Tuesday, December 20, 2016

There is so much more to "giving."

During the holiday season many of us do a lot more "giving." We make donations, volunteer to serve Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter, bake cookies for friends and family, and find so many other opportunities to give of ourselves. Where did we learn to do this? Most of us learned through our friends and family. Yet, years ago the whole community was involved. It used to be expected that you would contribute not just to your family but to the community at large.

I recently saw a Hallmark Channel movie that featured a Santa Clause who had a different perspective. Instead of just asking the children what they wanted for Christmas (shouldn't Santa know that already?) he asked the children what they would like to give. He opened the children's eye to what gifts they had that could be shared; no money or shopping necessary. 

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Our students spend 13 years in public (or private) education hearing only about what they may "get" from it. You need to do well in grade school to "get" into high school. Do well in high school and you can "get" into a good college, "get" scholarship money and grants, and so on. Earn a college degree so you can "get" a good job so you can "get" stuff. I believe it would greatly strengthen the education system, and our society, if we focused more on what students can "give."

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Some simple gifts a child can give to a loved one include helping with dinner or household chores, a Free Hug coupon, singing a song or presenting a dance routine. Some gifts our students can give to the school community include peer tutoring, helping to clean up around the school, starting a flower garden, making gifts for those who are less fortunate, and fundraising. Some gifts our students can give to the community are joining a service organization like the 4H Club or the national scouting organizations, volunteering at a local hospital, picking up trash on the side of the road, or helping a neighbor with yard work or babysitting.

Our students have so much to offer and yet without the example being set for them it never occurs to many that they should be expected to give and not just to receive. I know many of you would agree there is often much more joy in giving than in receiving. One of my students is so excited that he was able to buy gifts for his family for the first time this season. He is spending money that he earned through hard work. He says that he is so anxious to give the gifts he is having a difficult time waiting until Christmas! This young man has learned the joy of giving.

The well-known psychologist, Erich Fromm, wrote:

“Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.”
I found a number of Websites that list opportunities and resources for young people. Here are a few of them.

As we move into the New Year, perhaps we can keep these things in mind and look for opportunities for our students to give of themselves and to share their gifts and talents with others so that they might experience this joy.

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Thank you for listening.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Preparing for the Holidays

Preparing for the Holidays

The holiday season brings a great deal of excitement to the classroom. Most students are anticipating how they will spend their break and what gifts they might get. They are excited about spending time with family. Unfortunately, this is not the case of all of our students. Some children do not have celebrations during the holidays because of cultural or religious differences. There are also a number of young people who struggle emotionally during this period of time.

Many children, particularly those with autism, do not respond well to change. Staying home from school for winter break is a complete disruption of their daily routine and can generate a great deal of anxiety and stress. According to U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015 there were 49,361,000 students were enrolled in K-12 schools. We know that about 1 in 68 has autism; that means there were about 725,900 autistic students. 

Other children do not look forward to long breaks because they do not have a happy home life. Some are homeless, in foster care, come from abusive homes, and/or live below the poverty level. These children do not have the same expectations their classmates do of expensive gifts and fancy meals.
Other young people are struggling because they have lost a parent either through divorce or through death. The holidays can be a challenging time for young people who have suffered a loss, especially those who find it difficult to express their feelings. Some may experience feelings of guilt, particularly in family where a divorce has occurred.

So, I'm not writing this to be a Debbie Downer. I think it is important as educators that we are aware that some of our students may not be looking forward to winter break. We need to be sensitive to students who might be having a difficult time this holiday season. Here are some suggestions.
  1. Try to provide opportunities for students to open up and share their feelings about the holidays.
  2. Provide alternate assignments if you are doing some holiday-related activity. Be creative. For example, if you assign students the task of writing about how their family spends the holidays, you could offer students the option of writing about their dream vacation or perhaps how they envision the perfect holiday to be. If children are making a craft to give to a parent as a holiday gift, you might offer the option of making a gift for a friend or even for themselves. If a child lost a parent or another loved one, you might suggest that they make something to honor that person.
  3. Some schools have little holiday shops that are open for children to buy gifts for their families. Come up with a fun alternative activity for students who cannot, or just do not want to shop. That way those who have little or no money, or have no one to buy for, will not feel left out.
  4. If you think a child is struggling, keep in touch with other teachers and guidance counselors in your building who see the same student. Find out how they are doing in their other classes.
Keeping all of our students in mind when planning holiday activities may lead to a more positive learning environment, help struggling students cope, and still offer a nice distraction from the everyday for everyone.

