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.