Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Wolski's AP American Government Survival Guide


     Hello Constant reader! As we wind down the semester, I thought it would be prudent to share a few thoughts as I look back on the progression of class and some tips I have for students in my AP American Government class. (Although these tips apply to any class really) However, since AP Gov is only a semester long and there is a lot of material to cover, these tips might be more helpful for my AP students. Here goes.....
   
1. Organize! Prioritize! Cut the apron strings!! 

     Your first job is to organize yourself. I put everything on a calendar on Google that I share with you and all of the docs I share with you on Google have dates associated with when things are due. So if you need to use a planner to write stuff down then do so. I will mention when things are due when I assign them (As we go over it) But as you learn to cut some of those apron strings that you are use to having, learn to keep those dates straight. You might get one more reminder as the date approaches, but don't act surprised when I mention that it is due tomorrow. Trust me, your professor will hand you a syllabus on the first day and if you get one reminder about dates, you are lucky. Learn to be the master of your own organization.
     The second thing to work on is learning to prioritize your work. What is due next? How long will it take to get that done? You have to know thyself and figure out what takes you the most time to complete. Everything we do in our units is connected. Everything. So while you might be working on what is due next, open your vision to realize that what you are doing now is going to help you to do what is next and vice versa. Also, take a little time to work on things a little at a time rather than trying to do something all at once. Don't be the student that realizes they have a 10 page paper due in a week even though they had the requirements 4 months ago. Make a plan on how to tackle larger projects.
     What are "apron strings?" Well those are the tethers that bind you to some adult in your life: your parents, your teachers, etc. This connection, this bond, this reliance is needed when you are young, but as you progress through school, those ties need to slowly be cut so students can begin to learn how to be more and more self-reliant. Remember, your teachers and parents will not be there when you are in college and most certainly won't be there when you take your first job. If we as educator are doing our job right, we should be gradually releasing you from dependence to independence. You will experience this in my class. While you are not totally on your own, I am not going to hover over your shoulder at every waking moment.

2. Oh man! Where did the time go?? Manage it!

   One of the first things you will notice when you enter my room is the arrangement of my desks. I have been moving towards removing myself from in front of the room as much as possible. I am not
going to lecture you with notes for 48 minutes. I am, however, going to use the available technology and challenge you to think and create. Yes! Even in an AP class! While there will be moments of class discussion with me in the lead, you are going to be given more time to yourself in this class than in most others. No, no, no please don't take that to mean you are going to be sitting there doing nothing. (At least, I hope you are not) I will usually assign you something to work on and then circulate to see if you have any questions or concerns. However, the expectation is that when you sit there with your device on your desk that you are working on what I have given you. Not on your phone, not playing Donkey Kong on some emulator, but working on my stuff. Not math, not English, but gov stuff! We all complain that we don't have enough time in our day to get stuff done. I often do this. However, you have to have a little introspection about how you are using your time. Are you working on gov stuff or taking a selfie, Snap chatting with a BAE, or posting a Tweet? I like doing some of those things too but when I have stuff I do, I have stuff to do!
     I know that you are stressed. You are probably taking at least one other honors level or AP class. I get that. I also understand that you will have other work to do for those classes as well. But, I usually don't assign nightly homework. Yes, you may have a couple of assignments out at a time (no more than 2) but if you wait until the last minute you are not going to do well. Remember, most of what I assign are bigger picture assignments that require some thought. Yes, yes there will be some day to day vocabulary and other such assignments, but you need to be aware that last minute work in this class is not a recommendation. I know you may have been able to get away with doing this in the past, but I would suggest that you ween  yourself off of that practice. In the end, whether it is while you are at college or even after, this habit of working at the last minute will catch up to you. So, let's all practice doing things a little at a time!

