Becoming with books

If you have never done the homework you assign your students, you really should. While we don’t have the time to do all of the work we assign our students, there are times where we really should. This seems the best way to make sure that the work we give them is really good for them, or if it is assigned because that is what we are supposed to do.

Recently, I had my AP English Language and Composition class read Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” For a pre-reading activity, I asked them to complete the following writing:

Describe your early experiences with reading. Spend some time examining your history with reading. Do you still enjoy reading for fun? Are you a victim of letting school get in the way of your reading for pleasure (my many apologies for allowing this class to get in the way of your enjoyment of our readings from time to time (a very sad irony))? What are some of the earliest books you read? What do books mean to your family (feel free to include pictures if you have a family library)? If you have never enjoyed reading, why is that? How do you acquire stories? And whatever else might pop into your mind.

I figured I would do this one with my students. A bit long, but it is below. Happy reading, and feel free to share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments. Again, my thanks for reading.


If you were a member of my family, you read books. From the moment my brother or I could hold a book, our parents put one in our hands. Once we could sound out words, we were reading to our parents. The moment we could read larger books, we were given access to our parent’s library. The library was a room so sacred, food was not allowed, this in a house where ash trays were primary decor, a house where stacks of books lay in piles to be read, piles to be returned, and piles to be put away. The library was the only place my parents came close to consider putting out a cigarette or cigar. Close.

In 1974, we moved to Albuquerque from Alexandria, to a neighborhood where my parents were the lone east coast liberals in a place full of defense contractors. Hailing from New York City, my parents had grown accustomed to having dwelling with only living space, the idea of a garage was foreign to them. When they bought a house with a two car garage, they immediately set to remodeling. They got rid of the garage and turned it into a library. The walls were lined with built in book shelves, In the middle  of the space was a reading couch and a desk. They set aside space for my dad’s stereo system and his dark room for a photography business that never quite turned out. 

My parents read with abandon. Anytime they were still, which was frequent, they had a book. If they were watching TV, they had books. If they were sitting outside, they had books. After my father cast his fishing line into a lake, he placed his pole in a nook in his chair, and with his bobber floating many yards away, he sat back in that chair and read. My father hated going into the stores, so while mom did the shopping, he sat in the car and read a book. Sometimes I would stay and read with him. Those quiet moments with my father, sitting in the car with the windows rolled down, a cross breeze running through the car carrying the scent of his cigar, and the only sound was that of pages turning, those are some of my fondest memories of books. And my father.

• • •

My first real book was Watership Down. It was all the rage in 1977. My brother read it. My best friend read it. His older brothers read it. My parents read it (likely because we were all reading it, though they drew the line with sharing our books when we all started reading Tolkein’s books). Watership Down is the story of a warren (I distinctly remember looking “warren” up. If you’re in a house of readers, there will likely be an honest love and respect of words – which means there are several heated arguments over the meaning of words, which ends when someone consults the large family dictionary – which I did to learn the meaning of the word “warren.”) of rabbits. The warren is destroyed and the rabbits are forced to leave and reestablish their lives elsewhere. As they do, they are confronted with a variety of struggles from within their warren and outside of it. It is a delightful story about foundations and redemption told thought a bunch of anthropomorphized rabbits. Everything an eight year old boy could want.

LibraryOne of our family jokes was that if either my brother or I walked in and our parents were not reading, then we likely would have walked out of the house in horror, fearing we had entered the wrong house. So present were books and reading in my family, thus, when I stopped reading in middle and high school, there were quiet threats of disowning me. I would like to blame this stoppage on the death of Greg, my best friend, but that seems too convenient (though likely the real cause). Reading  provides a delightful escape from reality, so why wouldn’t I use it after Greg died? Perhaps because Greg and I read books together. There is an innocence there. An innocence of two young boys sitting on the couch reading books and talking about them. If he and I were not outside, we were reading in one of our perspective houses. When he died that summer between fifth and sixth grade, coincidentally, so did my love of reading.

