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Breaking Stuff and Other Problems

I have a problem. My students are doing great work. So great they are working on projects and doing things none of my classes have ever done before. They are taking the projects we do  to places I have not seen high school students do before. It is a great problem to have, but I am not sure what we are going to do next week, let alone later in the quarter. I will have to come up with more advanced projects, or at least ask better questions.

When I ask myself why this year is so much more productive I can only come up with a few ideas. The students have not changed much. Sure they are older because I do not have freshmen anymore, but I do have a lot of sophomores. So they are older, but not by much. My classes are a lot smaller. In some past years I literally had to step over kids who were sitting on the floor for lack of anywhere else to sit. All the seats were taken, and if there was an empty space on a table you can be sure a kid was sitting there too.  Now I generally have an empty seat or two, and that counts for a lot.

But I think the biggest reason for the change is that I stopped focusing on the end product and instead focus on the process. More specifically, I began encouraging kids to to “do it wrong.”  I encouraged them to “see what happens if…” When they asked “should I click this” instead of a yes or no I respond with “if ya want.” I asked them to turn in not only the finished project, but evidence of all the mistakes and problems they had. I no longer hear “my computer broke, I can’t do it. You better not give me a bad grade ’cause its not my fault.” I get “Hey let me take a screen shot, no one got THAT error message before.” I even had a student ask a friend record a video so she would have evidence of what was going wrong. She thought it would be better that way than taking a series of screen shots. It is really fun to hear them talk about problems they are having and come up with theories as to why.

So what’s the problem?

I have been taught to think that all of the students in the class should be getting the same education, they should be learning the same things. I remember early  in my teaching career having “terminal measurable objectives” drilled into my head. At the end of the semester all students will be able to (fill in the blank with some task students will learn to do.) I can’t do that anymore. In this new environment, where I am expecting students to take risks, to make mistakes, and to even break stuff, I can’t say all students will be learning the same things. Some students are not finishing anything, but are learning tons! Other students churn out finished products, but are learning very little.  Finishing a project or assignment is not necessarily synonymous with learning. Similarly, not finishing an assignment or project does not mean no standards were learned. It might mean we ran out of time. Or it could also mean the idea/project was a bad idea to begin with! It doesn’t mean we didn’t learn!

I have a team of students right now working on building a Remotely Operated Vehicle; an underwater robot, as their SkillsUSA project. They decided they would design it on the computer then print out all of the parts on the 3D printer and assemble them. Yesterday they thought they had some parts designed just right, the first one came out perfect, so they sent five of the parts to the printer and went home. This morning they came in to find the parts done, but it was clear there was a problem, something had gone wrong and the parts did not fit in the housing they were designed to go in. There was some discussion as to what went wrong and why, and they set about to solve the problem- redesign the parts. One of the kids was gathering the defective parts and I asked what he was going to do with them. He said “I am keeping these. They are evidence that we redesigned them!” I had to smile, but I still have a problem.

I really like what is happening in room 17 this year. I see lots and lots of learning. Lots of really cool stuff. But how do I sustain it? How do I replicate it next year, and the year after? Projects we do this year aren’t going to work next year. There will be different kids, different interests, and different times. Tools we use now will be obsolete. There will be websites that easily do things we now spend lots of time on. I guess that is one way teaching is different now than it was, say 20 years ago; you have to move a lot faster just to keep up with the times!

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?

Where is my chair?

A couple of years ago I got rid of my classroom desk. I overheard a student talking about a teacher, saying that “teacher just sits there behind the desk all day…” I didn’t know if they were talking about me or not. I knew that they could be.  I knew that I spent a lot of time at my desk, especially after lunch. I was tired and wanted to sit down. I realized more often than not students came to me with questions instead of the other way around. I tried to resist the urge to sit at the desk, but I kept finding myself there, sitting at the desk. So I got rid of it. If I didn’t have a desk no one could say I just sat at it!

In the process of getting rid of the desk I totally redesigned the room into what I think of now as a maker space. (At the time I hadn’t heard the term.) Student computer work stations around the perimeter of the room and work tables in the middle. It worked great for a while. I was on my feet walking the room all day. Yes I was tired at the end of the day, but the improved interactions with kids made it worth it.

When we came back from winter break I found a new chair in the room. My principal got me a new “draftsman chair” so that I could sit at the big work tables. Bless his heart. He went out of his way to get this chair just for me, so I sat in it. A lot. I soon found that one of the large work tables became my desk, and I sat there, a lot. Again.

