Sunday, December 30, 2012

Authentic Learning: It Can Be Done

The final slide for all of my workshops has the same ending: "What CAN you do?"

I put this because "we can't do this in public school" or "my kids could never do this" is too cliche to put onto a slide.  

Joking aside, I do hear those negative thoughts often and I want to spark a change in ideology.  I ask educators in my workshop to take the "we can't do this" and throw it out.  If we only spoke of things we couldn't do, there will never be change.  

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been passed in 45 of the 50 states and for those of you not in education, these are a set of learning standards that states have created so that no matter what state you are in, students will be on the same page.  So if a 4th grader moves from Massachusetts to Oregon in the middle of the year, there will not be different standards the student will be held to.  In my teacher opinion, I like it.  It levels out a playing field on paper.  At the end of the day though, teachers are still behind the helm, and the standards do not define how teachers should teach.  Which is both an exciting and frightening thing all at the same time.

Those teachers who say they can't are going to have a different looking classroom than the teacher who says they can, even if they are both teaching about prepositions or mixed fractions.  One of the major pushes from CCSS is to create authentic learning; take the standards and build deeper meaning.  One of the new sayings is that instead of taking learning a mile wide and a foot deep, now we are going a foot wide and a mile deep.  This means we no longer are just looking for surface level learning for students, but rather deeper learning through higher order questioning, connections throughout content, and authentic experiences.  This does not mean just make it harder, it means make it more meaningful and provide the support to get there.  Ultimately, we are making our students college and career ready (CCR as the cool kids call it).

Recently, Dr. Jones (@drvcjones on Twitter) and I had the opportunity to offer our Ron Clark Academy 7th graders a great authentic learning experience with our second annual Math Mall Marathon.  We take our students to Lenox Mall in Atlanta and students travel throughout the mall to complete math challenges based on different stores, items, and parts of the mall.  To prepare for this, we go to individual stores and get permission, and we find which stores are more accommodating then others.  Big thanks to Dr. J. for doing so much prep work this year without me in Atlanta!  From there, we create challenging questions that involve critical and cooperative thinking.  For example, students have to travel to the currency exchange kiosk and based on current exchange rates, figure out the following:

Go to Travel Ex.  Pretend you have $1000.  You want to buy something for 395 pounds.  How much money in US dollars would you need?

Now take that dollar amount and convert it into Yen.

Or this problem:

(   UNSCRAMBLE and then go to the following store:

H  S  A  P  C  M

Find the jersey numbers for the following players: Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Al Harford and Carmelo Anthony.  Solve the equation based on their jersey numbers:

(Rose x Anthony)³ – Bryant ÷ Durant - Horford²

These are just a sample of the 20+ problems students could solve in the two hours they had.  It was exciting, fast paced, and the students were learning!  Each team had two to three students and a parent chaperone (though they were not allowed to help) and in the end, Dr. J. and I were impressed with how well the students did.

I want to bring up that Dr. Jones has been doing this activity for many many years, so she has done this with hundreds of students in numerous schools.  Any school, anywhere around the country can do this with the right preparation and dedication.  

Here are some pictures from the event:

Groups had to solve three challenge problems before they could set off around the mall.
 Dr. Jones discussing a problem with Derius and Mariah
 California Pizza Kitchen has food and math!
 Kalani, Natalie, and Terrell doing some algebra in Champs
 What's the best deal you can get taking a picture with Santa? 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Reflection on Newton, CT

I was in Atlanta on Friday, December 14th when the tragedy in Newtown, CT happened.  That morning I was at Lenox Mall with the 7th grade doing a math project (more about that on the next blog post), but when I got back after lunch I looked at the television in the lobby and saw what is now becoming an all too common site - another school shooting. 

As I pulled up my laptop and saw the details of what was unfolding, this shooting just felt different.  I clearly remember Colombine and Virginia Tech and how they made people rethink school safety and the extreme violence that exists in our country.  What was happening in Sandy Springs Elementary School seemed to hit me much harder.

After thinking about it over the weekend and being saturated with 24 hour news coverage of Connecticut, I realized that it is me that has changed.  I am now a dad.  My 14 month year old son, Ryder, is all I thought about as I watched the families mourn on television.  Then it all just hit me at once.  I thought about what if it was Ryder in that classroom?

I gave Ryder an extra long hug when I got back home on Saturday and I make sure to give him an extra long hug when I drop him off at day care this week.