After both of my parents died, my brother and I had to decide what to do with those books. My parents had outgrown their library as the weekly trips to The Menaul Book Exchange, the used bookstore of choice, had gotten the best of them. The house burst at the seams from thrillers, rose books, garden books, history books, mysteries, philosophy, essay collections, comedies, and whatever may have grabbed their attention on their weekly pilgrimage to that book store. I say their pilgrimage, but when my brother and I were younger, our weekends involved at least one trip to the library and often The Menaul Book Exchange. My parents did not hoard, unless it came to books. A trait which I have inherited. When it came time to clean their house, 24 years since I had moved out, books had moved in to occupy the spaces my brother and I had once occupied. When we cleaned the house, we divided the books into three rooms: books we wanted to keep, books to give to the New Mexico Rose Society, and books to donate to charity. I didn’t take that many. I have since become a different reader. I wanted the love and memories reading those books carry with them to be shared with another who needs to share in their scent and their words and their love.

My reading moratorium lasted until college. Sure, I read books for classes, but not for love. Not to learn for myself. Not to grow as a person. Not to inquire as a thinker. I read because I had to. I didn’t absorb my reading to my own knowledge base, I didn’t take that shared knowledge and make it personal. I almost hate to admit this, but I started reading for pleasure again because of girls. I realized that the girls I liked, liked guys who could read a book. So I began the process of rediscovering my love of books and the power of the written word. And I have not left it since.

So here I am, 30 years since resuming reading, four years since my mother died, more than 45 years since I started reading on my own and aloud to my parents, and I now have a library of my own. When I remodeled my house a few years ago, I made sure I had a space dedicated to mine and Felicia’s books. Included is plenty of space for Zoey, Felicia’s daughter, to have her own books alongside our books. The room is a space to sit, listen to music, read, and talk. It is a space to grow. It is a space to learn. It is a space to become. For that is the power of books and the power of words: we can become.

Design your ideal school: Using skills to complete a task

I have two PBLs going at the moment. This week, I will explore and reflect on the progress of the one in me senior English class. Mind you, these students are those that are quite disengaged with the whole school process. These are the kids who have not found much meaning in school. We go back and fourth about the purpose of school. What I have come to realize form these conversations is that they (and maybe us to a certain degree) mistake “skills” for tasks.”

They seem to think school should teach them menial tasks: write a check (When they say this, I draw a blank check on the board, show them what goes where, remind them that they likely will write fifteen checks a year, and ask if they will never again mention that writing a check is a skill.), how to change a tire (I show them a video on YouTube), how to do this and do that. The list goes on. And in the end, we have a talk about tasks versus skills.

Completing a task takes skills, skills that school teaches through the completion of given tasks. What many schools don’t do well is communicating the skills being used to complete a task and how those skills are used outside of that task.

My first PBL with these students is to design their ideal school (click and you will have access to the assignment and all necessary documents). If you look through it, you will see I make heavy use of the LAUNCH model. LAUNCH-CycleI chose the ideal school so that we could begin the year with an honest conversation about what they expect from school. Especially as they get ready to leave it. I want them the have an opportunity to realize the skills they need and use and have used in order to complete tasks of any levels are skills they will need as they move on.

Part of this is a language issue: I use the words “skills” and “tasks” at every turn with my classes. Along the way, students and schools seem to have confused the terms “skills” with “tasks.” Anyone can complete a task, it is a skill that requires refinement and development. Schools exist to facilitate the learning and acquisition of skills. It is up to the teacher and the school to remind students that the curriculum is naught but a vehicle to teach and utilize and reinforce a skill that can be used beyond math, history, science, art.

In my district, our superintendent has asked that we reinforce what he calls Jeffco Generations. These are closely related to 21st century skills, which many states and districts are tying into a variety of capstones and projects. What’s difficult is many schools continue to focus on “what” in a world increasingly dominated by “how.”  This is where so many of my frustrations come from: when we focus on content and not the skills, many students feel disengaged and lack empowerment.

