Friday, October 29, 2010

The "real" stakeholders...students have voices too...

I experienced two very important things recently:
1) - If you ask, you shall receive...

Last week I asked 5 students to answer 5 questions related to education.  The questions have nothing to do with my class content, nor will the students receive anything for completing the 5 questions.  I simply asked 5 of my students to give me their opinion and feedback on certain education related issues.  The questions were about both teachers and administrators and their current roles, as well as the potential of their roles changing as our society continues to evolve.  The answers I got were not quite what I are a few responses:

- "Yes, the role of the educator has changed so that he or she must not only teach us, but also teach us with technology."

- "An educator will always educate; it will just be different than before."

- "The quality of learning depends on the quality of the teacher."

- "The role of the educator should be to expose students to all types of information so they can learn to learn on their own."

- "Thinking is free, technology should be fully integrated, thus learning will become more fun and less time consuming."

Wow!  I was so impressed with these responses.  It is definitely clear to me that we need to be listening a lot more closely to what our kids are saying.  We can't just listen to our students; we need to act and respond to what they are saying.  When given the opportunity to voice their opinion, students have without doubt surpassed my wildest expectations, and because of this I strongly urge schools to sit down and truly involve the "real" stakeholders.

2) - Unleash the fury and fire of the students...

At my high school we just had our first half-day of the school year.  A tremendous amount of planing went into this half-day because this would be a half-day where students would not be exposed to any "typical class content."  On this half-day our 3 main goals were to spend time with our advisory students, have time to discuss service learning projects, and lastly talk about the word "respect."

I would be lying if I said I was not slightly worried and concerned about how these activities would play out, however by the end of the day it became clear to me what we had accomplished.  While discussing each of these topics with my students we were able to go on several side tangents.  Not that I am advocating going on side tangents all the time, but the side tangents were just as productive if not more than our original intended topics!  I could not believe how much passion and heart my students were displaying as we discussed their school...their education...and their future.  It was as if these students were just waiting for the time and opportunity to talk, and more importantly, waiting for a time to be heard.  At the end of each session I made sure to ask my students what they thought and if they enjoyed the day.  I already knew the answer based off of their level of engagement and participation...they loved it...

As educators we have to reevaluate how we do business in our schools.  Our students will always be our number 1 client, and consequently we need to know what they think, why they think it, and how they think we can provide them a better service.  The term "stakeholders" gets thrown around pretty frequently, and I want this to be a friendly reminder that the "real" stakeholders have always been and willing always be...the students - are we listening to what they have to say?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Why Twitter should be a part of your PLN...

If somebody asked me about the last 6 months of my life, I would respond by saying something like this; the past 6 months have been extremely challenging, but yet at the same time I can say with little hesitation that I have grown more as an educator in the last 6 months than in any other time period in my life.

The world in which we live is changing faster than anyone could ever imagine, and because of this the educational system must evolve and make adjustments, both for educators and students.  This summer, a few teachers and myself decided we would use Twitter as a way to communicate with students and parents.  This initiative did not go over very well.  Most students and parents didn't have Twitter accounts, and many had no idea what Twitter is, or how it could be used.  Despite having zero success with students and parents, we discovered a world of opportunity with Twitter as we looked for ways to grow and develop as educators...

Here are 2 examples of how Twitter has positively affected my German 2 and 3 students:

1) - On Saturday morning I was using Tweetdeck to check up on what people were tweeting.  I came across a Tweet about Xtranormal, which is a text-video program.  "If you can type, you can make movies," is the slogan, and I immediately felt the need to explore further.  Two hours later I created this:

I now plan on having my German 3 students write their own movie scripts, and ultimately make their very own movies to share with others.  I showed my students my example today in class, and they loved it!  Without Twitter, I would probably still not know this program exists...

2) - A couple week ago, Thomas Whitby encouraged educators to blog about educational reform.  Once each educator completed his/her blog post, we then posted a short comment and the link to Wallwisher.  This was the first time I had ever heard of or used Wallwisher.  Today in my German 2 classes we created 3 different "walls," one for each class.  I then had each student think about what he/she did on the weekend.  Once each student had time to think, I asked each student to come to the computer projector, and type what he/she did this weekend.  The remaining students in the class were given the task of helping the student at the computer with grammar and proper spelling.  This worked well because the students were able to work as a group to help each other.  Without Twitter, I still might not know about Wallwisher.  Here is the "wall" for my 2nd hour German 2 class:

I can't say enough good things about Twitter as a tool to help educators grow and develop.  There are so many great educators out there who are willing to share and collaborate, and consequently Twitter has completely changed the way I look at professional development.  Accessible 24/7, connecting educators from around the world, and the ability to share and collaborate at the click of the mouse, are all the perfect reasons Twitter should be a part of an educator's PLN.  Even if you don't do a lot of tweeting, following the right group of educators can be inspiring, motivating, and more importantly, a crucial piece to your professional growth and development.