Don’t get me wrong, I need a workstation. I have to take attendance on a computer, and the tablets I have access to don’t work so well for that.  I have to have a computer to demonstrate what the students are supposed to be learning, and that computer has to be somewhere. So that spot becomes a work station. I need to keep reminding myself it is a workstation, not a Mark station.

So the nice new chair is now sitting in the corner of the room by the sink. I found it makes a nice coat rack. I need to keep walking the room.

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About those quizes…

Yesterday we held our annual SkillsUSA Regional Competition. For those that don’t know, SkillsUSA is a national student led career and technical organization. Students compete in career or leadership related events. Welding students, for example, are presented with materials and drawings and asked to produce the piece depicted in the drawing. Leadership students might present their student designed and implemented community service project. It is, I believe, a fantastic way to assess what students are learning in the classroom. Which brings me to the point of my blogpost this morning.
The Washington Post this morning ran a story by Valerie Strauss called “How we teach kids to cheat on tests.” The story does a pretty good job of summarizing what happens when we put too much importance on the test score, or the quiz score.

This morning Daniel Ching  @danielpching published a blog post “The importance of process” in which he talks about the importance of providing feedback throughout the process of learning, and grading that process.  Too often we educators put all of the grade on the final test, and the students loose out as a result.

So lets go back to the SkillsUSA event yesterday. I was asked to run the Quiz Bowl event. This is sort of a “Jeopardy” type event where students, working in teams of 5, are asked a variety of questions. Questions include basic math, geometry, science, world and national politics, current events, and career related questions. It was fascinating for me to watch how students solved problems. Yea there were obscure questions where everyone in the room threw up there hands and said “whats a minority whip?” They were 10th and 11th graders after all. But for other questions it was interesting to me to watch the students break off into twos and threes and come up with their own answers,  talk their way through the questions, and come to an agreement on the answer. I could easily see strengths and weaknesses for each student. More importantly the students could see their own strengths and weaknesses. They were arguing for their answers, and providing  evidence to support those answers.

Photo by David Varela. Used with permission.
Photo by David Varela. Used with permission.

I learned much more about what these students knew by standing in the room and listening to them talk to each other than I ever would learn from the results of a test. Just as I learn more about what my students know by listening to them as they prepare for their presentations.

My students typically participate in the Career Pathways Showcase. In this event they prepare a presentation where they demonstrate what they have learned. On Friday a group of students was preparing their presentation and one of them said “We should bring the books we read as evidence of  our learning. We could talk about the books.” Another group decided to bring a stack of their mistakes, and talk about what they learned from them. I didn’t tell them to do these things, they decided it was the best way to demonstrate their learning.

I think these SkillsUSA events are much better assessments of student learning than any test. So no, there is not going to be a quiz on this on Friday.

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.

Being proud and actually saying it.

I was able to attend Fall Cue this year again.  It was, as usual, a great experience. It was a little different this year in that I didn’t come home with a great new tool. Usually I learn of a great tool that is new to me; an app, a web site, or a gadget. This year there was no such discovery for me. The learning for me seemed to center on attitude. Mostly my own. I really wanted to refine my thinking about the maker concept and design thinking, and I was able to do that, but it wasn’t really new.

The opening keynote by Ramsey Mussalum, which can be seen here, was great. Does Ramsey do anything not great? (Why do they call it the opening keynote when it is delivered at the midway point of the conference? But that is an aside.) Ramsey talked about why so many kids hate school, and to combat that we, as teachers, need to love our jobs. If you don’t love your job it shows, and you make it all the more likely that your students will #hateschool. Fortunately, #Ilovemyjob.

The closing keynote by Angela Maiers was equally powerful. She talked about how kids just want to be acknowledged and valued. Call them by their name Angela said. All of them. Make them know you notice them. In a good way.

One of the reasons #Ilovemyjob is because I work at a small school where I can know every kid’s name. We have less than 250 kids. I need to do better about knowing all of their names, even those who don’t hang out in Awesomnesity Central, or for those who don’t know, Room 17. I came back to school with the plan that I was going to seek out those kids who think #Ihateschool and say hello to them, by name. It seemed simple enough, and sounded like a pretty good idea.

It was Tuesday afternoon, the last period of the day. I spent most of the day honestly amazed at the work my students were doing. We were doing some pretty complicated GIS stuff on a school network that doesn’t like GIS stuff. We had lots of issues, and the kids were just plowing right through them. They were almost finished with a project and I was just beaming with pride. I said it.

“You guys are really doing amazing work, sticking to it, working through problems. Its amazing to watch. I am proud of you.”