Types-of-Student-Inquiry

I just handed this PBL out a couple of weeks ago. While the PBL’s inquiry is quite structured, so far students are mostly engaged. Many are demonstrating the skills I hope to see. When I have to engage them in some activity outside of the PBL, they moan that they are not working on their ideal school. However, they have realized that the activities outside of the PBL are designed to support their PBL by providing necessary context in order to provide a more solid foundation for their inquiry. Moreover, these activities assist in the skills they should be using to complete the tasks both inside and outside the PBL.

As it wraps up in a few weeks I will post my reflections. Until then, please take a look at the assignment and let me know what you think. Is there anything I can do better? Please let me know in the comments.

 

STEM is a skill, not a curriculum

Occasionally, when thinking without a harness, there comes the time to rant, this rant is brought to you by buzzword creators everywhere. I am sick to death of people jumping on the STEM bandwagon. As a content, STEM means nothing. As a skillset, it means quite a bit as it is a process of “doing,” which utilizes various principles of design thinking.

All good teaching uses design thinking to a certain degree. Principles of design are in good art classes, English classes, history classes, sciences classes, math classes. Just good classes. STEM is not exclusive to the domain of left brain oriented curriculum, in fact, STEM thrives on the right side of the brain, which is why STEM is quickly becoming STE(A)M, with the inclusion of the Arts.

What worries me is when parents will ask a school if it is a STEM school, the principal might invariably say, “Yes, see the sign on the building, it says so right there!” The parent looks at the sign in glee as she believes her child will be given an education focused on a curriculum. And, I fear, that is how it is sold. And there will likely be nothing different offered in that school.

If the same parent asked my school if we are STEM, I would argue that yes, we are. The parent would like to see the sign, and I would argue that STEM principles are embedded in all that good teachers do. My school encourages our teachers to foster some sense of inquiry, and from there develop the principles of design thinking. As well, we are an International Baccalaureate school, which means those classes are developed around inquiry, the foundation of STEM. That, in fact, is the big difference between IB and AP in my mind: IB begins and ends with inquiry and skills, where AP has a tendency to focus on content first, skills and inquiry second.

IMG_2064
Students working on spaghetti towers. After, they reflected on how they used each of the 21st Century Skills.

If you have been following my writing, you know that I am a fan of the 21st century skills. So often, my students tell me that school doesn’t teach them anything they will need in the real world. When they say this, they are referring to skills like writing a check, paying taxes, balancing a check book. When they bring this up, I make a quick demonstration on the board of how these basics are done (with a few snide remarks), and let them know that these are not the skills that they actually need.

The skills they need in reality are not so obvious. The problem is that teachers often do a poor job of informing their classes of the skills they are utilizing in completing a task and what this skill means outside of their classes. If we want our students to be empowered learners, they need to know the skill they are utilizing in the completion of a task to understand content is necessary beyond the walls of that class. Content should be a vehicle to teach a skill that is used outside of that content.

When I had my students building spaghetti towers in class a couple of weeks back, one class got into a heated argument to define assistance. A group used materials attached to the ceiling to provide support for their tower. They argued that it was not different than using tape affixed to the table. Other groups argued that this violated the rules. So I gave groups time to develop their arguments and sought an impartial judge in the form of our calculus teacher, and they presented their arguments to define what is and is not assistance.

When we open our classes to the idea of using content to develop skills, these conversations with students become real and authentic. Students should realize that a class is not so much about the content as it is about the skill and what that skill means outside of that class. I try to be intentional in each class about the skills we will be working on and how these are used beyond the walls of my classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, I love everything STEM. What I don’t like is when schools place a label on their building and claim to be something outside of a normal high school. STEM is developed around skills, not content. Every school should be a STEM school. Even without the label.

Losing the straightjacket

I often tell my students that they shouldn’t let school get in the way of their learning. They are baffled as they tend not to separate the two ideas. When I tell them not to let school get in the way of their learning it comes down to a few items: their focus on a grade, their need to follow instructions (when detailed, step-by-step instructions are not present, they tend to freak out), passively waiting for the teacher (me) to pass down information that will be on the test. This list could go on, but I figure you have an idea of what I am talking about.

