Monday, January 30, 2017

Skills-Based Assessment- The Journey so Far

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of skills-based assessment when I first was told that my new school was making a shift to it...

And as I made the jump to join colleagues who were reading up on this new system the year before, I did find myself a bit behind the 8-ball in the first semester.  However I am slowly developing my style and the "feel" to my class as I have had to reinvent some things, scrap other things, and create new things to get my class off the ground.

There are a few cool things about skills-based assessment. It asks students to demonstrate an ability, not just knowledge. I'm working to refine exactly what those abilities, those skills are.  I'm hoping for next year to take the work that was done prior to my arrival and continuing to make it better.  The toughest thing so far has been aligning some of the good work I have done in the past to a new assessment system.  Some of those things have been a round peg in a square hole, and really I didn't have a great reason to use them even though I knew they were successful in the past.  Jettisoning good work that took time to create really stings, but it was the right choice.

The opportunity to really diagnose a student's skills is much greater in a skills-based system.  A typical C student is seen as average, but instead as the layers are peeled back it can be decided what the individual strengths and weaknesses are in the student's skills.  That's helpful to teachers, to parents, and to students.  That's quality feedback.

With skills-based grading, feedback is key.  Doing it right takes a lot of time.  So planning assessments requires some key considerations.  There has to be formative practice with feedback of some kind.  There has to be chances to show what can be done, and there has to be summative assessment.  Being one among 150 means that decisions have to be made in terms of what kind, how much, and how often assessment is used.  Rethinking the nature of assessment is necessary too.  What can be done to probe for understanding quickly?

I made it sound easy there (well maybe), but it's not and I'm still learning.  In a lot of ways I have been like a first year teacher again.  New school, different kids, and a new way of grading.  Something I am finding that is as important as ever is the need to collaborate across subjects.  To make skills-based learning really work, identifying the intersections of skills in different classes is important.  When teachers can team up on assessments, the time that is available to create a product is multiplied.  Instead of forcing students through dozens of products, students can create something that shows numerous skills in numerous classes.  This is my vision.  Working with other teachers to allow students to write and research, to debate, present, and collaborate can yield products from students that can make themselves as proud as their teachers.  

Having trading in A's and B's for 4's and 3's was tough at first because everyone was just trying to wrap their head around it.  But it's getting easier.  It is making more sense, and I hope that soon I can take the next steps to improve the overall system in my class.  My job is to develop skills, to forge tools, and my students have to show me how they can use them.

Monday, August 29, 2016

He's Back!

It's time to return... back to work, back to blogging, but in a new home.

Some things have changed.  New job, back to the work of history, still trying to make it awesome.  New challenges like standards-based grading, more students, new standards, and higher expectations are part of my new job.  But some of my ideas came with me.  I'm working to update my XP System to incorporate a gigantic game of Risk.  I even found a game board online that I turned into a giant, magnetic board that is now fabulously mounted on my wall.  That picture is to come, but here's the entire map:

I combined it with my XP System so that kids can rank up and take command in the field against the other classes I teach each day.  The battle is preparing to rage as each class is set on destroying the others through their effort, hard work, participation, and positive choices.  Take a look at how it works:

Stay tuned for more updates.  It's good to be back!

Monday, April 4, 2016

My Lawmaking Project

Understanding the political process is vital to becoming a well-rounded citizen, but it is so darn hard to explain to middle schoolers.

So instead we are acting it out.  The following post is about my lawmaking project, which takes place over a few weeks in between other activities and assignments.  I think it is a good way to explain how to make a law, but also engage students in a civil and meaningful discussion.

The first thing I had to do when I began to plan this assignment was find a way to make it relevant to kids.  Major political issues present a couple of problems; they are either too complex or too controversial.  Instead, I decided to stay local and focus on school issues.  Fortunately our school handbook works well as "compiled statutes."  I simply codified the handbook and update it each year.  I won't lie, that took some time, but once it is done, it's done.

Students spend the first day searching the statutes for something they want to change, repeal, or ideally add.  Students then use a simple Google Form to get their ideas down on paper.  You can check out what it looks like below:

 This all compiles into a spreadsheet that I grade more on completion than on accuracy.  After all, this is pretty new to my 7th graders.  They use their information to create a working bill using this template.  Here's a quick look at it:

Then students begin to replace the red text with their own.  Here's an example of that:

This takes a couple of days, but then the fun part comes in.  Student bills are numbered and assigned to committees.  These committees discuss all bills on a given topic (dress code, behavior, cell phones, etc.)  Bills are either passed or "die" in committee.  Majority rules.  Students fill out a committee report as they discuss each bill.  This again is completion as it is a messy but fun process.  Students tend to be much more conservative than you think.  Very few "silly" bills get passed, which shocks me every time.

I am fortunate enough to have two sections of 7th grade.  One acts as the House and the other acts as the Senate.  I let the student with the highest grade act as Speaker and President of the Senate, respectively.  Bills that pass committee are added to an agenda for a second reading on the floor.  The entire legislative body then debates the bill and takes action.  I use a Google Sheet to keep points for discussion.  

3 points for a motion to revise the bill that gets seconded and discussed
2 points for sharing an opinion or relevant information
1 point for simply agreeing/disagreeing, repeating information, or making procedural motions
0 points for something that does nothing to further discussion or does not make sense (I don't penalize them for trying)
-1 point or more for something out of line, inappropriate, distracting, etc. 

Students have to get at least 10 points to earn full credit for this part of the assignment.

Parliamentary procedure and rules of order are not 7th graders strong points, so I provide them with a handout to help them.  Procedure gets followed to some extent, but it is tough and I do my best to coax students to go about things the way they have to be done.  We revise the bills in the House and Senate and put them to final votes.  Those that pass will go to the other house to repeat the process.

At the end of the process, the governor or president (me) vetoes or signs laws.  The students of course want to override me immediately, which is always entertaining.  The assignment ends with some sort of reflective writing portion where students have to explain what they did and speculate as to the importance of the work as well as its difficulty.

I videotape the kids so they can watch themselves debate and argue.  It is quite amusing, especially later down the road.

It seems like a lot of work, but once it is done you can always work to improve it.  Students love the chance to speak and work on things that are authentic to them and you will be quite surprised with some of the ideas (Many good ones!) that they can develop from their perspective.  These types of assignments are can't miss for any social studies class!

Monday, February 8, 2016

WAR? What is it Good For?

I'm back after a long first basketball season and can finally start to put my focus solely back in the classroom.  I've been busy, and while things are going well in the classroom, I am finding myself once again looking to take that next step.  I believe myself to be a valuable member of our staff, but I am searching how to make a bigger impact and do more.  If I go to a recently created baseball term, I am looking to enhance my WAR.