Thank you for listening.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Politics in the Classroom – The Aftermath

I had hoped that November 9, 2016 would bring some relief from politics and the political election. Alas, it was not meant to be. Instead, November 9 brought a tidal wave of emotion. I have four simple words to bring peace to my students; politics is not personal.

Of course, we all feel a personal connection. We looked at the candidates and made connections; formed opinions. We hoped and perhaps even expected a certain outcome from the November 8 process. Yet, it is not personal.

A new U.S. President does not change what this country is and what it stands for. There are still millions all over the world who are trying to get into the United Stated because of the hope, even promise of a better life. I recently heard an interview with a Haitian woman who spent four years of her life to get to Mexico so she could cross the northern border.

Our country still has three branches of government for checks and balances of power. We, as a people, still have the freedom to reach out to our elected officials and share our opinions. Many countries do not offer this freedom. We still have the right to practice whatever religion we choose openly. Again, many countries do not offer this freedom. There are countries where people must practice their religion and even their sexuality in secret or fear for their lives.

I blame the media for all of the drama we are experiencing. The media thrives on drama because drama sells. Hillary is a hard working public servant who has spent most of her adult life in service to this county is not a sexy story. The media would rather focus on her mistakes. Donald is an accomplished businessman who has created thousands of jobs and helped thousands more through charitable contributions is not as enticing to the media as some trash talking Donald did years ago.

I was raised to separate the Office of the President from the person. I am hoping that the people of the United States will be able to do this going forward. Ignore the media. They are not your friend, nor do they have your best interest at heart. The interest of the media is making a profit for themselves. Instead, take a deep breath and let us watch and see together. The election is over so lamenting its outcome will come to no avail. Perhaps there are great things coming in the next four years. And if not, we know there will be another election. If you are unhappy now, perhaps you will like the outcome of that one better.

Thank you for listening.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Politics in the Classroom

When voting is depressing.

Politics may not be the best subject for an educational blog, but I need to get this off of my chest.

I teach a Personal Finance course to high school seniors. We have been talking a great deal about the upcoming election. One of the topics I cover in Personal Finance is what I call "Taxpayer Responsibility." In this unit, I teach my students how to vote. I explain the difference between a U.S. Representative and a PA Representative. I show them how to use resources such as govtrack.us to look up the activities of elected officials. I also have them take the political quiz at iSideWith to see how they align with the political ideologies of the candidates. As we are discussing this and other topics, the current U.S. political environment has come up a number of times.

The issue I find most troubling is that these young people want to be excited about voting, but instead of being enthusiastic about casting their ballots they are disappointed. They have been waiting their whole lives to participate in the democratic process and now feel let down. There is not one candidate that they sincerely want to cast a vote for. My 24-year-old daughter is in the same position. She wants to vote for someone she believes in... Someone she feels will make the United States a better place... Someone who will do what is right for the people who are citizens of this country. Where is this person?

In the 2016 Presidential race, the two main contenders are an embarrassment. The Democratic Party candidate is guilty of the exact type of security breaches that other people are serving time in prison for. Many of the people who support her do so only because she is a woman (see the video to the right). I'm sorry, but I do not believe that is a good reason to vote for someone. And even if you are anxious for the first woman to be President, isn't there a better choice somewhere? Anywhere? Here is a list of 25 reasons why Hillary is not a good choice for our next President. (see townhall.com).

Then we have the Republic candidate. Oh boy … where do you even start with this guy? He has no political experience, which is actually why his supporters like him. People are sick of voting for politicians who are more concerned with being reelected than they are with representing the people who got them elected in the first place (or so people say, but they then they keep voting for the status quo). Anyway, the Republican candidate is boorish and seems to have no filter. People all over the world are terrified that he will win the election. I doubt he will do anything that will benefit a middle-class school teacher. He supports school choice which has not had the positive impact on education those who investors charter schools claimed it would. Here is a list of 40 reasons not to vote for Donald Trump (see townhall.com). Some of them are pretty weak, but keep reading; it gets better.

I am trying to encourage my students to make an educated vote, but it is difficult to stay positive. They very much want to believe in something, but they are not being presented with quality choices. I fear those who would be best to serve as the U.S. President avoid public office because of the behavior or our press. When one runs for public office it seems that any bad decision ever made because fodder for public scrutiny. There are many, including your political opponents, who will not only smear your name with your past sins but feel free to make up things that you never actually did nor said and claim them as facts. Running for public office today means that you forfeit all rights to your privacy and the privacy of everyone you have ever been close to.