3. Extra credit, curving, and the 100% ceiling

     Please don't ask me for extra credit. I don't like extra credit. It has been abused in our profession and should be renamed because of this abuse as "in lieu of credit." If it were truly "extra" you as a student would have ALL of your work done and then do something "extra" that is related to the class but is above and beyond. But that is not what you want. You want to make up points for stuff you didn't do. I don't do that. However, I do believe in re-doing of assessments where you correct your mistakes and then try it over. That we can do and will do.
     I don't believe in curving of tests or assessments. I think it pits students against students and distorts the purpose of having an assessment to begin with. You get what you get. "Thanks a lot Wolski, you ruined the curve!" (Said no one ever when I was in high school) So the students now don't like me because as the outlier on the test, I can and do impact the results for everyone else. But I studied. So I should be a social outcast because I studied? That is not the type of competition I like to foster in my class. I know, I know the College Board does it for the AP test, but I am not the College Board who has to deal with tens of thousands of students across the entire nation who are taking a test. I am me. A part of me also thinks that if I have to curve every assessment I give, maybe the assessment is too hard. And maybe, just maybe the students are counting on a curve so they don't study as hard. While the same could be said about the re-test, I require some additional work and requirements that allow students to learn the material and continue to improve. I don't believe a curve achieves that.
     No student, no matter how smart they are, should ever, in the history of education be above 100% in a class. Sorry that's how I feel. I don't believe that honestly reflects what they have learned but rather the accumulation of points that somehow propels them to 2-3% above knowing everything in a class. Students: you don't know that much about American Government. I don't know that much about American Government. I know a lot but not more than all of it. I think when you put it that way, it sinks in: having over 100% in a class just doesn't make sense. Period. Also, I think it limits your ability as a student to have a growth mindset. Why investigate, analyze or question a topic if I know more than all of it? I can slack off in class (No you can't) because I have that added cushion. That is not a good way to approach a subject or your job or life. Being open and saying to yourself "I know not" is a much better approach.

4. Cut and paste syndrome: please don't regurgitate on my test!

     Students: I get it. I know that it is easy, especially with everything out there, to copy stuff from the internet to "get the points" for the assignment. But there is a flaw in your logic: I expect you to know this material for the test. When you cut and pasted that definition or answer from the internet did you even bother to read it? Do you understand it? Could you find the answer if I rephrased the question or wrote it in a slightly different form? I sure hope so! See this is what you are going to do when you take my assessments. I rarely if ever have a question that is a simple rote one. If I have a question that might involve, say a vocabulary word, it will probably be a little more application or conceptual in nature. Yes, I do have a vocabulary section on my tests, but it's not matching. Simply put: I don't give you a review sheet and then go over the answers in class and those same questions appear on the test. That's not learning, that's regurgitation! I want you to actually learn in my class, not just be able to answer questions on a test and forget it!

5. Are you really starting to study the night before?

     For every unit where we have a test (not all will have a traditional test) you will know the test date the day you get the unit planner. It's on there. This is American Government, right? Yea it is complicated. I don't ask simple multiple guess questions that you can simply look at real quick and answer right away. Yes, I have some of those questions, but I also have conceptual, thinking type questions that require some thought. Why? Because the AP test in May will have those questions. The College Board requires that I have those questions. So, I will have those questions. Let's face it you guys are smart. I know that. But I am going to push you. And push you a little more. It's good for you to be challenged and to get out of your comfort zone. But remember, this isn't some head game I am playing with you. I want you to succeed in life and trust me, after 46 years (Yes! I am old) one of the things I have learned is that when you get too comfortable in anything, you stop thinking, questioning, learning. To put it another way:

"Beliefs are dangerous. Beliefs allow the the mind to stop functioning. A non-functioning mind is clinically dead. Belief in nothing..."
            ---Tool, AEmina liner notes

Remember, I will give you everything you need to study for the tests: vocabulary, learning goals, readings, and any and all activities we do in class. Just pace yourself. Make sure you are paying attention in class and honestly, you should do just fine. But you have to remember that I am pushing you. So push back!!