WAR is a statistic.  In fact it is an all-encompassing statistic.  It stands for "wins above replacement," and essentially measures the value of a player by figuring their worth compared to the player or players that would replace him if he was to leave.  The higher the WAR, the more valuable you are to the team you play for.

I read up on new ideas, I participate in online learning communities, I went back to school.  All of those things added to my WAR, but stopping there is settling.  I need to do more.  I hope someday to do it as an administrator where my reach will stretch a bit further, but as a classroom teacher I need to figure out what is next.  How do I keep getting better?

I'm still not sure, but I'm coming up with ideas.  However the revelation hit me that if I simply improve everything I am doing slightly, my WAR would go up.  Managing my class a little bit better, coming in with a bit more positive of an attitude, or going that extra mile to enhance an assignment or lesson will not revolutionize my craft, but will refine it each time I make a choice.  Especially when I am at a point where it would easy to be complacent, I have to keep tweaking things so that I don't get weighed down with mediocrity.

And that is the essence of education.  Always learning, always getting a tiny bit better.  We celebrate these successes in our data, and we should celebrate them in the way we feel or the contributions we feel we can make to our team.  That energy inspires others to improve, and before you know it, their WAR's improve too!

And this is something we can all do when it comes to our jobs or our lives in general.  We can make small change after small change until things simply improve.  We don't have to always hit a homerun.  Those are nice when they come, but all the singles are what pay the bills.

To further the baseball cliches you can't get too far ahead, you have to keep your eye on the ball, and take them one at a time.  Those were totally unnecessary.

So how can you improve your WAR today?  Do it!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How My XP System Works

I thought I would take the time to really lay out the nuts and bolts of what I call my "XP System."  With my long-awaited blog post just a day away, I am hoping I inspire someone  (hopefully lots of people) to just do something different.

I teach middle school.  Some people think that makes me a little crazy.  They're probably right.  But I like it.  Middle schoolers are still kids.  They're not "too cool" to try things.  Gimmicks still work.

That's where this all began.  In one of  the early years if my teaching career,  I pulled an all-nighter playing one of the many games in the Call of Duty franchise.  I waited in line until midnight, rushed home, and played til dawn.  I dragged myself to work and noticed that several kids were dragging that day too.  We had something in common.  For them it was something to talk about with me.  For me, it was leverage.  It was opportunity.  It was engagement.

The whole goal behind games like Call of Duty, Halo, World of Warcraft and so on is to use your experience to impove your character.  Most games give you experience points, or XP, as you accomplish tasks or quests or missions.  I give kids assignments and award points.  Really it's all the same; the differences are simply semantic in nature.

So I decided to model a system of advancement based on military ranks in my classroom.  As students earned more points, or "XP" on assignments, they increased in rank or "leveled up."  Tests, quizzes, projects, homework... it didn't matter.  Points were points.  Students have a small card with a magnet displaying their rank.  I use Avery labels and my printer to make sheets of them.  Students stick their rank to their card and stick it on my metal cabinets next to their corresponding rank.  I encourage them to get students that they outrank to refer to them as "sir" or "ma'am."  That doesn't really work so well, but it is amusing.

But that simply would not be enough.  As players rank up in games they are given access to special privileges or better equipment.  In essence, they are rewarded.  Something had to accompany the advancement in rank.  So I began to "pay" my students every few weeks.  Higher ranks meant more pay.  I use raffle tickets for this.  I issue them every so often, and when I do, I draw names for some sort of reward.  I'm not going to lie, most the time it is caffeine, sugar, or food.  No one complains.  The way to a middle schooler's heart in through his or her stomach... trust me.  I use red raffle tickets for this.  The color makes no difference, but I use another color for something else.

That was the basic setup to start with, but it got fancier over the past few years.  I have added in some quirks that make everything a bit more entertaining.  When I was finishing up my grad work I took a class on educational technology.  One of the apps I came across was a behavior monitoring app called Class Dojo.  When students are in my room, there is a monitor that displays their names and point values.  When students are on task, complete work, participate, or cooperate they can be given points.  I began adding these points to students' academic XP Points a few years ago.  When students raise their hand (and the key is raising their hand) in my class, they get a point and a blue raffle ticket.  These tickets go into a separate drawing weekly for a few cans of soda.  If they blurt out, I encourage other students to steal the right answer from them because they can't follow procedure.

To make sure that students know procedure, I use a stoplight in my room.  It's simple.  Red means do not talk at all unless the building is on fire.  This is usually the setup we use for a test or quiz.  Yellow means raise your hand to speak.  This is the setup I use for instruction.  Green means talk freely as needed with group members or partners.  This is the setup I use when students are completing their work in class.  It is a quick visual cue and it makes expectations clear without saying a word.

But back to the fun stuff.  After I began keeping track of XP, I noticed some competition among some of my more successful students.  I believe in friendly competition in the classroom.  Any chance for students to flex their muscles and show off that they are smart is a win to me.  I had to encourage and nurture that, even if it meant a little bit of trash talk and gloating.  To me, if kept in check it was going to be a good thing.

That's where the title belts came in.  Kids would compare their XP or grades or ranks to each other.  For awhile, the student with the highest grade was simply referred to as the student who "had the belt."  At first it was just an expression.  Then one day at Wal-Mart I saw a toy wrestling belt and was compelled to purchase it.  The student that had "the belt" now had a tangible prize, a symbol of excellence, and crazy as it may seem, it was actually coveted by those who did not have it.  Authentic, homegrown engagement.  Champions get their picture on the wall for the duration of their title reign.  In addition, I award two bonus red tickets per pay period for holding the belt.  Students can only win one belt at a time, but may choose to pursue a new belt each grading period.

Over the years one belt evolved into several.  There's divisions now.  There's a division for 8th graders.  There's a division for 7th graders.  There's a tag-team division.  There's even one based solely on behavior points through Class Dojo.  I'm not going to lie, it's gotten a bit out of control, but it is fun.  Students love taking the belt off the wall and proudly wearing it around their waist or over their shoulder, much to the chagrin of the student who most recently had to give it up.  If a bit of vinyl and plastic can foster student motivation, every school in America should go buy a couple.  What do you have to lose?  10 bucks maybe... see if you can get it reimbursed :)

So now I have students who are major generals and world champions.  I have kids raise their hands because there is a lot of upside in doing so.  But there was something missing still.  Students who emerged as leaders, regardless of grades deserved something. 
 That's where the quartermaster corps came in.  Students who were helpful in class were given a separate quartermaster rank to set them apart from students who did not go the extra mile.  Kids beg me for a quartermaster badge.  The criteria are simple:  Come to school, be useful, and don't annoy me.  The last one eliminates a lot of students.  These kids get bonus pay on top of the red tickets they get for their rank, giving them a better chance to earn a reward.  These students have a separate place to display their membership in the quartermaster corps.