So many of us are stuck in that place where we know what is important for our students, yet we are judged on various scores that have little to do with what is really important. So the question comes is how can I teach the skills I know my students need, yet get them ready for the mandated assessments that the system needs.

One teacher I worked with many years ago said that if you teach them well, they will do fine on the tests. I love that idea, and it has stuck with me for a long time. There are times when I figure I am on to something good. And then those times when I really want to crawl under a dark porch and rock myself to sleep. But that is what happens when we take risks.

I have written several pieces since I started this blog regarding PBL in my classes. While not that answer, PBL is part of the solution to the question of having students engage directly with essential skills, yet address the needs to do well on mandated assessments. It is part of that good teaching of which my friend spoke so many years ago. Recently, Forbes published a fantastic article about the difference between IB and AP. I teach both and have to say I much prefer IB over AP, but that is another topic. In the article, Peter Greene drops this beauty:

Imagine a test designed to energize instruction rather than strap it into a straightjacket. That would be cool. Inspired teachers lead to inspired students– what an idea.

Let that sit in your head for a moment. I wonder, however, if it is more than only the test that puts so much of teaching and learning in a straightjacket. Let’s pull our view back from the test to the idea of school. The idea of school as an institution places much student thinking and teaching in a straightjacket. So much that students and teachers are not as inspired as they could be. When students set their sights on the grade, on the GPA, on the test score, because the teacher’s teaching is focused on the grade, on the GPA, on the test score, creative inspiration on both ends is harnessed.

So I begin this year with this mindset: What can I do to make sure that my teaching is not in a straightjacket and thus student learning in my classes is not in a straightjacket as well? I worked hard last year on incorporating PBL in my classes, this year will see that amped up with a stronger emphasis on keeping my students more fully engaged via inquiry and design thinking. This year, as with last, I am teaching the entire spectrum of ability levels. I have IB and AP, along with those kids whose acceptance of school is tenuous at best. Both ends of the spectrum struggle to take their thinking out of the straightjacket for a myriad of other reasons, many of which I hope to explore this school year in order to let go of the straightjacket, both mine and theirs.

I want to close with the title of my website and what it means. So much of what we do in our lives, we do with a safety net of sorts. I have always felt that teachers need to practice what we teach and preach. I preach the gospel of reflection and creative, critical thought through writing. I want my students to take intellectual risks with their thinking. I want them to think without a harness. What a sham if I didn’t do the same.

What about you? What is your goal for the year? How do you go about practicing what you teach?

Reflecting on recent TOK PBL

As I have noted, in TOK the ‘P’ in PBL is focused on a problem. As I develop my PBL, I think about Jaime Casap who says that we need to stop asking kids what they know, but what problem they would like to solve. And while these are strong students, they are not at the total free inquiry place yet. So I gave them the problem of looking at a root cause for mass violence in our society, and present a viable solution for that problem.

And as I sit here having evaluated their work, I feel like it went pretty darn well.

The highlight of the assignment was when I passed it out and one of my students raised her hand and said: This is not a TOK assignment! I was giddy that they are beginning to realize what is and is not TOK. As any TOK teacher might acknowledge, half of teaching the class is helping students recognize what is and is not TOK. So I led the class to the reflection essay, which is TOK thinking. With this settled, they got to work on their problem: to explore what they feel is a root cause of mass violence and present a viable solution.

I stepped back and listened in on their conversations and their understandings. Over the course of the project, they had been presenting and sharing articles they found which address issues of concern regarding behavior and our understanding of behavior from the human and natural sciences. From these articles, they made connections with causes of mass violence. As they worked on discerning a root cause to mass violence, they pulled some of these ideas out and began to make necessary, foundational connections to address a root cause of violence.

When it came time to present their findings, their biology teacher and our school resource officer were fully engaged. The students were empowered as they owned the learning. All instruction during the course of the investigation had been done, to a certain degree, by them. All learning was their own. So when they presented, the joy was in their voices and their faces.

