What Might Have Been and What Can Be

imageIn education, things are contantly changing. Some methods show up as new ones but they’re really just renewed from times past. We have to be comfortable with change. This isn’t just about technology, though it is true with that as well. Rather, it refers to Common Core and Madeline Hunter’s lesson plan and every other trendy style that has come down the pike with mixed results. We need to synthesize old and new based on the needs of the students. This is what makes us valuable. If we couldn’t do this, anybody could step into the classroom and pretend to teach. When things change a lot, there is bound to be a lot of failed attempts. We rely on those failures to learn what works. The key is to not give up. Keep your eyes on the prize.

I spent years going around as tech for my school. It was my adjunct duty to my contracted teaching position. In other words, I wasn’t a tech guy per se but people would call me to make their speakers louder or get their power point presentations to work. At any rate, I learned that one sort of document camera we had at our site did not work well with out projectors. It took a lot of trial and error to figure out the best ones but eventually through staying with it, I finally pinpointed the strengths of one over the other. Today, almost all the substandard ones have been replaced and the teachers all use the best ones. This was a shot n the dark at first but through time, trial, and error we improved the school’s ability to reach kids. This is just one example. I have had to try methods of choosing random non-volunteers and learned what worked best for me. This turned out to be playing cards with kids’ names written on them with Sharpie. Because the benefits of trying and failing in teaching are so huge, I love to share this quote with you teachers that may have tried and failed recently:

Every day is a new beginning
Stay away from what might have been
And look at what can be.

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Proximity and Presentation in Lesson Plans

Teaching can never be described as a simple endeavor. Planning lessons is a challenge that will always stupefy the greatest teaching minds. That doesn’t mean we give up though! Humility is a necessary ingredient in the dynamite teacher. If we ever reach a mental place where we feel we “have it wired” I think we will never reach our potential as educators. Through difficulty and yes, failure, we become great. Anyone who tells you failure isn’t a requisite for teaching greatness is not a great teacher in my opinion.

We talk about the methods of great teaching and we talk about our objectives. One thing we don’t talk about enough is the proximity and presentation of our lessons. Take this idea for example: say you have delivered guided practice to your class on a math topic for nearly 2 hours and you still do not see 80% accuracy in the kids. You might be tempted to blame them or even still yourself for not getting the lesson out in an effective manner. Quick, simple question:

“Where do you stand?”

Could it be possible the kids couldn’t see your numbers as you wrote them on the board? Could it be possible your glorious “steps” you created and taught were hidden from the students because the screen turns snow-blind at a given angle? Perhaps you should take the time to test and measure the proximity and presentation of your lesson before you begin. No time teaching kids is ever wasted.  However, you can make the most of your time by deciding the answers to some of these questions before, during, and after your lessons:

  • Can every seat see me and the content I am presenting? You might go to every seat with your content on the overhead to test this. Or, you might ask a colleague to pop in and test your visibility
  • Where do you stand? You should know the blind spots you create with your body and/or writing hand.
  • Is the overhead or document camera a better tool than standing at the board for the content you are delivering?
  • Are your visuals big enough for the back to see.

After you have addressed question like these, you are more likely to produce a dynamite lesson.  But don’t stop there. If you find yourself puzzled as to why kids aren’t getting it, you don’t have to wear yourself out asking questions like background checks for employment. Simply use proximity and presentation as a way to troubleshoot and pinpoint issues holding your teaching back. The reason you aren’t reaching all your kids may very well lay in the question: “Where do you stand?”

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Kids Getting to You?

When it comes to teaching, there are a couple disparate popular opinions. Some say teachers have it easy “playing with kids all day.” The other one holds that teachers have it worse than most jobs in that kids drive them crazy all day. Where do you fall along the spectrum? We should in fact be thankful to work with the citizens of tomorrow. That basis along is enough to inspire respect, in my opinion. At the same time, many teachers suffer ailments as a result of their job. The kids truly are “getting to” many out there in the occupation. I think every teacher I know gets frustrated and at the end of their rope sometimes. Here’s a few simple things you can do when the kids are getting to you:

  • breathe. I have found that many times when I am getting frustrated I am taking shallow breaths. Oxygen feeds the blood and the blood feeds the brain so make sure you are taking fairly deep breaths in between teaching.
  • imagine them as grownups. I don’t mean to expect more from them than what kids can do. I simply mean to gain empathy for them when you imagine what they’ll be when they grow up. This can also help motivate you knowing you are entrusted with such a calling.
  • find the humor. Let them be kids, and laugh at the things they do. Laughter is the best medicine sometimes.