That's where things ended last year.  I added one more feature to my plan this year.  Once again I took a page from pro wrestling and introduced "The Briefcase."  The rules for this are simple.  Anytime I feel like it, for any reason I can award a student the Briefcase.  Inside is a contract guaranteeing the student an automatic 100% on a homework assignment or a 10% bonus on a test or project.  Regardless of their choice, they must use it prior to submitting the assignment or completing the test or project.  In pro wrestling, a similar contract is put in a briefcase granting a title shot anytime, anywhere.  I have four briefcases and have yet to award them, but plan to in the next few weeks.  Students may even have to defend their briefcase if they get cocky or misbehave.  The only rule is that there are no rules.

This may seem completely over the top and unnecessary, and I would wholeheartedly agree with you.  It's also different.  It's fun for the kids and for me.  I know this wouldn't fit every class, but thinking differently to get some student buy-in would fit.  Before I got to this point with my creation it blew up in my face several times.  Who cares?  I was busy creating while others were content with being boring.  That's just not ever going to be ok with me.

So teachers, try something new.  It just might work.

Monday, May 11, 2015

I'll Take Engagement for $1200

So I remade my Jeopardy template and am loving it.  The kids do too.  We had a game settled by $100 the other day after the final clue.  I thought kids might have to go to the office they were so mad that they lost.

What do you put on that referral form?  Overengaged?

Sometimes the formatting gets messed up because you may have to install a few fonts.  I tried to make it look authentic.  So if you need those, here they are, along with the template:

Fonts and the Template

The categories on the board are written in Swiss 911.  The dollar amounts on the board are also.

The clues are written in Korinna.

If you install the fonts and then open up the PowerPoint, you shouldn't have trouble.  But it looks good when it's finished:

Here's to hoping you have better luck getting your students to answer in a form of a question... and better yet why you have to do so in the first place.

Take care,

Mr. J.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Delicious History

8th graders turned in their trench projects last Friday!  They were fantastic, and I had to share some of them below.  I photographed some of the trenches because they were EDIBLE!  Many students built trenches out of  baked goods (cake, brownies, rice krispee treats).  I'm sure it was fun to build.  Here is a look at a few below:

Others were permanent structures.  Some very high quality work went into the production of some of these projects!  Take a look for yourself!

I shot a quick YouTube video of one of the projects.  Here's a tour:

More to come as I get pictures taken.  A few students are finishing up still.  Overall I am very pleased with the work and effort put in by so many students!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Laying New Foundations

I'm doing some work on the down-low, trying to figure out just exactly how I can nudge my district into the future.

It's going to be tough, because I know that embracing new things is not always something people want to do.  But I have begun to make some progress.  People are beginning to listen.  Having a conversation is the first step.

While I am not applauding myself (because it really didn't take a whole lot of work), my district is once again on Facebook and Twitter.  Not groundbreaking stuff, but it is a start.  Our webpage got a bit of a makeover, which I am patting myself on the back a little bit for.  Nothing huge has been done (yet), but I think it is at least presentable now.  Here's some of my work to this point:

My District's Webpage

Pleasant Valley on Twitter

Pleasant Valley on Facebook

This stuff is little league compared to what I want to do.  We already use (sort of) Google Apps for Education.  By that I mean it is set up in our district.  We use Gmail.  The other major apps (Drive, Docs, Forms, Calendar, and Chrome) are not used across the board.  In addition, very few people use any other apps or online learning platforms to improve instruction.  There's pockets of use in places, but I want to work to streamline, revolutionize, and automate where possible.

I began to put my thoughts down into a prezi.  I did that because you can just throw a bunch of stuff on a screen and drag it around.  Here is my thought process as I am working on how to bring Pleasant Valley into the future:

Scroll around, there's no path set yet!

I think our district needs to take part in some of the new ideas when it comes to teaching, learning, and professional development.  There is so much out there at our fingertips if we'd just go and get it.  There are so many people that we can learn from and who can learn from us.  Synergy is a buzzword, but in this case it is what would happen if we decided to plug into the rest of the world instead of trying to do everything in-house, from scratch.

Since Gmail is to a point ingrained in our staff, I think the next thing to do is to branch out into a few more Google Apps.  I have tabbed Drive, Calendar, and Chrome to come next.  We are still hosting some of our files locally.  Others are stored in massive drive partitions in the cloud or who knows where.  Some of our storage resembles a library that has been hit by a tornado, then a hurricane, and then was left to sit for a couple of millennium.  That's no way to do things.

This is a personal preference, but Internet Explorer drives me nuts.  Chrome works so well with the Apps at our disposal that it seems silly not to make a switch to it in all places.  Most people won't notice the difference, and those that do will hopefully see the benefit.

With ideas like the flipped classroom and gamification, the more collaborative nature of the world and workplace, and the increasing expectations of students, we cannot be left behind to teach children for twenty years from now like it was twenty years ago.  Going Google and allowing the flow of instruction, resources, and communication to be continuous is the way to do it.  My district is not in a position (logistically or in terms of our student population) to go 1:1.  Our mobility would make it a nightmare.  But we could do it in terms of the school day.  We are small enough to eventually arm students with technology all day long.  We could provide the help that some will need by giving extra access before and after school.  We should not allow our students to be "off the grid" for very long.  

It would also be a great way to build partnerships with parents.  Most of the apps and technologies that could be used have a parent component or provide special access for parents.  The lines of communication could be opened in so many ways, and better yet, remain open.  By teaching our students how to use new things, we could ask that they share it with their families.  Over time we may be able to start putting parts of our instruction into overrdrive as school never stops.  We can access the hours between 3 PM and 8 AM the next day.  We can become more of a presence in our students' lives.

I think I have gotten the ball rolling (finally).  Some of what I just said I have been saying for years.  People have heard me, but no one was listening.  Then I got saddled with a Professional Growth Plan (thanks again).  I'm guilty of forgetting the finer points of running my classroom at times when I get excited about this kind of work.  I'm starting to think this is what I should be doing.  I'm hoping the people that make decisions in my district agree and let me loose.  

I want the challenges this will bring with it.  I want to help teachers and students.  I want to teach those that teach how they could do things they didn't think possible.  Technology is not an accessory anymore.  It's a way of life, and our students are people who have never lived a different way.