The independent parties are not providing better choices. The Libertarian Party has some great leadership. Why they chose a regular pot smoker who acts like a fool in interviews I cannot say.

Jill Stein is a bit too new-age hippy for me (see the video below at 9:27). Not that I have anything against, new-age hippies; I just don't want one for President.

So, what is the answer? I am hoping that the lessons I teach will sink in and lead my students to research candidates and make educated votes. I hope that they will stay in touch with their elected officials and keep them on track. I hope that some day we can once again be proud to cast our votes, not for the "lesser of two evils" but for someone that we fully support.
Thank you for listening.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

To PreTest or Not to PreTest

Over the past 15 years my opinion of the PreTest/PostTest has changed, particularly since the implementation of the SLO requirements we as PA Educators must fulfill. I used to think that a PreTest was a great way of measuring a starting point for a class ... assessing current knowledge and understanding before we get started for the course. This way I knew if there was anything that I could skip. I no longer believe this to be the case.

Why, you ask? Thank you for asking. There are a few reasons. First is the stress it puts on students who are already tested to the point of ridiculousness. I once heard George Bush justifying the NCLB testing by saying that if we are teaching the material, we should not be afraid of testing. But it's not about the teachers. School has never been about the teachers. It is supposed to be about what is best for the students. The simple fact is that testing causes stress for students. Testing after a lesson makes sense because will measure of what students learned. For most subjects testing before teaching the material is using valuable class time ineffectively.

In evaluating PreTest results, I have found that student knowledge of the material I teach varies widely. I teach courses that are not leveled meaning that I have every kind of student, from a non-verbal autistic student with a second-grade reading level to an Honors student who is taking college classes in the same class. Some of my courses include students from 9th grade through 12th grade, ranging in age from 13 to 20 years. As a result, my PreTest scores are not often helpful in modifying the curriculum.

Another reason I doubt the benefit of the PreTest/PostTest is the general attitude of students who take it. If you use Multiple Choice, True False, Matching, etc., many students do not even read the questions. They click through as quickly as they can to get it over with. I have actually had students score higher on the PreTest than the PostTest because they put no effort into either. Of course, some students approach these assignments with a much better attitude, but you still have to consider if this is the best use of your classroom time.

The primary reason I dislike the PreTest/PostTest is the stress it puts on students. Let me get back to PreTest/PostTest and the Pennsylvania SLO requirement. The SLO, or Student Learning Objective is a "Pennsylvania's new Educator Effectiveness System" (see more at PDE  or PSEA). As a classroom teacher, I am required to come up with an objective I want to measure. I design the assessment, I PreTest and measure the results. I then teach the material and give the assessment again (PostTest). I analyze the results. If student scores increase from PreTest to PostTest according to the measures I specified I expected when I wrote the SLO, it looks good. If student scores do not go up as much as I said they should, it does not look good.

Okay, in simple English now. I want students to do really bad on the PreTest so it looks like I taught them well. If their scores do not increase dramatically from PreTest to PostTest, I am not a good teacher. This affects my yearly evaluation. If the scores go up a lot from PreTest to PostTest, I look great. I hope you are keeping in mind while you read this that I wrote the SLO, I designed the assessments, I administered the assessments, and I analyzed the results. I'm not sayin', I'm just sayin'.

My solution ... when I introduce a lesson I lead whole class discussion about the material and simply ask students what they already know. This can be accomplished in a traditional sense where we all just talk to each other, or using an online forum or chat sessions. If you have students who do not feel comfortable speaking aloud in the classroom, the online approach may be the best choice. Either way, must simpler, a lot less work for me, and no stress! Furthermore, if provides an opportunity for the teacher to tie new material in with something students are already familiar with. That, my friend, is good pedagogy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Effective Classroom Management

Effective Classroom Management

I have been teaching in K-12 classrooms for over 15 years. During this time, I have seen a great deal of classroom management and discipline policies that I would put in the category of "Epic Fail." When the techniques you use cause more disruption to the learning process than they relieve, it is obviously time to try something different. I am sharing some of what I know works.
  1. Make sure students know that they are a valued member of the class and the school community. Many students feel like an outsider, particularly if they don't have any friends in the class. Making them know that what they contribute will be valued encourages class participation, and when students are participating, they are staying on task. You can do this by greeting them at the door to acknowledge their presence, including them in class discussions, asking questions, etc. Also, encourage your students to ask questions. I tell my students the only "dumb" question is the one that you don't ask.