As a teacher, I am constantly thinking, "What would I do if it was me?"  I hope that I will never know the answer, but I am inclined to think that I would do what most any teacher would do, protect my students.  Just like the heroic story that has come out about Vicki Soto, the first grade teacher who protected her students, teachers are wired to think quickly and of the kids first.  When they are in trouble, we want to help.  We spend so much time with our students each day, each year, they truly are a part of our lives.

It is hard putting all of what happened into words, as a teacher, as a dad now I struggle with what it will take to address these issues.  With the fast paced world we currently live in, and news stories sweeping through our televisions and computers at rapid speeds, it's so easy to become entrenched to the next hot story.  Let's hope that this does not happen here and progress can be made to make sure this does not happen again.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Majority Rules

Now that I am wrapping up my first semester traveling to schools, observing classrooms, working with teachers, and conducting workshops, I am beginning to reflect on a question that I get asked quite frequently these days: "What do you see as you are at these schools?"

Usually these questions come when I am speaking to principals, I think sometimes to compare their school to others, but more generally, just out of curiosity.  The answer is a complex one, but I think I can fairly say that there is one generalization that will explain many of the observations I see and situations I find.  That being, majority rules.

From city to suburbs, country to the projects, this seems to define the situation in many schools.  Let me explain.

There are good teachers in every school I have been in, hands down.  Good teaching comes in all shapes and sizes, from first year teachers to twenty year veterans, Kindergarten to 12th grade.  The difference between the successful school and the struggling school is how many good teachers exist in the school.  When the majority of the teachers are strong, and have high expectations for these students (more about this later), then the school is typically more successful.

On the flip side, when the majority of the teachers are weak, so is the school.  The same goes for climate and culture of the school.  When you have a majority of the teachers with positive energy and a collective focus and mission, it looks and feels much different than the school with the majority of teachers with negative energy and a cloudy mission.

This may be oversimplifying a complex issue, but it seems to be a theory that holds true as I go from school to school. 

Notice, I have not said anything about students. 

The reason being it makes no difference what type of students walk through your doors.  Any school can be successful when there is a collective group of good teachers and common mission.  The kids can come from the Hollywood Hills or the toughest streets, any school can be successful, and I have seen it. 

This success usually comes in the form of the expectations practiced.  Notice, I did not say expectations set, but the expectations practiced.  I have learned that they are two different things.  I have seen posters on the wall, messages on the morning announcements, stories from teachers about how strict they are, but I do not pay one bit of attention to these.  I want to see it.  Show me how you practice these high expectations.  Schools that practice them instead of simply stating them have been by far and away the most impressive and successful. 

Schools that on paper should be failing (typically because of perceptions of student population), are flourishing because of their staff and the expectations practiced.  Transversely, schools that should be blowing it out the ceiling are underachieving for the same reason.  I've been in both.

On a side bar, I am beginning to rethink how I address the issue of high expectations when I am in schools.  Instead of talking to educators about setting high expectations, I feel I should have the discussion based on practiced high expectations.  I think I will achieve more in the long run.

So how does this majority rules happen?  To be honest, I'm not exactly sure, but it appears that it starts at the top.  I have seen that when there is a strong principal, who sets and practices the high expectations for his or her staff, it seems to trickle down.  Also, when principals are given the ability to get rid of negative energy or poor teachers, good administrators will bring in stronger teachers.

I have also seen the majority shift because of several strong teacher leaders.  I have been introduced to several teacher leaders as I travel who have been given the credit for turning the school around because they have taken the initiative to do so, despite administration.

At the end of the day, this is not something that is easily fixed.  It sometimes takes years to shift the majority.  Think about habitually horrible sports teams.  Sometimes it takes years to get a good team.  But sometimes you bring in that new coach, or clean out the roster and rebuild, and you see the majority shift to a winning attitude and skill set that practices what they preach.  The same goes for schools.  We need to find winning teams, teachers who not only know how to achieve, but can prove it too.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Real World: Turkey

Merhaba!  Greetings from Turkey!  For the past five days I have had the pleasure to spend time with nine wonderful Ron Clark Academy students and my partner in crime and co-advisor, Gina Coss, as we watch our students participate in the Hisar Junior Model United Nations Conference in Istanbul, Turkey.

We were fortunate to tour this beautiful and historical city, seeing some of the great landmarks like Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Cisterna, Galata Tower, Grand Bazaar.  We even took a morning trip to the Asian side of Istanbul!  The buildings we were in, ranging from 500-2000 years old, are marvels of history and construction.  Simply amazing, and something that we were blessed to be able to see.  Shout out to our friend Joe Day for taking us around and giving us a great experience.