It's time to make some waves.  Man I am good at that.  People are probably sick of me.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Return of "inSPECt"

All of my classes are taking a look at how to read in a different way.  We have worked in the past on finding themes in our reading, but because of the need to replace the textbook (Falling apart, even the online one!), we are going to set forth on a journey to inspect the text.

inSPECt includes four themes:  Social, Political, Economic, and Cultural.  Each theme is present in our reading most of the time.  As we read, we are identifying the themes that go with the reading.  We then highlight them as we go, and point out why they are each theme.

I adapted this from Social Studies Can Be SPECtacular, by Anthony Fitzpatrick. 

You can see some examples of each theme as well as what the reading looks like when done correctly below:

Monday, January 5, 2015

A Graduation Speech

It is no secret that I want to lead a school someday.  As I have labored through the struggles and frustrations of being a teacher, I have often found myself wanting to impart some wisdom to students that can't be found in a textbook and isn't succinct enough to fit on one of those dated motivational posters that can be found on classroom walls.  You know the type... They point out things like "listen" and "silent" use the same letters, or give some generic quote about attitude or effort.

And I realized that if I ever got to lead a school, particularly a middle school, that one thing I would be called on to do would be to deliver such a statement at graduation.  8th grade graduation is a bigger deal in some places than others, but if nothing else the chance to help guide kids into the next stage of their lives is reason enough for the pomp and circumstance.

So what would I say?  I would say some things that I would have wanted to say all along.  Things that needed to be said, but at a different place and time.  Above all, it would be the truth...

You are about to begin the most important four years of your life.

You can't hide anymore.  It's time to make a place for yourself in the world.  It's time to be someone, anyone, unique and independent.  It's time to make choices, lots of choices.  Not just what classes to take, but life choices.  It is time to decide who you are, and who you aren't.  But not choosing isn't a choice; you can't sit on the sidelines of life anymore.

Here is a secret:  High school is awesome.  Being a young adult is awesome.  And while there are bumps in the road, there isn't an adult here that wouldn't go back if they could.  Sure, they might make some different choices.  There are people that they would like to have never met, and pictures of themselves they might want to burn (Why did I ever wear that?), but the positives far outweigh the negatives.  The bullies, the breakups, the bad hair days, and the drama always wouldn't be enough to stop us.  We would go back because we know something that I am going to tell you right now.

The whole world is in front of you.  

Nothing is out of bounds.  There is no impossible.  No doors are closed.  You get to decide who you will be.  You aren't too old, too tired, or too stuck in your ways.  Life hasn't passed you by.  It's about to say hello.  The only limits you have are the ones you place on yourself.  The only opportunities you will be denied are the ones you fail to take.

And it is more than just shaping your career.  It is shaping everything that is you, and that you will become.  You are creating the person that someday someone will marry, that someday will raise a family, and that someday will be asked to leave the world a little bit better than when you found it.

Kids are so anxious to grow up.  There will be time for that later.  Focus on who you want to be so you are happy when you get there.  You all want so badly to be grown up and on your own.  It's ironic, because when you do, and the real world gets a hold of you, you're change your mind.   Kids want so badly to be adults, but secretly we envy the adventure you are about to begin.  The thrill of choosing the path to take during your lifetime is one of the most exciting rides you will ever be on.

You can't hide anymore.  These are the most important years of your life, and you only get one shot...

No pressure.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A Backseat Blog

Happy Thanksgiving to the assorted family, friends, Twitter associates, and complete strangers that read this...
Rarely do I ride in a car that I am not driving... But it gives one time to think.
I am only a few weeks away from the end date of my professional growth plan.  Crazy, I know.  I spent Wednesday at school in a teacher institute learning about the direction that our district is moving in.
Lots of initiatives were shown in various stages of implementation.  Long story short...  the miracle work is not going to end.  We will continue to do more with less, and the odds will continue to be stacked against us. 
It reminded me of the scene in Return of the Jedi when Han Solo asks Luke Skywalker "How are we doing?"  Luke replies "Same as always."  Han retorts "That bad huh?"
Come to find out that as a prize for being in the bottom 20% of schools in the state (after some really weird math and a list of exceptions), our district will be required to add a student growth component to our teacher evaluation a year early. 
Because if anyone needs less time to adjust to the metaphoric beatdown that is the Common Core, it is high-poverty, high-mobility, high-needs schools.
But that is for another day.   We also talked technology.  And while I got hopeful, I am confident in our ability to misuse this opportunity.  Whether it be rollout, training, support, or maintenance, my hopes will be dashed I am sure.
Meanwhile I look like a genius because I am taking the Google Apps Teacher Certification tests.  It sounds like we are going full Google.  So let me share with you my vision...
Currently teachers have Google Apps at their disposal...
Suggestion 1:  Give kids access. 
There is no reason not to.  It is the point.  Give kids Gmail accounts in our domain with privileges to do what they need to do.  Email can be modified to stay in district only... letting us keep our house in order.
Suggestion 2:  Use Drive for all storage needs. 
Our network is brutal.  Time to save to the cloud.  No more lost research papers. No more saving locally on accident.  No more disappearing thumbdrives. 
Suggestion 3:  Train teachers.  Then support them. 
This has to become institutionalized and sustainable.  There is such potential, but teachers are creatures of habit.  New ideas mean more work.  We have to show where more work now turns into less later.
Suggestion 4:  Update infrastructure
We are doing this.  Wireless overhaul along with a jump up in computers.  Looks like we are headed down the Chromebook path.  Which if true means...
Suggestion 5:  Give every staff member a Chromebook.
Not every teacher, but every adult in the building should be given a device.  It goes back to institutionalization.  Demand the use school wide through equal access and support.  If all adults use it, we can all help kids use it.  How do we get the adults to?
Suggestion 6:  Automate everything. 
This is where Google Calendar would be awesome.  Scheduling between teachers, administrators, support staff, etc. would be simple.  Imagine getting kids to do this.  Imagine posting assignments this way. 
Not to mention this is a handy way to organize the use of resources like computer labs.  Imagine knowing any time if the lab is available.  That impulsive midnight lesson you come up with that is a stroke of genius has a better chance of coming to fruition.
Suggestion 7:  Rethink PD
This type of change requires lots of PD.  But that time is most likely already allocated.  So why not ask for what needs to be done to be done through Google Apps.  Supercharge your PD by killing two birds with one stone.
Suggestion 8:  Give incentives.
Reward staff for their use of new things.  Recognize it.  This is where blogging and social media come in. Set up PD through the tools.  Collaborate from home.  Use Twitter chats.  Publicize the work.  Sponsor contests, have drawings or giveaways for participation.  Compel with kindness... and perks.
Suggestion 9:  Have a plan and commit.
Beyond what I outlined, someone has to steer this ship.  They have to be knowledgeable and accessible.  This is systemic.  It is not a one-time thing.  Commit to the use of integrated technology, not its token use.  Until teachers are secure in its use, the technology provided will not be utilized.
Suggestion 10:  Change the paradigm.
Someone will inevitably say that this type of technology integration isn't for them.
You are absolutely right.  It is for our students.
They will take over a world demanding cutting edge skills.  We have to show them as many tools as we can today so they can make the tools of tomorrow.
Like I said.  That is my vision.  Only part of it, but I am not getting my hopes up yet.
It doesn't exist in our district but I am going to be our director of technology one way or another.  I can't let us screw this up.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The New and Improved XP System

Well Education Universe, it's been awhile.