Here are some great educators to follow: @21stprincipal @gcouros @Thanks2Teachers @kylepace @mrwejr @justintarte @NMHS_Principal @L_Hilt @Shellterrell @bhsprincipal @mcleod @tomwhitby @AngelaMaiers @Web20classroom @Akevy613 @principalspage @KTVee @Larryferlazzo

Friday, October 22, 2010

Which island are you on?

I just finished reading The Learning Leader, by Douglas R. Reeves, as a part of my doctoral studies.  I found the book to be extremely well written, as well as extremely valuable for anyone looking to gain a more in-depth understanding of school improvement.

As districts and schools look to both district and building leaders, it is difficult not to notice the "Islands of Excellence," as well as the islands of weakness within our districts and buildings.  We all know where the "Islands of Excellence" are, and we all know which educators are on the "Islands of Excellence."  On the flip side, we also know where and who are on the islands of weakness.  The difficult task as district and building leaders is to identify ways to expand the "Islands of Excellence," while simultaneously shrinking the islands of weakness.

When speaking with district and building leaders the most difficult part of expanding the "Islands of Excellence" always comes back to exposure.  We all know that when we see great things happening, our first response is to share and spread the good word.  This can have both positive and negative effects on a district and building staff.  On the positive side, sharing and collaborating with other educators is probably the most beneficial way to improve both a district and building.  You would be hard pressed to find a more effective and powerful means to school improvement that does not center around sharing and collaboration.

On the negative side, when an "Island of Excellence" gets too much exposure and attention, there will be educators who will form an alliance against this island purely because they feel threatened or left out.  At times we have to resist the urge to share ALL the success stories of the "Islands of Excellence," even though we do this with the best intentions.  District and building leaders have difficult jobs, and this is just one more example of the realities we see in our districts and buildings.

So, whether you are a teacher, a building level administrator, or a district level administrator...take some time to reflect upon how you treat and handle your "Islands of Excellence" and your weak islands.  Additionally, think about which island you are on.  If you are on an "Island of Excellence," then consider some ways to attract some new members who could increase the size of your island, or even perhaps start their own "Island of Excellence."  I believe 100% in self-reflection, and consequently if you think you could possibly be a member of a not so excellent island, then perhaps it is time to take a swim, and expand your horizons.  There is one thing I can guarantee...any "Island of Excellence" would be more than happy to accept you as its newest long as you show you are willing to turn from the dark side!

Monday, October 18, 2010

A small sign of success...celebrate the little victories

I entered the 2010/2011 school year with two goals:

Goal 1 - Try as many new and innovative ideas in my German classes as possible...

Goal 2 - As a Professional Development Representative at my high school, I want to share as many resources and ideas with other teachers as possible... 

Without doubt, I have experienced some minor success with my goals, as well as some "revamping" of how I plan on achieving my goals.  Many of my students have loved the new ideas, while some long for the days of old (zero technology, lots of books and stacks of worksheets...).  Many teachers loved the new resources and ideas for improving classroom instruction, while some claimed it would be too much work because of the lack of time.  Either way, I have learned a tremendous amount about setting goals for myself, as well as how to carefully tread when trying implement new ideas and initiatives.

Since I view myself as a mostly positive and optimistic person, I would like to have a minor celebration of my most recent endeavor.  Last week I polled my students both through the use of a Facebook discussion post, as well as through the use of a Flip Camera activity.  The purpose of these two activities was to empower my students to speak up and voice their opinion on what our next project should be.  Overwhelmingly, the students were against my original plan...and for some odd reason that didn't bother me.  They came up with some great ideas, and in the end, they have earned the opportunity to do a project on a topic of their choosing (as long as it is in German - I am a German teacher).

