Thursday, November 20, 2014

Dedication to Mr. Townsel

Last week, we lost a phenomenal educator, father, and friend, Ken Townsel.  When I received the call that this happened, I immediately went numb.  I literally had no words.  Even a week later, I am still trying to come to grips with this reality.

Ken simply had a knack with people.  Everyone he came into contact with, he left an impression on.  As I traveled around the country the past couple of years, anyone who had been to RCA always brought him up.  They didn't always get his name right (Townsend, Towns, Towel), but they could remember how they felt when they met him and experienced his magic.  From his "cell theory" rap to his perfectly timed jokes about how he turned into an elderly white guy upon jumping into the Antarctic Ocean, he simply had the "it" factor as an educator, performer, and motivator.

For those who didn't know, Ken also loved pictures.  Not just taking pictures, but being in pictures.  This is beyond evident in everyone's ability to have posted a picture with him on Facebook.  He never shied away from seeing a group of people waiting to take a picture in front of the slide, and saying "Wait, wait," only to slide down right in front and then say, "Ok, now we're good."  And that's why people loved him.  He made people smile, laugh, and remember the fun in teaching.

Though I only got to know Ken for four years while working at RCA, I can recall so many fond memories and moments with him, as I know so many others can as well.  It has been amazing over the past week the number of people who have reached out to share moments and memories with him, even if they only got a day to spend with him.  It is obvious that he regularly went out of his way to help those in need and turn any moment into a teachable one with people. 

One of my personal favorite memories came in New York City with the 5th graders.  It was his 50th birthday, and after dinner Ron had us all walk over to Times Square, right behind the TKS booth where they often put stands up for events.  We climbed the stairs, and Ron shouts out to the thousands of people around Times Square, "Excuse me, my name is Ron Clark, and my friend Mr. Townsel's 50th birthday is today.  Let's all sing happy birthday."  So along with several hundred of our new friends, we all sang Happy Birthday to Ken in the middle of Times Square.  I could see how moved Ken was by this.

Another story I'd like to share doesn't even involve him being there, but it shows the impact he has on his students.  I was a chaperone on the 5th grade Washington, DC trip several years ago, but Ken wasn't on this trip.  Each year, the teachers divide up the content to teach the 5th graders in preparation for the trip, and Ken always taught about the National Air and Space Museum.  I had my group of five students, and upon walking into the museum, they starting spitting out facts about each space shuttle and plane in the museum that he had taught them.  Then when we got upstairs to the World War II fighter planes, they spotted his favorite plane, and the kids insisted we take a picture with them in it so I could text it to him.  Their excitement for this moment showed how excited Ken must have been to teach about it, and it demonstrated the love he had for teaching his students.

Finally, I want to show my gratitude for him.  After my son Ryder was born, I decided that taking care of an infant was going to trump taking care of my pet ball python of six years, Deacon.  I was deciding what to do with him, and upon talking to Ken after school, he offered to take him in his room.  I admit I was not always the best keeper of Deacon, so I am so glad he found a new home, with a person who was dedicated to giving this snake a great life, which included walks outside (yes, they went on walks outside), pictures with thousands of students, parents, and guests of RCA, and the basis of many life lessons that I would have never even thought of giving.

There are so many things that Ken had ahead of him.  He had a long list of schools interested in having him speak for their staff, many more students who would have learned from him, and I'm sure more countries he would have wanted to visit.  He also leaves behind his wonderful new wife, Daphne, and two children.  While there are unfortunately schools that unexpectedly loose teachers each year, this is a rare situation where I believe the nation has lost an educator.  RIP KT


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

4 Ways to Make Tutoring More Fun

Why do kids need tutoring?

Some are behind on content and they need to be caught up.  Others already understand the material and need to be pushed more.  And then there are always students who need specific work on individual concepts.

At the end of the day, most parents can find a reason for why their child need tutoring.  Personally, it was always tough teaching 6+ hours during the day and then working with students after school in the same fashion that I had been teaching for another hour or more, so I sought out ways to make it different.  There are a number of ways that you can liven up tutoring so that you take advantage of having a student's individual attention.  What follows is a series of things I've used over the years to make tutoring more bearable on me (and the student).