Been busy on blog #2, but I thought I'd share a little something I'm working on.  Well two things.  I improved my "XP System" for my classroom:

Second, I used Bitstrips to create a cool infographic/comic for my classroom rules.  Here it is:

Take Care,

Mr. J.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What Am I Doing?!

Education Universe-

I have to figure this out.

The common core is here.  As a social studies teacher, I'm still sorting out what that means.  I think it has something to do with reading... Yes that was joke.

Here's the dilemma:  I'm a social studies teacher.  I don't excel at training a student how to read.  I know that they need to read and read often.  I know that primary sources and informational texts can be complex and challenging.  I know that insights should be taken from what we read.  But I do this instinctively.  I struggle to teach how to do it.  It is difficult to teach someone how to make up their mind for themselves and reference the text as evidence.

This problem compounds itself if students have no knowledge of the content that they are reading about.  A reading passage about the Revolution certainly makes more sense with some context.  If you don't know who Thomas Paine was, the last thing that his words will ever be is Common Sense.

So who am I?  Social studies teacher?  Reading teacher?  Both?  Neither?  It depends on who you ask.  I know what my degree says.  I know what my job placement says.  I know what the standards say.  I know what those in positions to make these decisions for me say.  Needless to say, I need to figure it out.

So let's start with what we know:

Currently, the common core standards for history and social studies are solely focused on reading and are as follows:

Reading in History/Social Sciences Common Core Standards (6-8)

These focus on evidence, citing text, comparing texts, identifying processes and opinions, and main ideas.  Nothing really new there.  There's that last standard that is just sort of like a pinky toe... it's there and that's really all.

And there are some exmplar texts that the standards include to give you an idea of what to use.

Exmplar Texts for Common Core Standards (6-8)

But that clearly isn't enough to teach a course on.  So the question remains, what texts come next?  What primary sources get used?  Illinois has laid out what is to be taught in social studies, so I assume the next step is to go the the Illinois learning standards for social studies.

Illinois Social Studies Standards

5 Goals:  Political systems, economics, history, geography, and social systems.  The texts that I choose should revolve around one of those goals, specifically the standards aligned to middle school.  My textbook, The American Journey, is already aligned to these standards.  It also provides texts and primary sources outside of the main narrative.  Maybe a few things will come from it.

But back to context.  Picking up a letter from John Adams and dissecting it is worthless without a story behind it.  History is our story.  It needs to be discussed.  Yes it is facts and people and places.  But without those bricks of knowledge, how can you ever construct anything out of it?

And it can't be done in a vacuum.  Perhaps older students may do better with this, but in middle school I find it a mistake to jump between historical eras, or even within themes in the same era.  Thematic classes are taught in history to those who have already been exposed to a survey course.  I didn't take American Problems in high school until after I took Civics and U.S. History.  There is a scope and sequence.  There is a canon so to speak.  And it is important.  It's our canon.  Take a look at this to get what I am trying to say.

I cannot believe the intention of these new standards was to find the main idea of the "I Have a Dream" Speech, but not have any concept of when or where Dr. King delivered it.  Tracing the argument, tracing the idea, tracing the thinking should not stop with the text.  It becomes a thread that we can watch become intertwined in our culture.  Sometimes it frays, sometimes it untangles, sometimes it disappears.  Then we can ask why.

So our role as social studies teachers is to help build literacy while working in our content areas.  As I have scoured the web for materials and ideas on just exactly what this looks like.  One thing stands out.  The background knowledge, the content, that we provide in social studies as well as in science are necessary to help students recall information and make more sense of what we read.  Whether it be fiction or an informational text, students who are able to generate comprehension because of context are going to read better.  I like this clip from New York because I see the standards being defended but also in a way that shows that social studies teachers and for that matter science teachers will be more than just presenting text opportunities to students.  This article also stresses the need for all teachers to get involved in literacy, but to leave the decision as to how it looks to those who practice in each discipline.

Inquiry is what these standards want from us.  Critical thinking is the goal.  Asking oneself "What do I think about this?" and "How do I know?"  The intention was not to forget about the journey for the sake of the answer, especially if we're not even sure why we are asking the question.

I like what History Blueprint is doing.  They are doing a far greater job thinking about this than I ever could.  Check out their Civil War unit.  This looks more like the types of things most social studies want to do.

History Blueprint:  The Civil War

And I LOVE the analysis tool the Library of Congress has made for primary sources.  Check this out and then share it with anyone who doesn't use it.

Library of Congress:  Primary Source Analysis Tool

We too need to practice our understanding of citizenship and democracy.  Bring in iCivics to do that.  We can read while we learn about all of these things.  We can learn about our rights and how to protect them.  But we need to do a little of this too to make sure we get it (and have some fun).


Additionally, even the wikipedia entry for the common core notes that foundational U.S. documents are required as part of the curriculum.  That again begs the question of which ones are foundational.  Fortunately the government has helped us out here with it's 100 Milestone Documents.

Even the State of Illinois notes that the shift is to focusing on complex texts and teaching students to be like detectives.  I can spin that with a middle schooler.  I like the idea.  We could even become full-fledged social scientists by performing a history lab.  Students can even engage in writing and discussion using online blogs and secure social media like Edmodo.  It ties together nicely.

Maybe I'm speaking out of turn, but as a social studies teacher, I don't fear these things.  I think this could be truly awesome.  But talk of comprehension, testing, phonics, and fluency are not what these standards demand of me.  Massacring a social studies curriculum to add reading minutes to the day isn't either.

I just solved the world's problems.  Here's what I need on my to do list to make this work:

1.  Technological upkeep, support, and access
2.  Resources for my classroom library
3.  Student participation and follow-through
4.  Parental support
5.  A green light to try new things

I can do this.  Stay classy Universe.

-Mr. J.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Couple of Sweet Tools I Came Across

Education Universe-

If you teach social studies, and you are uneasy about the changes the Common Core is bringing, you're not alone.  Here's a few more things that might help.  I know I am a bit worried about how our subject will fare in this latest push to infuse every moment of school with literacy.  As a teacher and historian, I know reading is so very important.  But I want to do things with the reading.  Finally I have found some things that can do just that.