Long story short, the students are doing a Prezi presentation.  Thus far, I am extremely excited about their presentations.  The main reason I am excited might seem trivial, but if you have ever been a classroom teacher you know it is a big deal.  Most of my students today didn't realize class was over until the bell rang, and when the students are so engaged and interested in their project that they have forgotten to check the time, something must be going well.  What we do in schools every day is similar to a war, and because of this we have to celebrate our minor victories, and push aside our minor defeats.  There will be "ups" and "downs," but if I have to experience a few "downs" to experience an "up" like I did today...then I am ready for war. 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

REBEL - Education Reform Blog - revisit...The factory model does not work for schools...

Tom Whitby has encouraged all education bloggers to write a positive blog on how we should reform the educational setting.  I have decided to revisit a previous post of mine...

If you have ever walked into a factory that produces a finished good from raw materials, it is frankly an amazing process.  Dating back to the early 1900's, Henry Ford revolutionized the world and the way it manufactures goods.  How could one argue with a process that can take different materials and products, and in one smooth motion put them together to produce a brand new flawless product exactly identical to the previous one produced.  The assembly line process used in factories around the world is graded on its ability to produce the same product over and over again in the shortest amount of time possible, and for the cheapest price possible.  We are making a dire mistake by approaching public education in the same manner.

In a factory you start with the same exact pieces before beginning the first stage of the assembly line process.  In education we start with a unique child with different characteristics than every other child.  In a factory you follow the exact same steps to put the exact same pieces together as fast and as cheap as possible.  In education we treat each child as an individual, and we use a different set of steps to help that child no matter  what the cost, or the time involved.  In a factory you are assessed by how many identical finished products you can produce in a certain time frame.  In education we are assessed by how well we prepared our students to be responsible, independent and lifelong learners who are able to be successful contributing citizens in a democratic society.  Isn't it time we treat students like students, rather than treating them like manufactured products from a factory?

With state budgets being cut on a nationwide basis, it is imperative we reach out to our policy makers to insist on continuing to fund education.  As difficult as it sounds, we need to fund education in a way it has never been funded before.  We simply need more...more teachers, more SMALLER schools, more opportunities for students to develop their own love of learning, and more opportunities for teachers to grow personally and professionally.  This is a battle, despite the restraints financially, that we can win.  If we approach each child as a unique and different individual, meet every child where they currently are, give every child a part in the process, trust every child to do what is right, and most importantly, believe that every child can and will make a difference, we can overcome the easy street of the assembly line

Please respond to this post with strategies and ways you have achieved this in your classroom, school or district.  We need to spread the word and provide the necessary help and resources to change our factories into schools. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sometimes we all just need a little time...

This past week at school has been particularly busy, and unfortunately this means not getting to spend a lot of time with my two favorite girls. Coming home from meetings, training sessions, and classes late at night are all the perfect ingredients for an exhausted and mentally drained educator. We all have experienced work weeks like weeks that never seem to end and never seem to give you a moments rest.

Despite the unyielding commitments of the job and the long tiring days, we can't lose sight of the people who are affected by our absence. Perhaps the best thing about those who are with us most is that they are continually there waiting for matter what time we come home. They are always sitting there with a smile on their face ready to give us their full undivided attention. They appreciate what we do while at work, but more importantly they appreciate the time we spend with them. Even if it is only 30 minutes before going to bed, they are so happy to talk to us, support us, help us, and spend each second possible with us.

I will regretfully admit, I am guilty of coming home after a long day to only sit down, grab a bite to eat, and march right off to bed while barely acknowledging those who have been sitting there waiting for me to get home. This is WRONG on so many levels, and as hard as it is sometimes, I have to make the change and give them my undivided attention to be supportive and helping. Life is a two-way street, and I don't for one second want to take for granted those who are always encouraging, supporting, and reaffirming my goals and ambitions in life. I think most of us are in the same boat when I say...we would not be where we are without the help of those special people with whom we spend most of our time.

Please take some time to thank those who are always there for you no matter what the circumstances may be. Whether you realize it or not, your success, or lack thereof in life or professionally, is dependent upon the role that others play in your life. No matter how long the day and no matter how much work still needs to be completed, please take time to give time...

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Flip Cam, blog, cell phone and projector all in one day - OMG!

In my German 3 class we recently finished a story we have been reading for the last three weeks.  We have done several different types of activities to facilitate the understanding of this story, and each different activity has proven to have both its advantages, and disadvantages.  The unique thing about the activities I have done is that each activity is something brand new that I have never tried before.  As any educator knows, it is always difficult to try something new, especially trying new things for three weeks straight!