1) Different locations: When given the opportunity, I liked doing my tutoring sessions somewhere other than my classroom or the child's house.  The library, fast food restaurants, parks, and bookstores are all places I have tutored.  Going somewhere different allows you to enjoy the scenery that you are not accustomed to, and can sometimes provide means for adding to the tutoring, like eating while you learn.

One of my favorite tutoring sessions with the RCA 2015 class (and parents) at Atlantic Station

2) Make it relevant: If the child did not understand fractions the first time in class with the way you taught it, why would you teach it the same way when you're one-on-one?  Find what the child is interested in and use that as the basis for teaching the concept.  For example, if the child is interested in sports, teach fractions by going to a football field and use the hash marks to count by tenths.  When I worked with my next door neighbor's daughter on fractions, we used the kitchen as our setting so we could pretend to cook things and measure out ingredients.

3) Have them teach you: One of the worst things you can ask a child is "do you understand?"  While some children will say "no," many will say "yes" to either appease you or move on.  A better request is "you're turn to teach this to me."  By asking the child to teach you or explain a concept, you are asking them to prove that they understand the material.  It's also a wonderful higher order thinking activity.  This will give you a chance to identify misunderstandings or holes in the learning.  

4) Take breaks: Tutoring for an hour can play out like a marathon at times.  When teaching thirty students, much time is spent focusing on a variety of students, but when it is just you and one student, that's a lot of consecutive time to spend on one person.  To give your brain and their brain a break, take a five minute break.  Depending where you are, you can have a snack, run around a bit, or play a game.  One student I used to tutor loved basketball, so every 20 or so minutes we would play a round of H-O-R-S-E to take a break. 

And as a final reminder, please always be a cheerleader for your students.  Be positive when working with them.  Sometimes they just need to hear "you've got this," "I'm really proud of you," or "great job" to give that final push that you need from them. 

Thank you for all of the support with Inside the Trenches.  If you haven't gotten your copy yet, you can find it on Amazon.

Friday, October 17, 2014

What Great Schools Look Like

It's funny, this week I have had three separate conversations with administrators all revolving around the same topic: what does a great school look like?

It's a good question, especially when you consider that there are many types of schools, existing in various socioeconomic regions, inhabited by students of every background, ability, and age.

Then you take into account state mandates, funding, politics, and any number of other variables that differentiate schools from state to state, city to city, and even one side of the tracks to the other.  So how can you possibly define what a great school looks like?

Having had the opportunity to visit many types of schools now across the country, and meeting thousands of educators along the way, I've developed my own criteria for how I define a great school.  First, I want to make clear that a great school does not have to have a certain socioeconomic class, the newest technology, or even the highest test scores in the district.  It all boils down to the adults who make up the school.  The individuals who are with the children each and every day.

So, with that being said, I have concluded that great schools demonstrate three basic practices: collaboration, consistency, and celebration.

Some explanation of each for what this looks like:

Collaboration: Teachers work together on planning, brainstorming, and implementing lessons.  Opportunities are given by administrators to observe each other and have meaningful conversations.  Teachers are excited to share lesson ideas and materials, and use each other to make them better.  Staff trusts each other, and students are seen as "ours," not "mine."

Consistency: There is a common language ("edu-speak") and practices within the school that teachers, staff, and students understand.  There are expectations that are known and maintained by all staff.  When administrators walk into classrooms, there are certain visible practices that are clear across all classrooms (eg. respectful interactions, manners).

Celebration: Students, staff, and stakeholders are frequently recognized and celebrated by the school community.  Both small scale (round of applause, words of recognition, chant/cheer) and large scale (gatherings, banquets, tangible rewards) are commonplace.  Students realize that though it may not be their turn to be recognized, they are just as excited for their classmates to be honored. 

It is hard to demonstrate all three of these identifiers on a consistent basis.  It involves having the right people in charge, and the right people supporting the efforts.  Parents, community members, and school partners need to also believe in these criteria because they are just as much of the equation as the students and staff.

Sometimes the term "great school" is generously thrown out because of test scores, the neighborhood the school sits in, or a positive single-story that is told.  I encourage stakeholders to dig deeper; look into the true makeup of a school and then decide if it can call itself a great school.