The Library of Congress has created a phenomenal primary source analysis tool.  It is easy to use, and walks students through the process of inquiry into a multitude of different types of sources.  It is a great digital organizer for students to enter information and then print it out when finished.  Better yet, for those of us who prefer crisp electronic copies to crinkled up middle school paper assignments, a .pdf version of the document can be generated when finished.  Handy guides for each type of primary source are also available.

You can find this resource on the Library of Congress's website.

Combine this with the National Archive's DocsTeach website, and you really have something cool.  DocsTeach can allow you to create several different graphic organizers and activities to use to analyze sources.  There is a sharing of ideas on the website, and teachers can either share or create content.  Additionally, classes can be set up so that students are able to be tracked and assigned specific tasks through the site.

You can begin your work with DocsTeach by going to their website.  I'm extremely interested in what this can do.

I plan to combine these two tools along with an interface like Edmodo and Classbadges to continue to create a unique blended learning environment.  Someone should probably tell my students they're in for a culture shock.  On second thought, why spoil the surprise.

Yay federal government.  Good job on this one.

-Mr. J.

Monday, February 17, 2014

inSPECt Update

Hello Education Universe-

I have been plugging away with my 7th graders using the inSPECt process I have blogged about previously.  I have tweaked my form and do it now electronically.  Perhaps this will be the future of the process.  This is what it looks like now:

Here's links to the form itself, scoring rubric, and explanation:

Now just getting them to do it is the key.  If ever there was a silver bullet, that would be the time.  Here is the link to the previous post to compare:
Investigating a Text and Looking Smart Doing It

Take Care,

Mr. J.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Now I Am the Master

Education Universe-

I did it.  I am a master of science in educational administration.  Fear me.

Not really... to the fear part that is.  7th grade girls aren't even scared of me.

I haven't blogged in awhile.  Been busy.  Trying to keep up with my 3 month old as well as staying motivated in the toughest leg of the school year has been a job in itself.  But I thought I would post a few thoughts about recent events in my journey to make kids learn.  It has been an uphill battle.

The flipped classroom approach as I mentioned before is very intriguing to me.  However it has to be something that can be sustained throughout the year by a teacher, students, and the hardware. I'm not sure which of those three has the most work to do at the moment.  So that idea is still on hold.

Gamification however looks promising. Building in the XP system has motivated some students.  Adding in the accompanying title belt system seems to have worked well too.  That has some success behind it now and I want to improve it going forward.

So as the Common Core begins to shape our instruction, my district is using the backwards design model to try to improve instruction.  I'm hoping that gamification can continue as my units may turn into "levels."  Each summative assessment can become a "boss battle", or something like that.  I think that even looking at the formation of guilds and including ideas such as crafting and avatar creation are possible.  Time to start thinking again.

Sometimes I'm guilty of putting fun or cool in front of instruction.  I need some balance, but I still want to be different.  That's important to me.

Well that's it.  Just checking in to say I'm still alive... if anyone else reads this that is.

Mr. J.

Saturday, January 4, 2014


Hello Education Universe...

So I just logged into our grading software to clean up a few things, and I ran a missing work report on my homeroom.  They have 5 classes:  English, Math, Reading, Science, and Social Studies (saved the best for last).

Presently there are 23 students in my homeroom.  As a class, 911 assignments have been missed.  That is just under an average of 40 assignments per kid.  Dividing that again by 9 weeks in a grading period, that averages out to about 4.4 missing assignments, per student, per week.  Five days in a school week means that on the average, every student misses one assignment each day.

How ironic that it was 911.  This is an EMERGENCY.  I've read the studies on not giving homework.  I've read the studies on not giving a student a zero.  I get it.  We want to assess what students have learned.  However students have always been expected to do something.  I'd love to get everything that needs to be done completed within the confines of the school day.  My students also can go to a homework help program three days a week.  There is no way that this can be ok.

Whether it be federal mandates, the Common Core, the upcoming changes to standardized assessments, or the changing demands and expectations of the employable young professional, the expectations are going up.  More is being asked of education, of schools, of teachers.  We want to expect more of our students, but the urgency to do so is not the same.  Why?

I understand that giving homework for the sake of giving homework is pointless.  It is not an institution of school.  It is a tool.  Students need to pursue their learning on their own as well as with guidance in school.  They should bring something to the table each day:  their effort.

And I get it.  Being a kid is hard.  It really is.  Our students today deal with pressures from peers, media, parents, teachers, and the various social networks and online interactions they make.  They deal with a lot of stuff.  I'm 27, and even I am overwhelmed when I hear of some of the stress that they carry around with them.  Did I really grow up in the "good old days" already?  Am I already part of the "it was different back then" past that students feel their teachers existed in?  That's scary.

911.  This is an emergency.  I know it seems like nothing to them.  It's just some goofy worksheet, some boring reading assignment.  I know that's how they feel.  I try to limit what I send home to do.  I want there to be some significance to homework.  That doesn't seem to always work.  But the bigger picture is frightening:  a lack of dedication, of effort, of accomplishment.  Where can that outlook on life take you?

That's the battle we cannot lose.  Someday our students are going to have to replace us in the workforce and in society.  They may not need every fact we try to cram into their head, but knowing how to learn, how to work, and how to succeed will be needed.  From the fry cook to the Fortune 500 entrepreneur, you have to have tried.

Trying after all, is how we learn.  We try again.  Our failures make us wiser, our successes make us stronger.

Here's to trying... Take Care.

Mr. J.

Friday, December 27, 2013

2013: A Year in Review and Reflection, and a Choice

What a year Education Universe-

A lot has changed.  A lot has happened.

2013 started off wonderful with the news that I would be a father.  As winter moved into spring, I continued my graduate studies toward my administrative degree.  Things were going pretty well, until the world came crashing down on me.

In late March, I woke up one morning with two tingling feet.  I thought I slept on my legs wrong, and didn't think much of it.  As the days moved on and the feelings got worse, I found myself at the doctor, and then the E.R.  I found myself at the doctor again wondering why my legs felt the way that they did, and eventually began diagnostic testing after meeting with a neurologist.

My mother has MS, and so of course I was worried that I might be showing signs.  I waited a week in the most panic-stricken state I have ever been in, hoping that the MRI's would come back clean and these feelings would go away.  But on April 1st, (of all days...) I was told I was indeed showing signs of MS in my brain.

The panic got worse.  It didn't help that on Easter Sunday, the day before, my grandmother had passed away.  I was sent into a spiral.  Fortunately, we were on Spring Break, and I had a week to try to collect myself and get back on my feet, as tingly and numb as they were.