Reflecting on the activities we did in class has allowed me to evaluate their effectiveness, as well as if or whether I should do them again, or if I need a slight adjustment or modification.  Most importantly, I have learned one valuable lessen...I am extremely happy I took a chance because I feel there was one main benefactor of my risk taking...the students!

For this post I am going to concentrate on one particular activity.  I will outline my exact thoughts, as well as the detailed process I used to facilitate the activity.  Additional information: German 3 class (juniors and seniors), class is 49 minutes long, and class size is 20 students.

1) I bought a Flip Camera this summer...I really wanted to use it!

- I set up two desks in the hallway (student alone with Flip Camera)
- Students had 45 seconds to answer three questions in German
- Flip Camera was set up on one desk
- The three questions the students were to answer were on the other desk
- Used my cell phone as a timer
- The next student stood near the door waiting to go into the hallway
TOTAL TIME: 20 - 25 minutes

2) We have a class blog...I really wanted the students to write a new post!

- This activity happened at the same time as the Flip Camera activity
- As a group...the students wrote a brief summary of the story we read
- One student typed, while the other students provided ideas and information
- Main focus here was group learning and collaboration
TOTAL TIME: 20 - 25 minutes

3) We just finished the story...I really wanted to empower my students by asking them how they felt about the story, and if or whether they would want to do a project related to the story!

- These questions were the three questions for the hallway Flip Camera activity
   1) Did you like the story...why or why not?
   2) What was your favorite part of the story?
   3) Should we do a project related to the story...why or why not?
- Wanted to empower the students, and make sure they recognize I value their opinions

4) It was Friday...I wanted the kids to have an especially great day leading into the weekend!

- Mission accomplished!!
- After Flip Camera and blog activities were completed...we watched the students' responses
- Students loved hearing what others had to say...especially the funny responses :)
TOTAL TIME: 20 - 25 minutes

Total technology used: 
- Cell phone
- Flip Camera
- Blog
- Data Projector
- TV

Remember this one piece of information...the worst thing that can happen when you take a calculated risk in the classroom learn!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

5 things we can learn from our four-legged friends...

My wife and I have been married for a little under three years, and about a year ago we decided that we wanted to grow our family.  As we discussed the most typical way of growing a family (a baby), we came to the conclusion that we should start small before taking the big leap.  Last summer we purchased an 8 pound, runt of the litter, slightly discolored, adorable, and loving yellow lab puppy.  Maddy, has been a welcome addition to our family.  I would be lying if I said all of our experiences with Maddy have been great, because we have definitely had our fair share of rough patches and disagreements.  However, overall I would say that Maddy has become an integral part of our family, and we would be lost without her.  This brings me to the point of this educators we can learn so much from our four-legged friends, and as guilty as I am of taking Maddy for granted, she has proven to be a valuable tool as I look to grow both personally and professionally.

1 - We must always be patient...

Maddy has tested my patience on several occasions, and because of this I think I have gained a better appreciation for being patient with both students and staff members with whom I work.  Despite it being so easy to get frustrated, disappointed, annoyed, and aggravated, remaining calm and patient will almost always prevail.  Some of the most respected and accomplished people I know are always able to remain composed and calm.  Maddy and I have made it through numerous frustrating and aggravating situations because either she or I have remained calm and patient toward the other...  

2 - We should expect the unexpected...

Even when I think I have the perfect routine set up for Maddy, she always seems to surprise me by doing something completely out of the ordinary.  We spent several weekends building a "Maddy-proof" cage, and after each weekend Maddy was able to find a weakness, so we got used to expecting the unexpected with Maddy.  In an educational setting we are surrounded by smart and witty students who are always doing things we think we have prepared for, but in fact we get something completely unexpected.  One of the most important traits of being a successful educator is being flexible, mobile, and easily able to make adjustments at the drop of a dime.  Maddy has provided me a helpful reminder on why this trait is so crucial as it pertains to the ever-changing educational setting.  

3 - Failure does not mean we should give up...

If we gave up on trying to train Maddy every time she failed to do what we requested of her, we would have given up a long time ago.  No matter how much we train and prepare Maddy, it is quite common for us to experience failure on a weekly and at times daily basis.  Now, perhaps this has something to do with Maddy's trainers (we never claimed to be Cesar Millan), but we have also taken a pledge to never give up on her.  It is vital that we take the same approach with our students and staff members.  We are not always going to achieve success because that is something we can't always control, but we can control if or whether we give somebody another chance.  By not giving up on somebody we are showing we are human, and by doing this we can empower our students and staff members to accept failure as a natural part of the growth process. Maddy has been growing exponentially because of this learned lesson :) 

4 - You can't return figure out a way to make it work...