Of course there are many other ways to “check your head.” Remember to be aware of when the kids are getting to you. Whether it is the quality of life you have at home or the doctor’s measures, you need to pay attention to the signs. In order to best serve the kids, you must make sure that you are happy and healthy first. The students will thank you for making the effort to be a “whole” teacher.

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One Question Tests

48095_10151460458076117_1282058836_nI was driving back from Del Taco tonight and had an epiphany about my class and how I can help them all achieve standards mastery. It would be really helpful to see if they can actually work through math problems I have been teaching. I mostly do two kinds of assessments currently, whiteboard “on the spot” picking random-non-volunteers with playing cards and formal multiple choice paper tests. I find that there are usually a few who somehow get through these assessments and don’t really master the material. I thought it would be great to give a 1-2 question test each morning on the challenge standards, or the ones the whole class scores below 70% accuracy on. That in and of itself is not the great idea. Grading them is!

In class or at home I can see almost instantly if a kid is getting say long division or place value standards. I can make 2 piles: Those that “got it” and those who didn’t. In minutes, I have valuable assessment information that I can make a plan to address. I can work in a small group with those kids in the “did not get it” pile. I can also pair students who did get it with those who didn’t. I have found numerous times that some students respond better when taught by their proficient peers. It’s an especially great idea for middle to end of the year because in that time segment you have a pretty good idea which standards need extra work. The best part of these “piles” of tests is that you can put a post-it with the standard and save them for anytime you have the time to reteach and address these deficiencies. It’s very simple and very helpful I think. In theory, you could even avoid the copier by simply putting the 1-2 problems up on the overhead. If you have a Mobi or other writing device for your overhead that can be a great way to correct the test and reteach as well. In theory, you will have a stack of several standards paperclipped together that will help you work toward entire class mastery of the standards.

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Keep Old Stuff

Keep old Curriculum 2To some this post is stating the obvious: keep your old materials for teaching. With all the “home makeover” shows on today, there is a definite emphasis on minimalism. Feng Shui and Hoarding are also a part of our modern vocabulary but throw all that away and keep old stuff! Remember encyclopedias? I kept a set. I don’t use them often but it’s a teaching opportunity to show the kids what life was like before the internet. We would consult World Book instead of Google. Kids get a sense of history that way. For example, compare the Apollo flight to the moon article in an encyclopedia to a Google search. Kids just don’t know there is a difference.

Keep old Curriculum 3Keep old textbooks that the District tells you to discard. I know so many teachers who regret getting rid of an old math series we used to use. I kept 21 of them! I wish I would have kept the 35 I once had. Another thing these are really good for is independent study. I sometimes get requests for independent study curriculum when kids are going to be out for weeks. When you have an old text, you can work with it and not risk losing the current texts. Of course, kids muct always have the option of taking home the current text per William’s act. These textx are great for small group work and even homework.

Keep old CurriculumMath manipulatives are notorious for being thrown out, as are Science kits. Both are golden to have around. I have noticed, for example, that many of my kids annot tell tradition time as in the hands of a clock. I got a hold of a kindergarten math kit a colleague had kept and I used it to teach time in about three sittings of 3 minutes each. Tis is helpful to all subjects and in all standards. You never know where it will pop up. Not to mention the kids that may think it’s cool to have an analog watch. Keep old stuff, I guarantee you’ll use it, Of course, some stuff must be thrown away. Someone said, it you don’t use it for 2 years, throw it away. I’ll leave that up to you.