6. I know how tabs work too & the tech rabbit hole

     Life is full of choices and unfortunately a lot of distractions. A lot! So as we head towards being truly a 1 to 1 school (Um...yea that means everyone has a device silly!) you have to be careful that you are using your time wisely when I give you something to do digitally. Look, a part of my philosophy is giving you a taste of radical autonomy during class. What does that mean? Well, since I am not lecturing for the entire class, I will be giving you a problem or issue to investigate, question, ponder and while I am still in the room, I won't be over your shoulder the whole time. So you have work to do and when you are on your phone or watching Modern Family when you should be working, I will know. How? I am magic. Let's just leave it at that. Okay, maybe not magic, but I am not under the delusion that you won't be distracted by the fact that you have the world at your finger tips and you are really really good at finding ways to distract yourself. Why do I give you this freedom? Well, really soon, you are going to have more radical autonomy in your life than you have ever had. (It's called college) And trust me, you are not fully ready for this autonomy. I wasn't. I had to learn how to deal with it and luckily I adjusted to it and did well. So knowing that most students are not fully ready for this, why wouldn't I help you by "teaching" you how to manage that kind of freedom?? One of my pet peeves is when teachers complain that students don't have the skills or abilities they are looking for (These aren't the droids you are looking for!) but then don't teach or model them in and out of the classroom. Gee, I wish there was a group of people who were responsible for teaching these students how to <fill in a skill, process or other ability here>. So I am trying to get you ready to enter the world and you have to learn how to deal with tech distractions.
      One of the reasons why I am using Google Classroom, Google Drive and other digital sites in this class is many of my former students have told me they wish they would have learned to interact with the digital world in high school because they have to college and most of their professors throw stuff at them assuming they know how to do these things. And they don't. Again, I am trying to prepare you for life. No matter what career path you head down, you will have to deal with technology on some level to do your job. That's the world now. It's awesome, but the skills and knowledge you have to have to navigate this world can't entirely be taught from a static textbook.

Look, the bottom line in all of this is I dedicate a lot of time into planning, evaluating and teaching this class. I probably think way too much about my job. Occupational hazard. Do I wish that it was a year long? Yes! Can I change that? No. So we deal with the hand we are dealt. Remember, my job is to help you. Ask questions, tweet at me, email me, but don't be a silent wallflower! You need to interact with me and the material to get the most out of it. You will survive this class, but it will challenge you. And it should. Remember, I am going to push you.....push back!  Peace


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tech is NOT the solution....Wait what?


     Yea I know. If you are reading this you are saying, "But Michael, you are using tech right now!?Don't you use tech ALL the time??" Yes I do and I still believe that the use of tech is a part of the solution, just not the only thing we should be embracing in education right now. So, how as a teacher, with all of the digital tools and devices out there, are you suppose to integrate tech in such a way that it works well and does not take away from the learning? Well.....that's the rub, that's your job to navigate through all of this! Here are some ideas/tips to help you think about how to use tech to enhance learning.

"Yet it seems clear to me
It pounds inside my soul
Why don't we all see
We can cry out for a change."
     ----Fishbone, Change
     I threw tech at the students and they still aren't learning!?

Look. They are teens. So they get distracted. Yes, even you AP Students, you get distracted. So throwing an iPad, Chrome Book, or Mac Air at the students and just have them use Google is not going to produce the results (the droids?) you are looking for in your class. You have to design it so students use the device in such a way that they are engaged with the material, each other and you! If you stand in front of the students lecturing for 48 minutes while they have a device (other than their cell phone) you are doomed. Doomed. How about intro some material for 5-10, give the students a problem, walk around the room and help them in solving the problem. Are they always going to be 100% on task all the time? No. Are they 100% on task all the time when they are not using technology? No. What is silly then is to blame the tech for the problem. "All kids are going to do is look up Youtube videos or check their email!" Trust me, after 20 years in the field I have found that students are amazing at finding ways to distract themselves. However, a part of your job as a teacher is to minimize and eliminate those distractions as much as possible. That job has not changed? How does the integration of technology change any of that? It doesn't. It just makes it different, that's all. You have to change your mindset and try to be one step ahead of the students.

     Interest and a connection are easier.