And finally, if you'd like to read some more about great schools, my book, Inside the Trenches, highlights many great schools and educators from around the country.  Click here to check it out. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Homework! We're talkin' 'bout homework!

An ode to one of my favorite sports rants of all time, Allen Iverson, as he proclaimed, "Practice!  We're talkin' 'bout practice!" 

I wanted to talk about an often dreaded, always opinionated topic in the world of education: homework.

Over the past several weeks I have come across a significant amount of Facebook and Twitter posts, blogs, and articles that debate the amount of homework given by teachers, the long-term, detrimental effects on the child's well-being, and how homework stemming from the Common Core is ruining America.

This blog post will not be addressing any of this.  That discussion is for another time, another place, and most likely another person (because it's a debate that no one wins).

Instead, I want to focus on something that has been irking me a bit.  Two words.  Two simple words.  Two words that we use multiple times a day.  The words has and gave.

Why you ask?  Why are such small words causing me such distress?  In the context of discussing homework, I have come across these sentences too many times now: My child has (fill in the number) hours of homework tonight.  My child's teacher gave (fill in the number) hours of homework tonight.

These sentences are often followed with general concerns over the child not being able to be a kid, lack of family time, going to bed late, etc.

So why the concern about such small words?  For one, by using "has," this is promoting the assumption that each child in the class is spending the exact amount of time on homework, which is highly unlikely.  This would be metaphorically equivalent to saying my child has twenty-two minutes to run a 5k (which would personally be a pipe dream for me these days).  Some people can complete a 5k much quicker, while other, like myself, are going to need some extra minutes.  Though the assignments are the same, we are going to work at our own pace, accomplishing the task in our own amount of time.  Next, by using the word "gave," one is assuming that the teacher has the power to assign times to homework, which would be a pretty awesome super power to have if it were feasible. [Before anyone tries to argue here, I know teachers do assign x amount of minutes of reading each night, so I concede in that scenario.]

So instead, I want to offer the alternative wording that would be much more appropriate: My child has worked on homework for (fill in the blank) hours.  [add in general concerns afterwards]

I don't want to just leave the conversation ending like this though, because it is not addressing the problem that the general parenting public faces.  What about the child who is taking three, four, or five hours to complete homework, and you think it's too much?  Is it possible to become a better homeworker?  In many cases, yes.  Oftentimes, it takes reflection and subtle changes to make it happen.  If this problem is ruining your household, here are some questions to consider:

1) Is your child in a distraction free environment when doing the homework?  The television, computer, cell phone, siblings, and video games are all distractions that can take away from a consistent focus on their assignment.  So an assignment that may have taken 10 or 15 minutes all of a sudden is taking 30 minutes to complete.

2) Does your child have a good working space?  While some children can work efficiently on the couch or the floor, some need to have a working space that is more conducive to a "work environment," like a desk or table.

3) Is your child asking the right questions?  It's been a long time since some parents stepped into a school, so they are not able to necessarily help with homework like they want to.  It is the child's responsibility to ask questions when they are confused.  If the child is coming home from school without an understanding of what to do, teach them to ask questions, either for clarification or misunderstandings before they leave school.  This can prevent frustrations when the homework begins.

4) Do they have a network?  Questions certainly arise at home as well.  Does your child have a friend(s) or do you have a family friend who you can call upon when content questions arise if the content is beyond your realm?

5) Are you setting goals and time limits?  This is something I personally had to do a lot of, especially in high school because of my hectic sports and extra-curricular schedule.  Before I started my homework each night, I mapped out what assignments I had, the priority in which I needed to get them done (since some were not due the next day), and how much time I would spend on each.  This helped me stay on task and it created a checklist for me as I finished assignments.  It's always fun crossing things off when you finish them.

Good luck and feel free to add your own homework strategies below!  And don't forget to order your copy of Inside the Trenches for your favorite teacher!