One girl turned around and asked “Me? You are proud of me too?

“Yea, you. Everyone in here. You guys are doing amazing stuff.”

“But you mean me? You are proud of me?”

“Yea. Of course. Your data was gone, you got it back, like it was no big deal. You have been doing great work. Why are you acting surprised?”

“Because no one has ever said that to me.” Long pause. “No, no one. No one has ever said they were proud of me.”

I am glad I went to Fall Cue.

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3 and Out

Photo CC by Paul Keleher of flickr

I just finished the coursework for a Preliminary Administrative Credential at Teachers College of San Joaquin. In California prospective administrators have two options to become credentialed; take a test or take a year long series of courses. The test takes a Saturday and has a relatively small fee. The coursework option is several thousand dollars and is just shy of a masters degree. Seemed like a no brainer to me- I took the coursework!

One of the ideas that kept gnawing at me through all of the coursework was that it is a good thing to stay at a school for a short while and then move on. I was told that I should plan on being an Assistant Principal for three to five years and then move on to something else. And then repeat. It seems like the old football saying, “three and out.” The three and out thing is generally not a good one. Unless you are on defense. I don’t think schools should play defense.

One of the things that make good schools effective learning places is the environment. Effective schools have a positive climate where everyone feels included. Students, staff, teachers, parents and all the stakeholders feel they have an important role in the school. I think of that as a sense of ownership. It is our school. As an administrator I think it would be difficult to accomplish this climate when your tenure is shorter than the tenure of the students. Especially in high school.

I think if we truly want to transform schools we have to be a part of the learning community. We as educators have to be a part of the community as much as the students and their families. We really are in this together. You can’t do that if you are going three and out.

Have I Ever Told You How Much I Hate That Software?

I try to give my students choice. I don’t tell them how many slides their presentations have to have; I tell them they have to give a presentation, and I give them questions to answer. They usually choose PowerPoint first, because that is how they have been taught you do a presentation. Then they realize the group project would be lots easier if they built slides in their Google Drive, so they go in that direction. As I move around the room watching what they are doing I will mention occasionally that IF (lots of emphasis on ‘IF’) they are using slides they should be sure to not to have too many words on the slides. This usually causes a commotion in the groups, and the paragraphs are moved to speaker notes. I think “yea!”

A few kids pick up on the ‘if’ in the statement. “You mean we don’t have to do a PowerPoint?” I reply “Nope. I never said that. You have to present, how you do that is up to you.”

Then things get interesting. Most kids stick with the Google slides option, but a few kids will go into that other software; starts with a ‘P’, ends with an ‘i’ and has a ‘rez’ in the middle. The kids love it. I get sea sick easily, and am not so much of a fan. A poor PowerPoint beats a poor Prezi any day.

So today some kids were working on a Prezi. So I said it. “Do you guys know how much I hate Prezi?”

“Yea, Mr. Hall, we know.  But you don’t get to choose, we do. We have a plan. So don’t you have something else to do, we’re busy over here.”

I love that not only are my students picking their tools based on what they want to accomplish, but they have the confidence to tell me they are right, and to go away. Its going to be a fun year!

Note to self: Do is the way to go.

 

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The first day of school this year absolutely wiped me out. I was exhausted. I didn’t understand why the kids were so worked up. Some periods I was having a really hard time keeping the kids’ attention. I didn’t get it. I thought I was loosing my touch. I don’t have days like this, especially not on the first day of school.

I talked to other teachers, and they had the same experience. The kids were really wound up, and having a hard time sitting still. And then I realized that it wasn’t the kids who were different, I was different. We have a new Principal this year, and I was concerned that I do everything the right way, by the book. So I planned go over the class rules, go over the course outline, go over the expectations, you know- all that boring first day stuff. That was the problem. We were all doing the boring first day stuff. Of course the kids were all wound up, we were asking them to sit still in these absurd plastic chairs (except for my room, were they have nice padded rolling chairs) while we talked at them. Well I talked at them anyway. And that was the problem, I was so concerned about doing it “the right way” I forgot that I don’t ever do it “the right way.”

Over the summer I had the opportunity to see a keynote by @fitzwalsh and then talk to him afterwards about my plans for the year. He introduced me to the idea that talking was the enemy of do. If we want our kid to do, then we need to stop talking about it, and well, do it.  I was all excited about the new year, and how it was going to be all about DO. And how did I start? I talked. I fell into the trap. I went the traditional way. I talked. A lot. And it sucked.

From here on out, its DO.

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.