The primary focus of the trip, however, was the Model United Nations Conference.  And a great conference it was.  The Hisar Junior Model United Nations Conference is in its 7th year and is completely organized and run by high school students.  These were some of the most mature, well spoken, and organized high school students I have ever met.  They were truly top class.

Specifically, the organization and detail that went into this conference was spectacular.  With 700 middle school students, things can go bad real quick.  The Secretary-General had a staff of more than 70, well wired with walkie talkies and ear pieces and ready to fix any problem that arose.

The best part of these conferences, in my opinion, is the people you meet.  We were the only American school there, which I thought was pretty special.  The kids were able to meet new friends from not only Turkey, but Egypt, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and their closest friends, Greece (who stayed in the same hotel as us).

For me, it was just as special because I was able to meet teachers from not only those countries listed above, but teachers who have taught in and come from countries far beyond those present.  I spoke to a teacher who was born in India, raised in Malaysia, lived in the UK, and now teaches in Turkey.  She speaks 7 languages and holds 4 degrees.  I spoke to a gentleman who was born in Minnesota, and in 10 of the last 14 years has taught in Brazil, Mexico, and now Egypt.  The stories that they tell and the experiences they have had were fascinating to hear.  It made me want to travel even more!

Finally, I must bring this all together by speaking about what Model UN can do for a student.  There are the obvious like meeting new friends from around the world and discussing relevant global issues.  But there are the underlying benefits like installing authentic learning, higher order thinking, public speaking, understanding how the United Nations operates, writing resolutions, thinking about the future, and so many more.  With the US moving towards the Common Core Standards, there is a great call for authentic learning and deeper thinking, which this overwhelmingly provides.

We joke around with other advisors at conferences that doing MUN is fairly addicting.  Going to your first conference just makes you (and the kids) want to do more.  For those of you interested in joining the MUN family, I encourage you to look at the Global Classrooms website, which has tons of resources on how to get an MUN team going.  I will also put a quick plug in for the Ron Clark Academy Model United Nations Conference, which takes place on March 2, 2013.

Here are a couple of pictures from our Turkey trip:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Your Big Bag of Tricks

According to the National Comprehension Center for Teacher Quality, do you know what new teachers identify as the primary reason for problems with classroom management?

It has nothing to do with where you teach, who you teach, or what grade you teach.

An overwhelming majority state lack of preparation from undergraduate courses and professional development opportunities as the primary cause for classroom management issues.

This is not surprising if you think about it.  In college, your courses typically consist of educational foundations, several content courses, possibly an ed pysch class, and then some electives within the major.  Rarely have I come across undergraduate courses that truly focus on the reason so many teachers go home frustrated at night and leave the profession, classroom management.

When it comes to professional development, I have sat through a number of workshops over the years that guarantee good citizenship and behavior if you go through their step-by-step laden notebook that has the kids color pages of kids being nice to each other.  Somehow this will suddenly make a rambunctious 5th grader behave?  I don't think so.  Sadly, these are being presented by people who have not been inside a classroom for 20 years and can barely manage the workshop they are presenting, let along a class of 30 kids. 

As I have traveled into classrooms over the past two months, I have had teachers warn me before I begin my observation that they have "a tough class."  "It's just one of those classes" is what I hear quite often.  When I go in and begin to watch, the teacher is usually absolutely right!  They are wild!  But nine times out of ten it is because the students are disengaged, so they find their own ways to engage themselves, which is usually through talking, getting out of their seat, and horsing around.

There is no doubt in my mind that classroom management is directly correlated to student engagement.  It's quite simple.  The teachers who engage their students effectively are not having the same issues as those that do not engage their students effectively.  Think about it, isn't it human nature to pay more attention to something that appears to be either interesting or fun? 

Notice, I did use the word effectively above.  I have had many teachers who believe that they are engaging their students effectively, but it just ain't happening.  I see this particularly in classes with fairly well behaved children.  Because the kids are in their seats and following directions, the teachers thinks they are engaged.  I call it passive engagement.  When I am in classrooms, I am looking for active engagement, where the kids are sitting on the edge of their seat waiting to see what is to come next.

Look, the blame cannot go solely on the teacher though.  The problem is that so many teachers get trapped inside of their own classrooms for 30 years.  Rarely do teachers get to travel outside of their four walls and observe what co-workers are doing or have meaningful conversations or feedback on their methods.