Monday, September 15, 2014

First Day Activity Idea

It's been a while since I have had a chance to write a blog post, primarily due to the consumption of my life with the release of my book. [insert shameless plug for Inside the Trenches, out now on]

I wanted to write a quick post about a fun "get to know you activity" I was able to do with my Wake Forest students in one of my classes.  Traditionally, the first day of a college course may involve handing out the syllabus, going around the room saying your name, where you're from, and why you're taking the course, and leaving early.  In larger classes the professor may skip it all together and just start teaching.  In K-12 teaching you will see a variety of get to know each other activities, some of which are excellent.  I have been seeing a lot of people using Dave Burgess' Teach Like a Pirate idea using play-do on the first day, which I think is a wonderful one.  I have also used name games in the past, BINGO, scavenger hunts, and "find someone else who has ..." type games.

The one I used the other day I think went a bit deeper and had some rigor and self-reflection, but also fun involved (which I am all about).  First, the students watched a wonderful TED Talk video called "The Danger of a Single Story" by Chimamanda Adichie.  I'm not going to take the time to explain the details of it, but I strongly suggest watching the video.  It's powerful, and one that many can relate to.

The students watched the video before class, but watching it as a class would be just as, if not more, meaningful.  In class, I explained to the students that each of us, at some point in our lives, will be judged by our single story, for better or for worse, but logic tells us that there are many chapters that make up our lives.

To complete the activity, I used the program Padlet. is an interactive, real-time contribution-based platform.  Think of it as a poster board with a bunch of sticky notes on it, except it's all done electronically.  I created my pad for the activity and gave each student the URL, so they can access the pad.  (Of course, each student would need to have an electronic device.)  I modeled what I was expecting by putting up the first three chapters of my book (which, of course, included bacon for those who know me).  They then had about five minutes to add the first three or four chapters of their "book."  Afterwards, I allowed each student to quickly share a couple of reasons why they had those chapter titles.  By the way, the creator of the Pad has administrative rights, so you can delete or edit anything that someone posts (if you're worried about what kids will put up). 

It was a far more engaging and insightful way for me to get to know the students than what is traditionally done.  We had some good laughs along the way, and it gave me an appreciation for many of the unique stories that make up my class.

If you'd like to check out our pad, click here.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

11 Amazing Things at the Ron Clark Academy

As many of you know, I will be leaving RCA at the end of this year.  Due to the extensive travel that the job involved, I was not able to spend as much time as I would have liked to with Ryder.  For the past four years, however, I have experienced professional and personal growth and experiences that some people don't meet in their lifetimes.  I have spent the last couple of weeks reminiscing and reflecting on my time at RCA, but I wanted to find a way to really express how amazing this school really is, so I decided to do a list of them:

(In no particular order)

1) The staff: It's rare to find a harder working and more dedicated group of adults who strive for greatness and truly want to make an impact on each of the students day in and day out.  This is shown in their willingness to work with the kids before, during, and after school, have multiple clubs/activities outside of school hours, take kids on reward trips, go to students' houses to help out, and the list goes on and on.  They are also the most creative people I've ever met.  When someone dreams up something big to do, it gets done.  They find ways to "make it happen."

2) Visitations: I loved the rush of adrenaline I got each week when I saw a group of a hundred fifty to two hundred educators waiting outside of our gates waiting to check out the school.  When you're teaching and you see those educators walking into your room it's like a red light turns on because you know that they're watching you like they would a movie; studying every detail and taking it in.

3) The mystique: The mystery and secrets that exist within the walls of RCA are special.  Few outsiders know all of the secrets that exist at the school, and it's neat experiencing the traditions and moments with classes as they come in.  From midnight school to wheel spins to the first day, there are many special things that the staff puts time and energy into that few people realize.

4) The teamwork: To make this school possible, you truly need all hands on deck.  The events that we put on alone could demand an entire crew, but to have students, staff, and parents make it happen on a regular basis is truly phenomenal.  I've never seen a place where people are consistently asking, "What can I do to help?" and mean it.  When you work together, magical things can happen!

5) The houses: The competition, camaraderie, and the excitement that houses create make school so much more exciting.  It's one thing for the kids to get into something like this, but when you have the entire RCA community into it, the fun really begins.  It's been amazing to see how the houses create families within a family, helping shy or lonely students feel a part of something and struggling students find support when needed.  It's a great system and one that can change the dynamics of any school. 