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Online Diary: ‘Mr. Riley and Mr. Pig’ – How I Believe Puppetry and Guitar Help My Students

damien_riley_and_mr_pigEveryone has at least one special “talent booth” in the big tent of what they do. I have a few I like to think. Actually other people tell me I do so it isn’t boasting. I’m good with computers and technology, I’ve been called a “natural teacher” and sometimes I bring puppets to life in my class. I’ve been using Mr. Pig to motivate students for a long time now, probably 5 years I think. He was given to me by a friend who is much more serious into puppets and puppet shows. I approached him about wanting to get a puppet and he basically let me have a pick from a large container of them. I’ll always be thankful to him for that. When you’re trying something new, it truly helps to have support from a friend.

I got Mr. Pig and Mr. Duck that day. Through the years, both have served me well in the classroom. I can make kids smile nd get them excited about boring subjects with puppets. Both of the have a voice and my kids sometimes beg me to “do the puppets.” It’s become a laid-back fun activity we do a few times a month. As someone who works daily with ten-year olds, I can tell you things like puppets that capture their attention are invaluable resources.

Mr. Pig has a voice like Joe Pesci. When I start making him talk, it’s odd because I feel like I really am him. Like Senor Wences and other ventriloquists, It’s like I am talking to someone else. I love getting into puppetry. I also play guitar for my kids. I find it’s good to have something to break up the monotony and lower the affective filter. When you have tricks like puppetry and music at hand, you ca go further than without. I can’t tell you how many people through the years have told me they wish they could play the guitar. Like anything, technology or puppetry, it’s all about getting into a space where you can play with it. I learned puppetry through play with my class. I learned guitar the same way. I played along with every REM album through my teens and twenties along with The Alarm and a few other bands. None of that was hard, it was PLAY! Maybe that’s why the puppets and music I share now make the kids smile. I am sharing play.

I think about what makes life worth living for me and I can tell you it isn’t my college diplomas. At the same time, public education preaches that we teachers should always push college as the end of the rainbow. I think we all know that isn’t worth sacrificing for. It’s the passions and play that we love that gets us off the couch and out into the world.

I earned my degrees so I could pursue the things l love like guitar, drama (puppetry), podcasting, blogging, taking vacations, going to the beach, eating out … now as I write those things I feel excited to be teaching, to be learning. Any one of these things might be called a vice by a schoolmaster but I tell you they are the carrot in front of the donkeys eyes that keeps him/her studying! I believe I need more incentive to go to college and less concern about college itself in my class. I want my kids to have a reason for living that drives them to be educated and gives them a thirst for knowledge. You can’t force play, you can model it though. A kid with no ability to play is truly the saddest kid. My hope is that my own children as well as those in my class will be experts at play. College or a good job and life is just the by-product. That’s why I hope they remember more than just algebra. I hope they remember Mr. Riley and Mr. Pig.

As far as guitar goes, I learned at 8 years old by my father. He taught me 3 chords: A D and E and he showed me a finger technique I called “Pluck brush thumb up down.” It has a kind of “Happy Trails” 2/4 country rhythm to it. That was nearly all I needed to get hungry for playing more. Soon, he had taught me all the chords and I hard started singing along with those. Eventually I would transfer what I learned from Dad into the electric guitar and I played in a few bands … notice the word “play.” I know in my classroom it is difficult to do things that look like play all the time. After all, we are running a school here. Still, I am convinced after 17 years doing this job that kids need to have play modeled for them and they also need time and space to explore their own play. I am always looking for ways to weave play into the curriculum the state wants me to use.

It’s great for me to have things I can go to when I get free time. I want my own children to see me doing things that I enjoy, things that are play to me. Ultimately, that is all we have after the paycheck. If you don’t know what you want to play, money and prestige at work will never satisfy you. I suppose there are people who can play all day at work but I suspect even those people need an outlet, an escape of playing something else. For example, a video game programmer needs to mountain climb. People sometimes tell me I “play” with kids all day so my job is easy. Oh if you only knew a teacher’s days! Still, they may be right for a few days but when you work with kids every day the extent of your contract, you can burn out. I know the things that I like to play and I hope I foster the notion of play in my students so they can grow up and keep a smile on their faces in this crazy, often wicked and heartless (whether meaning to be or not) world.