When it comes to student engagement, it is not a one method cure all.  You need a bag of tricks.  A big bag.  What is cool and fun one moment becomes antiquated the next.  Blame it on what you will, but it's the reality. 

As a first year teacher, I was teaching reading and wanted to use an idea I picked up in college to conduct my questioning.  I took a beach ball, wrote different questions on it (though I look back now and want to kick myself for having all low level questions on it), and we would toss the ball around and where ever your right thumb landed that was the question you answered.  It was a blast when we did it!  The kids loved being able to toss the ball around and see where their thumb landed.  I was so excited, I thought I had found my reading comprehension activity for the rest of the year.  Well ... it didn't even get me through the week.  The kids were bored with it after a second day.  We need that big bag of tricks, and as a first year teacher, I was scrounging at the ocean floor to find new ones.

When I meet with administrators, there are two things I advocate for:

1) Schedule frequent, purposeful peer observations for staff to watch each other.  This allows teachers to get new ideas and appreciate different styles.  It elicits valuable conversations and provides constructive feedback.  It also keeps the kids on their toes too, because they never know who is going to be watching!

2) Design opportunities to share.  This may happen during staff meetings or professional days, but people need to share great ideas.  This can go hand in hand with number one, but either way, we always need to build our bag of tricks, and designing ways to share these ideas is valuable.

The RCA Facebook page recently put up a question to teachers to share the best student engagement techniques they use.  I read through them and summarized them below.  I also put some links or ideas along with some of them as FYI.  I hope you find some cool ideas that you can add to your bag of tricks to engage your students:

This is just the tip of the iceberg for engagement techniques, and I have seen some great ones in person as I've traveled around, but this is a start, especially for young teachers looking to build up techniques.

Remember, as a rule of thumb, you want to "manage through your teaching," and not "teach through management."


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What This Teacher Wants Parents to Know

I survived my first blogging experience, and I'll be honest, I've found it somewhat meditating to write out what's swirling around in my head.  Now I know how my students feel in Ms. Barnes' class!

Over the past couple of years as a teacher at RCA, my current events class has been anchored by CNN Student News, hosted by Carl Azuz, who has become a friend of the school.  This morning he published an article looking at Things Teachers Want Parents to Know.  Similarly, Ron published an article last year looking at What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents.  Both stirred up emotions and feedback from readers because education is one aspect of society that everyone has an opinion on.  As my friend Kim Bearden says, "Everyone is an expert on education because they went to school."

While I am intrigued by these articles and think that they are excellent discussion starters, I want to approach the issue of parents from a different perspective.  I am going to say thank you to my parents over the years.  In nine years (about 700+ families), I have had some of the most amazing parents support me in my classrooms that have spanned five schools, three cities, suburban and inner-city, and elementary to middle school.  They supported me with some crazy assignments, fundraisers, and requests, but I think in the end it brought me closer with the families and made me a better teacher. 

Now, I have certainly been blasted over email, in conferences, and even once in Chik-fil-A (that's a long story), but I have never ended the school year on a bad note with any family from my perspective.  In fact, I can only think of two parents that I had to have an administrator sit in on the conference with me for, and both smoothed over quickly.  Maybe it's luck?  I'm not sure, but I feel that I have established a few routines that have helped me over the years with parent relationships.

1) Quick responses: I treat emails and phone calls like the business world where there is a 24 hour expected turnaround.  I try to respond to questions or concerns quickly so they do not linger in my inbox.  If it is an angry email, I will give it a little bit longer so the heat can settle a bit, but there's no reason it should not be answered in a timely manner.  I simply look at it as good customer service.  In return, I often find parents will respond to me quicker as well when I email them.

2)  Show some love: When I see a parent, I try my best to go up to them and at least say hi, if not have a conversation.  This is not always easy when a thousand things are going on, but it builds trust and means a lot.  In the end, you end up learning a lot more about each other and find out pertinent information about the child that you would have otherwise not have known.

3) Put yourself out there: I have been the "new" teacher several times since I have taught at a number of schools over the years, and I have learned that you need to make an impression to set the tone for yourself.  The parents and kids are curious as to who you are and what type of teacher you will be, so I have taken the approach to taking part in as many activities, school functions, and opportunities that arise so they see me as more than the guy teaching in the classroom.  This may include school fairs, fundraisers, family nights, sports games, etc.  It means a lot when parents see you outside of the classroom.

The Endhaven Elementary Running Team participates in a 5K

With Hannah at an award's banquet from several years ago

With Jake at a writing award contest

With Jacob at the Wake vs. NC State game.