6) The trips: I have been so fortunate to travel around the world because of RCA.  Japan, South Africa, Turkey, Prague, Germany, New York, Washington DC are just some of the places I've been able to travel to with students as we get to experience the world together.  The trips, whether abroad or local, are a great time to get to know the students more, especially outside of the classroom setting.  It's more casual, so you really get to know their personalities and they get to see that you are a real person as well.

7) Model UN: Four years ago Gina and I started the Model UN club, and it has been one of the most fun parts about working at RCA.  Along with competing at conferences, I have seen first-hand how much being a member of the team pushes students to become stronger speakers, more adept at researching, and knowledgeable about world issues.  It's been a great opportunity to meet people from around the world as well, as we travel to conferences and meet advisors from countries that I usually only see on a map!

8) The Pace: People always comment on how fit the staff members look; well that's typically because we never stop moving.  There is something to be said about never sitting down.  There is always something going on at RCA, whether it is teaching a class, doing a workshop, practicing with your team, going on a trip, tutoring, or you name it, it's a busy place!  Because of that, there's never a dull moment, and that keeps people on their toes, which I really enjoy.  It's nice when you know people are always working their hardest.

9) The parents: I've been fortunate enough to have great parents in many schools I've worked at over the years, and RCA's parents are right up there!  They are willing to help at a moment's notice, and will support any of the crazy or last minute requests we have of them!  They have become integral to the success of the educator trainings, especially as they have grown exponentially, because we need guides throughout the day.  It's also a pleasure getting to know them outside of the classroom as well, whether at car pool or at our events or just hanging around on the couches in the lobby.

10) The students: There would be no RCA without the kids.  We have amazing students, and they do some amazing things.  Honestly, any child in the country is capable of doing what we ask of our students, but few ever get the opportunity to.  RCA students rise to the high expectations of the school academically, socially, and behaviorally, and that is why we are able to put them in front of a television camera, take them around the world, or send them to boarding schools on six digit scholarships.  They learn quickly how to bounce back from setback and how to use feedback as a tool.  They find ways to overcome shyness and develop into confident presenters.  They realize that an A is earned, not given, and that consequences are a part of life.  They discover the game of life, and have frequent opportunities to practice it with adults, setting them up for bright futures.  I will miss many things about RCA, but I will miss the students the most.

11) The moments: There are so, so many!  Some of my top though: getting my RCA jacket, seeing President Obama drive past us in NYC, standing on top of the roof of RCA to teach a lesson about Pythagorean Theorem, staff step show on the first day of school, presenting in front of 100 California Superintendents, doing training in Honduras, Imani winning Best Delegate in Prague, Brenton dancing up on stage in Istanbul with the dais, Sim City with Maestra, Civil War day with Coss and 2014, M^3, picture with Maya Angelou, nights at the Bearden and Coss house, very first Blue Dragon basketball game, DC spy mission trip with 2015, the Bull Run, Spartan Race, bringing 2016 kids to Maryland for training, tacky prom outfits, trips to Wake Forest, Elvis costume, celebrating my "49th" birthday with 2014. 

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

My Super Wife

My wife, Jaclyn, is a superhero.  The kind of superhero who wakes up before the birds to a toddler who doesn't realize that 5:00am is not a real time ... the kind of superhero who gets herself and our son ready by 7:15 so she can get him to daycare all while he fights to stay naked ... the kind of superhero who then goes to medical school all day ... the kind of superhero who then studies after classes ... the kind of superhero who picks up our son from daycare and feeds him, plays with him, FaceTimes with grandma and grandpa, bathes him, and then studies the rest of the night ... all while daddy is on the road.

Jaclyn is a special person, one who I wanted to dedicate this post to because for the past two years she has simply been superhuman.  Those who meet her and learn what she is doing are often blown away, primarily because medical school alone or raising a two year old alone would be enough to fill up your day, but to do both at the same time is quite extraordinary.

Those who know Jaclyn though understand that she has been special for a long time.  You see, back in middle school, she lost both her parents, her dad to a plane crash and her mom to pneumonia.  As if middle school isn't hard enough already!  She found that her grades were something she could control, so she concentrated on them and maintained stellar grades throughout her school years.