But it didn't go so well.  I found returning to work a challenge.  Physically I was still adapting and recovering and mentally I was fragile.  I informed my colleagues of what had happened who in turn made sure my students knew what was going on.  I wasn't at my best as a teacher and I knew it.  Getting up and getting to work was hard, and my performance was being examined under a microscope because of my absences and eventual hospitalization to receive treatment.  Stress got to me.  Nerves got to me.  I broke down.  When I finally was able to come back, it was my colleagues and my students who saved me.  Of course my wife, Caitlyn, halfway through her pregnancy, brought me back to life.  I'll never be able to repay her and how strong she was to carry me through the end of last school year.

It was during all of this that I spent a lot of time at home and online.  I couldn't do a lot else, and I sort of laid low.  I began to learn more and more about the Personal Learning Network after taking an educational technology class as part of my master's program.  I began to make connections and meet people.  I'm not going to lie, I got addicted to Twitter for about a month.  It drove my wife nuts.  I don't know if it was a coping thing or not, but it got my mind off of things.  It helped.  And I thought I was getting to be a better teacher and professional because of it.  I was learning things that I wanted to know more about.

I learned about gamification, flipping the classroom, augmented reality, engagement, mystery Skypes, Twitter chats, the Google Teacher Academy, ISTE, Edcamps, and of course the importance of blogging.

I met some cool, inspiring, passionate educators.  They gave me faith that teaching is indeed what I always imagined it to be.  Whether it be the Two Guys and some I-Pads wizards Brad Waid and Drew Minock, Sean Junkins who inspired me to blog, Victoria Olson who is like a celebrity in Canada these days, Dave Burgess whose book validated my own teaching philosophy, or Toby Price, who might like Star Wars even more than I do.

My reality as a teacher does not resemble the picture I had in my head when I started down this career path.  I have a very unique group of kids with vastly different skills and expertise.  I have very little in terms of professional development or collaboration.  Being in a school that is being affected by No Child Left Behind, and in a state with reformed teacher evaluation legislation, my hands are sometimes tied and my vision is sometimes not something that can be achieved in a timely fashion.  And by no means will it be easy.

But moving into this school year (after a relaxing, much-needed summer) I was inspired.  I charged myself with doing better.  I charged myself with trying new things.  I charged myself with continuing to know my kids as the people they are, not the face they put on at school.

I truly believe there is a place between the dramatic, sarcastic, self-centered, short-sighted world of the middle-schooler and the idealistic, rigid, conformist, sterile, and scripted persona far too many teachers employ where student and teacher need to meet.  I don't want to show all of my cards to my kids and by no means do I want them to either.  I don't think 100% true middle school personality or 100% true teacher personality can work together.  There has to be a bit of a line that can't be crossed.  There has to be roles, and norms, and expectations.

Which brings me to this school year.  Things were moving along ok as I blogged about flipping my classroom.  That didn't go so well, but it was a learning experience.  But with all of the energy I poured into new initiatives, scrounging up every bit of loose tech I could find, and implementing an XP system similar to popular video games using assessments in class and the points earned, I shifted my focus away from certain things like behavior and procedures.  It's not that I don't see a place for them, but I know that my room has ran as a sort of "controlled chaos" for the better part of 5 years.  Students have been louder than in other classes.  They have a bit more of a tendency to shout out or blurt out in a discussion.  I knew in my head that there was a limit to how much off-task behavior I would condone.  It wasn't concrete, I just knew it when I saw it.

(In the middle of all of this, my son, Jace, was born in late October.  I love him.  I've known him two months now, and it's amazing how little there is that I wouldn't do for him without hesitation.  He is my new inspiration when times get tough.  I live for him now first, and me second)

But back to the present.  With the new evaluation system in place in the State of Illinois, the bar has been raised on teacher evaluation.  I found that practices in my classroom were no longer acceptable, even though the same evaluation tool had not indicated so over the past four years.  The bar just got raised.  Just as I thought a dark 6 months were behind me, the anxiety and fear I felt when I thought every step I took as a teacher was being examined was coming back.

I'm not blaming anyone.  I know I can and should improve.  I know that the sky is the limit as a teacher.  I know I can learn every day.  I also know that I was ok at what I did in the past.  It's really a head-scratching moment when what was ok yesterday is not ok anymore.  It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.  It makes you feel attacked, it feels personal.  I don't know that that is what Danielson had in mind with her four domains, but it seems to be what is happening in my experience.

And teachers have felt this way before.  They have been at a fork in the road between conscience and conformity.  They have stood there, looking at the safe road that keeps them out of harm's way and their kids pacified.  Then there is the other way, which may lead to a breakthrough or a breakdown.  It sounds like a twisted Robert Frost poem, but it's the truth.  I worry about both paths.

I have always been different.  I value that about myself.  I like to think for myself.  I like to do things my way.  Sometimes they don't work out, but I adapt.  I change.  I learn.  But I have always been rubbed the wrong way when I'm told that my way is wrong.  Sometimes it's flat out true.  Other times it's no better or worse, just different.  But I get into trouble because I stick up for myself, and go down with my ship.  By the way, it's a pirate ship... thanks Dave Burgess :)

So as 2014 prepares to grace us with its presence, I have a choice.  Swallow my pride, or go down with the ship.  This really isn't the hill I want to die on, but I have a hard time choosing my battles.  Like Captain Kirk, I don't believe in a no-win situation.  I'm still looking for a third option.  And that is what I am spending this week searching for.  Inspiration, motivation, and redemption.

Oh and I finished my master's program with a 4.0.  I passed my principal's test.  But I'm terrified that I am going to be a needs improvement teacher.  I'm thinking about changing my blog title to something like that.

I haven't given up all year, and I'm not about to start now.  That is my resolution.  Oh and losing twenty pounds is too.

I feel better.  Few more days of being a bum at home and then productivity starts up on Monday.  1 week to turn my year around.  1 week to improve.  1 week to get back in the game.

Happy New Year-

Mr. J.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Ending My Journey by Proposing We Start Another...

Hello Education Universe-

Well I did it... I think.  I'm done with my grad work.  Time to put some things to use.  I'm going to work on sharing some of the PLN experience with my co-workers.  I'm excited because there are things that we can improve by scouring the earth for great ideas.  We can also begin to get feedback from people outside our small little school.  I created the following prezi as a very brief intro to the PLN journey:

It is truly amazing what you can find.  Ideas, inspiration, motivation, and like-minded individuals that can actually validate that your ideas aren't crazy.  It's powerful.  But if you are new to social media or are operating from the more traditional (which isn't bad) paradigm, the thought of endless information, constant connectivity, and the dissolution of the end of the work day can be challenging, if not downright frightening.