But, as noted, this was not the TOK part. My goal was that if they had knowledge they produced using the skills of the human and natural scientist, then their TOK reflection would be that much more meaningful. It would have been had I constructed the knowledge question better and more appropriate to their project. The knowledge question I gave them for reflection was: How can language of the human and natural sciences lead to understanding of human behavior? While it is evident how this question emerges from the inquiry, the question was not effective in making the necessary reflection I had hoped. Regardless, they did well from a TOK perspective, though a few missed the “of” in the question, which fouled up their responses, but some made effective connections with their inquiry into mass violence. Others did well in exploring the knowledge issues of language in understanding behavior. Next time I will focus the question more explicitly to their inquiry.

In the end, I am happy with how the project went. When we return in the fall, they will do something similar with math. They will be reading The Universe and the Teacup and I figure they will follow some line of inquiry whereby they use mathematical thinking to derive a solution to a problem. Though this time I will put the inquiry into their laps. With some guidance.

 

PBL in TOK: Violence in America

I meant to send this out last week, regardless, here is a plan I put together for a quick PBL in my TOK. Take a look and feel free to advise me for next go around about what I could do for it.

Many thanks and we are almost there to summer.


Scenario: The US government has called on experts to help the populace better understand acts of mass violence in the US today. As it stands, the government is still struggling to understand root causes as it and the American people usually want immediate fixes; however, the government has come to realize that in order to deal with the situation knee jerk reactions will no longer cut it. As a result, both the government and the American population need to have a better understanding of root causes. Therefore, the government has called upon you to present your findings at a symposium which seeks to address two issues:

  • What is a root cause to acts of mass violence in the United States
  • What is a viable solution to deal with that cause?

On May 21, 2018, we will hold a symposium where candidates will present their findings to a committee for review. Presentations will be used to explain your understanding of a (not the) root cause and a (not the) viable solution and how you will go about transmitting this understanding regarding acts of mass violence to the people of the United States.

Ideas to consider for presenting your understanding to the population, but not limited to:

  • PSA
  • Website
  • Informative brochure
  • Social media campaign
  • Whatever your mind wishes…

Issues you might consider as you develop your thinking:

  • Responsibilities (as a citizen, community)
  • Social expectations (from society, gender)
  • The role of language in understanding behavior (human/natural science)
  • Socialization (human/biological)
  • Cultural expectations (shared and personal knowledge)

As you develop your response, use the articles you (should) have been reading last week. There have been some solid understandings regarding this issue that have arisen from many of these articles. To ignore them will provide a very narrow and think understanding.


Following are scoring criteria and guidelines:

The purpose of the presentation on the 21st is to “sell” your project to a government agency who will use whatever your ideas are to help people understand mass violence in America today. You will want to consider the best manner about selling your idea. Issues you will address in your presentation:

  • The facts behind your thinking
  • Your understanding of a root cause and a viable solution
  • Your reasons for the project
  • How you think it will be effective in helping others to understand the issue with some clarity
  • How you came to this understanding as a root cause of violence

Presentation evaluated using the following:

  • Poise
    • Well spoken
    • Rehearsed
  • Logical development
    • There is a clear flow of information
    • Introduction is engaging and seeks to pull the audience in
    • Flow of ideas is natural
  • Clear knowledge and understanding of issues
    • Use of human and natural sciences
    • Provides viable solution
  • Developed explanation of ideas and information
    • Use of academic support
    • Consider multiple perspectives

Project evaluated using the following:

  • Creativity
    • Presents the issue in new manner
    • Provides unique insights
    • Demonstrates critical analysis and understanding
  • Sustained inquiry
    • The project should demonstrate inquiry into the subject
  • Research based
    • While not overly technical, the project should be convincing and based on research

Reflection (It is in the reflection where TOK will happen) essay (to be completed individually):

  • Write a 750 word essay that seeks to answer the following knowledge question: How can language of the human and natural sciences lead to understanding of human behavior?

 

Four strategies to avoid burnout

I have been doing this teaching thing for a touch over 22 years now. Weird to think that I have been doing it longer than my students have been alive. I have, in fact, been doing it long enough that I now have students who are the children of some of my students from many years ago. When the first of those kids came along, I almost feinted.