One week into our journey with Maddy as our newest addition to the family, we experienced a day for which we weren't quite ready.  In one day Maddy managed to potty in the house (# 1 and # 2), eat and destroy the cord to the laptop, and make quite a large scratch in our wood floors.  Needless to say, Maddy was on the chopping block, but fortunately we made the right choice and made adjustments to accommodate our new furry friend.  We are both encouraged and forced to do the same with our students and staff members.  They are not going anywhere, and because they are not leaving it is essential that we make adjustments and modifications so we can make it work.  Who knows, the old saying "You're growing on me," might just come true, and I believe that relationships started under stress can end up being the strongest. 

5 - Enjoy their company...because they won't be here forever...

Maddy is a little more than a year old, however Buddy, my childhood dog, is 13 years old.  Buddy was one of the main reasons why we decided to purchase Maddy.  As sad as it is to think this way, we almost wanted to find a replacement for Buddy even though he is still with us.  We hope Buddy can be with us for many more years, but the reality is...he won't.  We have thoroughly enjoyed bringing Buddy and Maddy together so they can play and enjoy each other's company, and it is evident that Maddy's youth rubs off on Buddy's more wise and relaxed demeanor.  Our students and staff members all bring something valuable to the table, and it is our job to find out how to tap into this value, and figure out as many ways as possible to share it.  Take advantage of their presence, and relish their time in your life, because with our fast paced society they will be gone before you know it.  Buddy's legacy will live on even after his time comes, but it just won't be the same.  The presence of others makes everything worth it, so please do not take it for granted.

Our four-legged friends may be a lot of work, and it is certain they will present us with numerous challenges, but as educators we must always remember that...

"There are no shortcuts to any place worth going." - Beverly Sills

Friday, October 1, 2010

The power of "hello" and "goodbye"

Every Friday morning I have the opportunity to see and greet almost every single student at my high school.  The high school at which I work has a little more than 1,800 students, and as I stand their doing my duty I can't help but think how amazing it is that this process goes as smoothly as it does.  It is my personal goal to say "good morning" to every student I have, have had, and potentially expect to have.  The typical response I receive from students is a somewhat bewildered, reserved, and hesitant look that makes me think it is almost painful to simply say "good morning" back to me.  I have trouble understanding why this is, because I usually don't have any trouble getting my students to talk in class, and it is interesting that they seem so hesitant to speak with me in any setting outside of the classroom.

The second part of my story takes place on Friday afternoons as school is letting out.  I get the privilege of doing parking lot duty.  I was asked to do this as a favor because we needed someone to help direct traffic for our school buses.  My initial response was not in favor of doing this duty, but as someone who wants to be a part of the solution, I of course said, "Yes, I would be more than happy to help and take this duty."  To my astonishment, I have really enjoyed my Friday afternoon parking lot duty!  I get the opportunity to see my students heading to their cars, as well as leaving the school grounds.  Perhaps the most interesting thing is that my students, former students, and future students seem so excited to say "hello" and "goodbye" as they are heading to their cars and/or pulling out of the parking lot...I can honestly say I feel really good about myself when I walk back into the building after my Friday afternoon parking lot duty.

The main point of this post is to help recognize the importance of acknowledging the people in our lives.  When I greet students before school I think they are shocked and surprised because it is something they do not expect.  They see being greeted at school as an abnormal activity, and this is something we should definitely attempt to rectify.  If the students arriving at school get half of what I feel when students say "hello" or "goodbye" to me, then it could be an extremely powerful tool in developing and growing a school culture.  It is crucial that students see us as more than just their teachers and principals, but rather as humans that appreciate their existence.  It is so easy for us to put our heads down and walk by, but think about how you feel when somebody greets you with a "hello" and smile.  If you are like me, this simple gesture can have a huge impact on your day.

Please take this opportunity to make sure you are saying "hello" and "goodbye," because these simple phrases can have a positive impact on somebody else's day.  More importantly, the person you positively impact with your "hello" or "goodbye," has the potential to positively impact another person, and from here the snowball begins to grow.  You want to make a positive is much easier than you think!