While the torment of losing your parents at such a young age never goes away, she found good friends while growing up in Pittsburgh and used school as her outlet to achieve.  This earned her a spot at Wake Forest University, graduating Magma Cum Laude, and a position at Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) as an investment banker when she graduated.

After a number of years she found that investment banking wasn't fulfilling what she wanted in a career, so she thought about what would be the best way to help people.  Since I was already a teacher, that was out of the question since we are far too competitive!  That would have been a disaster!  So she decided to enroll in pre-med courses to obtain the requisites for medical school.  Can you imagine switching from a career in business to a career in medicine without flinching an eye?  I can barely switch from reality tv to sitcoms without getting a headache.  She has done it flawlessly and continues to find success and happiness in medicine.

I explain Jaclyn's story not to get her sympathy or praise, but rather to express my thanks and humbleness in her accomplishments and amazing story.  I am eternally grateful for the love she shows both our son and me, and the understanding she has when I have to go on the road.

I feel extremely lucky that I found myself a super wife!

Monday, January 6, 2014

What if I were still teaching in NC ....

I recently had a discussion with a friend who teaches in North Carolina and the salary crisis that the state faces.  North Carolina has dropped to almost the bottom of the country in teacher salary, and Raleigh does not appear to be making too many moves to change this.  So I wanted to do a little mathematical breakdown to see "what if I were still teaching in NC" .... 

After graduating from Wake Forest University in 2004, I began teaching 5th grade in Winston-Salem, NC for $28,000 a year.  Coming right out of college, I was ecstatic.  I had never had a paycheck with four numbers on it per month, so this was the good life.  I was living in a three bedroom apartment with two roommates and we lived a life a small step above college standards: real kitchen utensils in place of plastic, cooked chicken in place of ramen noodles, and beds that weren't bunks.  We were real adults.  Well, sort of.

Flash forward 10 years.  A lot has changed for me.  I am married now with a wife in medical school and we have a two year old son.  I have a master's degree and National Board Certification, and a job that allows me to work with teachers across the country.

With the current chaos going on in Raleigh over teacher salary, I will play Devil's advocate and see what my life would be like right now if I were teaching in North Carolina still with a wife in school and a baby.  Remember, the numbers I'm using are averages and fluctuate per month, but it gives a general perspective on reality for my family.

For those who know me I am a numbers person, so I am going to do this completely mathematically.  Here we go ...

Since I taught in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools last while in NC, I will use that pay scale from 2012-2013, which means I would make $50,959 a year (masters + NBC + 10 yrs.).  By the way, Charlotte has one of the higher teacher salaries, so this pay scale is generous in comparison to many NC counties.  If I did a 12 month salary breakdown, I would have $4,246.58 a month in gross pay.  Then there will be federal income tax, social security taken out, health benefits taken out, and NC state tax taken out under statutory deductions.  This would take about 20% of the gross pay away, which leaves $3,397.26.  There's also the voluntary deductions I had such as the 403(b) and NCAE contributions.  That is about another $250, leaving $3,147.26.

Average monthly bills:
- Mortgage on condo: $1,300
- Electric: $90
- Gas: $20
- TV/Internet: $120
- HOA fees: $291 (welcome to Uptown Charlotte)

- Grocery/Food (including going out to eat): $500
- Baby items: $100
- Gas for cars: $200
- Entertainment: $60
- Haircuts: $30
- Dry cleaning: $40

At this point I'm up to $2,751 in expenses.  Of course, this does not include unforeseeable expenses like house repairs and appliances, health expenses, or emergencies.  This also does not include luxury expenses like gifts or vacations.  You'll also notice no car payment.  We have both paid off our cars (finally!), which is why it is not on there.  There are obviously a few things on there I could do without or make adjustments to, but I want to have a realistic breakdown of expenses as it stands to see how this would actually play out.

I show all this to say it would be tough to be still teaching in North Carolina and maintain the lifestyle that I envision and desire for my family.  I am also realistic that I know my situation would not even be the toughest, as there are people with more children than me, with higher bills (especially medical) that they are dealing with, and tougher living conditions.

As someone who loves NC and hopes to return one day to it, I hope North Carolina finds a way to provide its teachers with a more reasonable salary, so that we can recruit, retain, and reward the brightest and best North Carolina colleges have to offer!