But this ability to develop ourselves begs the question if professional development and training in the old workshop "sit and get" form is really something that should exist anymore.  For some things perhaps.  But I can't help but think that a school that pursues its own development at the individual level would not grow so much more because each discovery would be genuine, non-coerced, and meaningful.  And the message that we are sending our students, that learning is lifelong, could not be better.

And what if, just if, we spread this message to our students.  It would be a revolution.  There are so many pioneers that have blazed this trail that the pitfalls and dangers are beginning to subside.  This isn't a frontier anymore.  It isn't uncharted waters.  It's the way the world is doing its business.  It's the way business does business.  It should be part of the way education does its business too.

So I digress.  I will put my soapbox away.  But now that I have nearly finished my graduate work, I feel I better do something good since I spent all that time and money to get to where I am.  And a midst a challenging school year, I want to take a step forward.  I  want to make my school better.

And now it's time to hit the hay before Jace wakes me up.  I don't want to cross him, seeing as he is going to be the commander-in-chief someday...

Take care,

Mr. J.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Investigating a Text and Sounding Smart Doing It

It's been a while Education Universe,

Being a new daddy has cut into my blogging, but I did develop something from work I did last year and some reading that I have done that I think could be useful.  Over the last year or so, I have read and reread Social Studies can be SPECtacular, by Anthony Fitzpatrick.  The book focuses on identifying four simple themes from a text:

S for "Social"
P for "Political"
E for "Economic"
C for "Cultural"

Here in Illinois, our current social studies standards are organized in the following way:

14- Political Systems
15- Economics
16- History
17- Geography
18- Social Systems

You can see easily how the two align.  4 of my 5 standards are the themes that Fitzpatrick outlines.  The 5th, geography, I address separately in the 7th grade and throughout units that I teach as opportunity presents.

The reason I love this idea is because students by default will get more out of what they read if they are actively reading and searching for these themes.  The only thing that is needed is a tool or graphic organizer for students to work with as they read.  That's how the inSPECt process was born.  We are investigating, or inspecting, the text for these themes.  So essentially, we are looking for social, political, economic, and cultural themes (SPEC) in the text (hence the "in"and the "t" on the ends).

Fortunately I was able to come up with something that I rather like.  I started with color coding the text, looking for social, political, economic, and cultural themes in blue, red, green, and yellow, respectively:

From there, I took the themes from the text that I identified and put them into a very simple graphic organizer that was color-coded by theme too.  This way the evidence of what was read was gathered easily and could be analyzed and discussed quickly.

From there, I created a summary form that outlines the source and the evidence of themes collected.  The information is put into a pie chart to show the dominance of one theme or the harmony and balance found among several themes.  Regardless, it leads to a more sophisticated conversation about the text.  The last thing to do then is to discuss the findings in a brief summary, pointing out the themes as they appeared in the text.  Tying this type of activity to the common core standards, it is require students to cite evidence from the text as well as identify themes.  If we were to inspect more than one text on the same subject, could quickly point out discrepancies or the ways in which the author chooses what to focus on or highlight.

Lastly, the design of this template was thought of with the idea of making it electronic in the future.  A google docs live form can arrange information in the same way that this form does, producing the charts automatically.  There can be no doubt that this is much more in-depth of a reading activity than a simple worksheet to complete by scanning the text.

What is most appealing though is the discussion.  It can be rich.  It can be insightful and creative.  But most importantly, it gives students a chance to play historian by making their own conclusions.  There can be more than one right answer provided that the support from the text and evidence gathered is also there.  

I was observed doing this today in class, and I felt it went well.  The discussion was much better across the board.  I'm thinking about using this approach more, phasing out some of my lectures, and perhaps slowly taking a second look at flipping some of my content to allow for more text analysis.

I could really use some thoughts and feedback.  I work in a small school, and I'm the only person who teaches 7/8 social studies in the building.  That isolation sometimes works against the creative process and growing as a professional.  But that's why the Education Universe is here.

And as always Education Universe, you take care.

Mr. J.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned

Hello Education Universe-

The title of this post of course, is another one of the enigmatic quotes from Yoda.  This one however is something I'm trying to accomplish with students who have made up their minds on certain aspects of life long before I began my work with them.

I am not omnipotent.  I don't think I'm better than people.  But I do get upset that my students come to school with some misconceptions about the world.  Given, my culture is different than that of many of my students.  The town I grew up in does not resemble the one in which I teach.  The schools I learned in do not resemble the school that I work in.  But people are still people, and this country exists under the premise that we are all the same.

I know that there cannot be some list of beliefs, some canon of culture, some philosophy of principles that should be conveyed to students by teachers.  Again, this country is built on believing what we want to believe.  We have a right to our opinion.  We have a right to voice that opinion.  But that doesn't always mean that society at large will uphold it as valid.

I broke up a fight recently at a school dance.  I've done it several times in my five years as a teacher.  I have preached to my students that violence is not the answer.  But in middle school, I face an uphill battle in convincing students that raising a hand is synonymous with failing to see other options.  Violence isn't the answer to solving a problem with another human being.  If they make that choice, retribution is no more noble a motive than the aggression that caused it.

But yet I am told over and over how striking someone is the only option to someone who strikes you.  That is false.  My students have a compulsion to save face in the school and the community, and are unable to back down.  I have spent time explaining to students that long before the violence erupts, there are ways to avoid it.  Talking to friends, trying to open a dialogue between parties, speaking to adults, and alerting family members are solid strategies.

This does not mean I don't believe in self-defense.  Self-defense is necessary to remove oneself from harm's way.  We all have a right to live, and I have explained to students that protecting ourselves from imminent danger is most certainly permissible.

However you cannot look to defend yourself.  Self-defense is reactionary.  It is not premeditated as some of my students fail to see.  You cannot actively look to defend yourself.  You cannot instigate a fight, let the other side swing first, and then retaliate in self-defense.

Ultimately, this line of thinking ends with students turned adults in squad cars.  That worries me.  I want students to realize that they must find ways to deal with their aggression and frustration civilly.  That does mean walking away sometimes.  It does mean knowing when to stop.  It does mean knowing when to let someone else show their ignorance because you know how to show restraint.

Maybe my Jedi blood just runs too think.  "Knowledge and defense, never attack."  That's what the Force was to be used for.  I think the Force in our world may be common sense.  We need to act thoughtfully, considerate of ourselves, and of those around us.

"Mind you what you have learned, save you it can."  And if we unlearn what we have already learned, it allows us to learn something more useful.  Then we can use it to save ourselves.

Thanks Yoda.

-Mr. J.