As many of us old farts will attest to, there comes a time when we are asked how we avoid burn out. How have we done this for so many years (with the exception of one semester, my entire career has been at the same school)? While it isn’t easy, it isn’t difficult to avoid burnout either. Some suggestions that have helped me along all these years.

I have noticed that the teachers who burnout the easiest tend to be the either the most passionate or have no place whatsoever in the classroom. To the passionate teachers looking for an out, keep reading. For those teachers who realize you are not suited to the classroom, thank you for having the courage to try. Following are some strategies I have used over the last many years to keep me afloat in this profession.

Strategy #1: Throw away last year’s plans…

The teachers who don’t seem to burnout the easiest are those who do the same thing year after year after year. However, these teachers also tend to be the least exciting. They likely don’t burnout because they have their lessons and grading down pat. These are the teachers who still use the same overheads they used 20 years ago when overhead projectors were high tech. These are the teachers who spend their teacher prep days at the beginning of the year making copies for the entire semester. You know this teacher. You have had this teacher. And like me, you probably entered this gig not wanting to be this teacher. Perhaps you don’t use the same handouts and the like, but you’re feeling some burnout. Get rid of last year’s plans. Start over. Try something different with your classes. You might have the same content, but that doesn’t mean you have to teach the same lessons. Let’s face it, what worked last year, likely won’t work for the students you currently have. Don’t do the same thing year after year after year.

Strategy #2: Change your schedule…

A few years back I was in rut. I was looking at want ads. I was looking at what I could do to get out of the profession. I did the math to see what it would take to retire early. So, rather than do something irrational I walked into the scheduler’s office and told her to take my honors English class off my schedule and replace it with co-taught English. In case you’re wondering, co-taught English is as far on the opposite end of the spectrum of honors as you can get. A good chunk of my career has been in advanced classes. This change has done absolute wonders for my perspective as a teacher. It has re-energized what I do. And, it has impacted how I approach my AP and IB classes. If you’re struggling, and it is possible, change a class in your schedule.

Strategy #3: Work with the new teachers…

A couple of years back my school got an infusion of new teachers. They came in with some new ideas and approaches. Where many of us old farts might look at new teachers and say, “BAH! You kids and your new fangled ideas. You’ll learn!” Don’t say that. Sit with them. Learn from them. Mentor them with an open mind and you just might learn something, too. Felicia entered this crazy world of education four years ago after 20 years in retail, a good chunk of that time in management. I have learned so much from her and other new teachers. Their enthusiasm can be infectious. Sometimes it will need a dose of reality, but buy into their enthusiasm. Don’t crush it. Help it come to fruition. There is something quite powerful about reigniting a passion.

Strategy #4: Learn something new…

I am not making this up. One year, close to 17 years ago, when I was almost done with this teaching thing, I wrote the following for my technology goals: I plan on utilizing the light switch so that my students will be better able to read and write. I think about that and I want to vomit. Challenge yourself with focusing on new. New strategies. New technologies. This year I have been working extra time on incorporating PBL in my classes. Trust me, I have messed up more than I have succeeded. But I have had some great success with incorporating these strategies into my classes. Today, in fact, Felicia and I just enrolled in John Spencer’s Design Thinking Master Course. I have also attended many Google Summits, reading conferences, a variety of IB conferences, some design thinking workshops. As well, I have been working on certification in working with ELL students. But whatever it is, challenge yourself to learn something new. It doesn’t matter, as long as you share your struggles with learning with your students. Let them know it is ok to try something new. To experiment. And to fail and work harder to succeed.

There you go, four strategies to help avoid burnout, none of which make heavy use of alcohol, though that has been considered (all right, it has been used) a few times. Sadly, it is easy for teachers to burnout, especially now, when it seems the world wants our collective noggins on a plate. As well, we are at that point in the year where there are exams coming up and standardized testing season on the back end. The pressure is being felt on so many ends.

Either way, hang in there and don’t let the bastards grind you down. Here’s to learning and teaching. Something I hope we are all passionate about. What are some strategies you use to avoid burning out?