  2. Be respectful. Teachers can be the worse bullies in the classroom and not even realize it. Take care to correct students without "calling them out" in front of their peers. Singling out a student in a public way can cause a number of problems including:
    • putting a dent in the student-teacher relationship.
    • causing classmates to gang up on thestudent.
    • making the student feel less valued as a person.

  3. Try to pull students aside or even go out into the hallway with them if you need to correct a behavior or some other issue. Often, just establishing eye contact with a distracted or disruptive student or is all that is needed to get him/her back on task.  Another way to reach a student who lacks class participation is to offer them a chance to contribute something to the classroom environment. Perhaps they could run an errand for you, pass out papers, or help another student who is struggling.

  4. Be consistent. It is comforting to students when they know what to expect. If possible, establish classroom routines and expectations on the first day of class and do not stray from them. Make sure that what you are doing in your classroom matches what is expected throughout the building. If students go from one class to another and the rules change, they get confused and frustrated.
  5. When you introduce a lesson, explain what you will be teaching and why. Let students know ways the material will benefit them in the future. Ask them what they already know about the topic, or if they know anyone who uses it. For example, when I teach students about the bank routing numbers on a personal check, I explain that they will need this information if they get paid by direct deposit and to file their taxes. I ask them who had to provide an employer with a voided check or fill out a direct deposit form for their job.

  6. Give warnings. Not every infraction of the rules is punishable by death. I have found that it is best to give students the benefit of the doubt in certain cases. It often may seem like a student is cutting class, but then I find out the next day they were held by another teacher, in guidance, or had some other legitimate circumstance that kept them from my class.

  7. Use proximity to keep students on task. Instead of calling across the classroom to get the attention of a student who has become distracted, just go stand near them as you continue the lesson. This keeps the focus on the learning instead of classroom management activities. If the situation calls for it, you might want to ask a question of a distracted student to pull them back into the learning activity.

  8. Offering students choices can go a long way to improving the classroom environment. High school students in particular are often frustrated by the lack of control they have in school. When students have choices, they feel empowered and often much more comfortable in the classroom setting. There are a number of ways teachers can overcome this.

    • Allow students to sit by friends, listen to music while they work, or some other request they have as long as they stay on task, complete their classwork, and do not bother anyone else. 
    • Offer students some choice in the classwork or projects they work on. For instance, I have students complete projects following a grading rubric that is not topic specific so students can choose the subject matter.
    • Let students choose whether to complete an assignment on paper or on the computer. Some students do better when they have an opportunity to add some creativity to their work.
    • Some students may prefer to stand during lessons rather than sit. This is true of many kinesthetic learners who need to be moving in order to learn. If possible, have a few standing desks in the classroom, or perhaps even a stability ball that students can sit on rather than a stationary chair.

  9. Keeping in mind that we are the adults and the students are the children can minimize anger and frustration, and help in maintaining an attitude that leads to a positive classroom environment. And remember; never take what students say personally. They are, after all, children. As an adult our self-worth should not be dictated by what a child thinks of us or what we do.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

About this Blog

I decided to start this blog for a couple reasons. First, I believe I have a lot of good information to share. I have worked as an educator in one way or another my entire adult life.
I raised 2 children. We all know that parenting requires quite a bit of teaching. Johnny ... don't touch the hot stove or it will hurt! Jane ... if you eat the garden slugs you will get a tummy ache! And, unfortunately, Johnny and Jane don't listen much better than our students do and end up learning everything the hard way. Raise your hand now if you resemble that model! Other areas where I have been a teacher include running a church youth group, being a classroom parent, training adults in computer skills, and 15 plus years as a classroom teacher.

Another reason I decided to write is that after working for years to obtain a doctoral degree in educational leadership, I would like to be an educational leader. I have applied for many positions that interested me, but it seems that most of the work that I am drawn to follows the "publish or perish" mindset. 

Personally, I am not in love with the idea of publishing. While I do enjoy writing, publishing requires that I spend a great number of hours researching and writing material that only 3 people will ever read ... and those 3 would only read it to get a source for their own research. This whole system does not appeal to me.

So, I decided to blog instead. My plan is to publish weekly articles. Reality may keep that from happening but it is the plan. The articles will all be written so that they can be read in 5 minutes or less as we are all very busy people.

I am hoping that readers will leave evocative comments to these posts. As an educator, I strongly believe that you should never stop learning. I would agree to a "learn or perish" mandate long before "publish or perish."

Having Educating!