Gina and I went to the Pryor's house to help celebrate Brandon's football championship

4) Involve the parents: This is not always easy at schools where parent involvement struggles, but it is possible!  A quick story from when I was in an inner-city school in Charlotte.  I had done a cultural unit for several years prior to this one at schools with heavy parental involvement.  The unit culminated in a cookout, where students brought in foods from their background and shared their projects that they had worked on throughout the unit with the parents.  It was always a lot of fun and I had tons of parents show up.  This school struggled with parental involvement, so I was not sure if it was going to work.  I decided to do it anyway, and while I did not have a ton of parents there, I had a handful that came and took time off work to help celebrate their child's hard work.  They appreciated being invited to school for a positive experience with their child, not to mention some good food!  The lesson here is to provide the reason for parents to get involved and provide a positive experience when they're there.

Here is a picture from that day.  I asked a community drumming group to come as well, so the kids got to play drums.

5) Have fun: This means more than anything else to me because if you can't have fun, how can you expect the students and parents to enjoy the school year?  I tell people in my workshop I lost my shame a long time ago, so it's all about making the educational experience as valuable as possible at this point.  This may involve some humiliating situations, but in the end, I see it as a good cause.  Personally, I have enjoyed the use of some costumes over the years to have some fun.  Check out some classics:

Overall, I have learned that a successful classroom involves the partnership between the teacher and parent.  The two parties are not always going to agree on every decision, but as long as the teacher and parent find ways to do what's best for the child, that is what will make him or her most successful.

So to my former parents who may read this, thank youYou helped me be successful!


Monday, October 8, 2012

Gotta Start Somewhere

For the past month and a half I have been privileged to be able to combine two things I love: traveling and teaching.  As a part of my job as the School Implementation Specialist for The Ron Clark Academy, I am able to do something that few educators ever get to do in their careers: go into fellow educators' classrooms and watch them teach!

My duties are fairly diverse in this position, but at the core of my job, I am working with teachers on implementing best practices into their classroom.  Thus far, it has been eye opening to be able to watch teachers teach.  This sounds odd, but as a classroom teacher for the past 8 years, rarely did I ever get to venture out of my own classroom.

As a teacher at The Ron Clark Academy, I was able to be observed by over 6,000 educators, so I am no stranger to having people watch me teach, but I am now able to return the favor and subjectively watch others teach and produce a conversation that makes them reflect on their own practices.

I do not pretend to have all of the answers, but I feel that I have a good bag of tricks up my sleeve from over the years that I am willing to share with fellow educators.  In addition, I now able to pick up methods by watching people and then share them with others.  I compare it to a bee, who can carry the pollen from the flower and create more flowers somewhere else.  Did that make sense?  It sounded much better in my head before I typed it out.

I am going to share one of my favorite "gems" from last week from a 4th grade classroom in Greenville, SC.  The teacher began by passing out some basic multiplication worksheets to the students.  I was thinking this was going to be another "sit and practice" kind of activity, but the students were far too excited for it to be a boring activity.  I eagerly watched as the students cleared their desks and had a pencil ready to go.  The teacher turned to the Promethean board and said, "Get ready!"  He clicked on this video and I want you to imagine what happened next.  If your heartbeat isn't racing by the end of the video, you're not human!  What a great way to give a sense of urgency to the activity you're doing.  All goals were met, the teacher allowed the students to practice their math facts, the kids had fun, and the whole activity took less than five minutes.

My journey thus far has taken me to over a dozen schools, observing about 60 teachers, and watching several thousands of students in action.  On several occasions I have had teachers tell me that I should keep a blog about my travels, sharing ideas as they come along.  I was resistant at first, but after a few times it made complete sense.  Why not have a forum to share great ideas?  It's what teachers want - practical, easy to implement, fun ideas.  Also thanks to Hope King, for sharing some other knowledge with me that will come in handy  :) 

So, as I travel around, I will do my best to share some stories, highlight some all-star teachers, and keep ideas flowing on some neat activities that you can do in your classroom.  I also want to put a shameless plug out there for a few things:

1) To learn more about what my job is or to book an on-site visit, you can click here.
2) To visit The Ron Clark Academy on one of our visitations, click here.  
3) I also just joined teachers pay teachers, which is kind of like "eBay" for teachers.  I am digging deep in my files and sharing some units and materials I've created over the years.  You can check out my account here. (It's still a work in progress, I'll be adding more stuff over the next couple of weeks).