning a lot about younger students. It turns out that they are not so scary after all. 

Last week a math teacher asked me if I would please come by her room and observe her lesson because she wanted to hear my feedback. So this week the Principal and I dropped by the room for an observation. I realized that in 18 years of teaching I had never sat in another teachers classroom to specifically look at teaching, so I didn’t really know what to expect. I was stunned. Not only had I never seen teaching like that, I had never even imagined this level of good teaching! I had a hard time taking notes because I was so fascinated with how she was managing the class. Strategy after strategy being employed without so much as a moments pause. It was like the whole hour was perfectly planned, scripted, and rehearsed. I had never seen such a thing. 

I left the school that day not feeling very good about myself. In comparing my teaching with what I had seen in the math classroom I could only come to one conclusion; I suck. I consider myself a very reflective teacher. I think about how every lesson goes, and how I can improve the lesson next time. I do a lot of professional development, almost all of it on my own dime. I go to conferences and workshops, I use Twitter and G+, and yes, I read blogs. So how is it I could go this long without ever seeing really really good teaching?

When I started teaching (yes, it was actually in the last century) the profession was really one of individuals. We went in our rooms and closed the door. We did not have high standards for our performance. My first Principal told me on my very first day in the classroom “If no one bleeds you are doing good.” We did not collaborate, and we NEVER acknowledged that  another teacher was better than oneself. In the last few years we have started to collaborate and we have some levels of accountability. But we don’t have a system of identifying really good teachers, and learning from them. Until this week I didn’t realize we needed one.

Fall CUE

This weekend was the 2012 FallCUE conference. First a huge tip ‘o the hat to Jon Corippo for the ride to the conference.  I wouldn’t have been able to attend on Friday at all without Jon’s generosity. Another tip ‘o the hat to  Wayne Stagnarro for pushing me to attend. 

FallCUE has only been around a few years. There are some old timers who talk about a Northern California CUE conference, but that is ancient history in my book. The modern version of the conference is held at American Canyon High School in Napa County. Yes, THAT Napa. It wasn’t really that difficult of a decision to attend; fall in wine country is not exactly a tough sell! It is one of the few conferences I can actually get my wife to accompany me to, imagine that.

On to the conference. There were really a number of workshops that helped me with things I have been struggling with. Alice Keeler brought her spreadsheet magic and filled in a huge hole in my teacher student feedback loop. She showed us how to use a Google Drive form to gather student assignments, and then use a mail merge script to send feedback to the student via email, directly from the form spreadsheet. Very slick, and even I can do it! As if that were not enough, she then showed us how to use a pivot table in the same spreadsheet to keep track of the student assignments. 

That alone was worth the price of admission. But wait, there is more!

I also got to sit in on a session by Ramsey Musallam talking about how and why to “Flip” a classroom. There is a lot of buzz out there about flipping a classroom, and mostly I have been unimpressed. My thinking is that replacing a boring lecture with a YouTube video of a boring teacher lecturing doesn’t do anything to engage more students, or help students be more engaged. But that, Ramsey explained, is not what it is about. I am not going to pretend to articulate what I now understand, because I don’t think I can. Not yet. But I do have a few ideas about how I can implement what I learned this week. 

I left that workshop with my head spinning, but wait, there is even more!

Another highlight of the conference was the closing keynote by Vicki Davis, aka Cool Cat Teacher. I have followed Vicki on the Internet in a number of platforms for a couple of years, and she often dumps my cheese cart over.  She talked about telling kids “you are good at something and it is my job to find it.” I need to get back to the classroom and find some kids’ talent.

Back to School

About a year and a half ago I was notified by my school district that  269 of my fellow teachers and I were no longer needed. My district had to cut 28 million dollars from the budget, and layoffs were necessary. I am very grateful that I was among the first to be rehired and did not miss a single day of work. I was rehired before we went on summer break, so I was able to focus on doing my job, rather than finding a job.

Going through the whole process I realized that in a district of more than 1,600 teachers I am the only one with my particular credential. I learned that I can not sit back and rely on tenure to protect my job.  While I have a piece of paper that says I have tenure, it only matters if there are people below me on the seniority list who I can “bump” when layoffs come. There is no one below me, and there is not going to be anyone below me. I have no tenure. I have seen enough district politics to know that I my job security is only as strong as my relationship with district higher ups, and district higher ups come and go. Worse, there are very few jobs out there for a guy with my particular credential. Very few.

I realized a year ago that I need to do something to beef up my marketability. I love my job, and I love working where I work, but I need to be prepared for something else. After looking at a number of options I decided I should get an administrative credential. If I were to loose my job I reasoned I could always start that school I have been thinking about in the back of my head.

In California there are two options to obtain an administrative credential; pass a test, or take a series of classes. I have heard the test is fairly easy if you prepare, and it is comparatively inexpensive. The classes take a full year, cost a good deal of money, and are well, graduate level classes.

I opted for the classes.

So this fall I find myself sitting in a classroom three nights a week learning about school administration. On the upside, the school is only about 2 miles from my classroom. I have to stop at two stop signs on my way to class, and I don’t leave the neighborhood my students live in. On the downside, the school is over an hour from home, and it is a long drive after a full day at work plus a class on top. I think I see a lot of taco bell bean burritos in my future this year.

This time next year I should, if all goes as planned, have an administrators credential. I won’t have to worry nearly as much about loosing my job. Hopefully I will also have a better understanding of how to be a good administrator running a great school. Stay tuned.

Stuck in a Rut.

Another Chevy



This year has seen a dramatic change in my professional development. I made the decision last summer that I need to take more control of what I was learning and I needed to share more as a way to learn more. I really felt stuck in a rut. One of the manifestations of that decision has been that I have attended more conferences this year than I have attended in many years combined. It started with the Rock Star Teacher Camp at Minaretts High School. Talk about getting out of a rut!  I also attended CUE in Palm Springs for the first time in a really, really long time. Most recently I attended the SVCUE event last weekend in San Jose. (That is a really good way to get to attend for free!) This year I also attended or presented at events in Monterrey, Napa, Modesto, and North Hollywood. And I am not done yet. 


The results? I am  much more comfortable presenting to other professionals  than I have been. I think this is an important ability for an experienced teacher. I think it important to be able to discuss what I do, and why I do it. Presenting at conferences forces me to really think about this. It holds me more accountable.


I also am much more aware of how many really awesome teachers there are out there who have their students doing amazing things. If I hadn’t gone to these conferences I simply wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t know what I should be expecting of my students. I wouldn’t know what I should be expecting of me. But I do know now. I know even more awesome teachers. I have more ideas for awesome things my kids can be doing. 


Prepare for awesomeness.