Something else about teaching that hasn't changed is making your lessons as interesting to the students as possible and to try to connect it to the world around them. When you integrate tech the right way, this becomes a lot easier to do as a teacher. Is it more work? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes! Remember, you have to learn to let go a little bit. You don't have all the answers. You can't possibly. But that's okay. You shouldn't. One of the advantages of using tech to create lessons of interest and connection to the real world is you are not bound (see what I did there) to a textbook or worksheet. You have the world at your fingertips. Like the students, though, that can be daunting for teachers. That reality is probably one of the biggest roadblocks to teachers embracing tech. It's very intimidating. But, help is out there. Tons of it. If you are not using Twitter for ideas, feedback, and support, then you are on an island that you shouldn't be on right now. I love my PLN on Twitter!!! That is a good way to start is to see what others are doing and to ask for help when you need it. There are people out there who are integrating tech in amazing ways. Seek people in your building out that are doing good things with tech. Ask them. I would make an argument that there is not a class being taught out there that you cannot make interesting and connect to the world around your students. You just have to look, ask others and push yourself to embrace this change.

     Baby steps. Baby steps. Baby steps.

There is so much out there that it makes your head spin. It's true. One of the issues with diving into the use of tech into your classroom is the zillions of available tools out there for a teacher to use. Do I use Google Classroom or Schoology? Do I grade using Kaizena or through Doctopus and Goobric? Do I formatively assess using Socrative or Infused Learning? Well if you are reading this and don't know what any of those are, you are welcome. I just gave you some tools to use in your classroom right now. But I suppose that if you are already reading this you are a bit tech savvy. Those are just the tip of the iceberg. Please, please, don't change everything overnight. Do a little at a time. Make one project that uses tech beyond just researching information on line. Do one project and do it well. Trust me the more you change in this way, the more you will want. I have been slowly changing over the last 4-5 years to incorporate more tech so I feel comfortable changing more of what I do in my classroom. You may not. That's okay. Take it a little at a time and if you do need ideas or help, I will post my email at the bottom of this post. Feel free to email me anytime!

     Know Your Role!

I have made some significant changes in my teaching in the last 3 years. I have tried to remove myself from always being the one delivering the material and just talking, talking, talking. It's been a big adjustment for me and the students as well. You have to adjust what you do and how you do it. In the last 3 years I have changed my role to become more of a guide and a deliverer. I have asked so many questions about content than I have in probably the last 17 years combined. Why? Well I have tried to design lessons where students are just simply filling in a blank. I have tried to push them to do more than that, to solve problems and to analyze the material they are engaged with as well. "Mr Wolski its not working!!" Do you know how many times I have been asked that question this year since for the most part we have become a 1 to 1 school since I have access to Chrome Books pretty much everyday. Next year? Yea we will be a 1 to 1 school. I like to work ahead to find out all the little issues and quirks that you have to be ready for when you integrate tech. I am the tech support in my room. You have to be, so get ready for that when you do make that leap into technology. But remember this, you have to actually use what you are having the students use in order to solve those issues that come up. How can I fix something if I don't know how it works to begin with? That is one of the role changes that you are going to have to deal with when integrating tech into your classroom. But what is nice is that once you show a few students, you can use them as a resource when other students have a similar problem. I have done this and it helps when you are trying to be 3 places at once. Finally, you are going to have to re-think how your room is set up. Traditional rows and technology are not the best of friends. Having a flexible set up might help you. I have moved the desks to pods of four to foster collaboration. While they are the traditional desks, change is coming since I volunteered to have my room redone for our move to a blended model. I am excited to see how that looks at to work with that.

     Remember, the integration of technology comes with changes for you as a teacher. Some of those changes are quite significant. We have to get over that fact. Those changes are already here when many of our students have access to the world via their smartphone anyhow. To resist that seems silly to me. Students also need to be retrained in how they interact (Future post? I think so!) in this new environment. They need to know that the infusion of technology will require them to tap into skills that maybe they use, maybe they have not been in a while. However, this is crucial for them to use these skills more and more as that world we are preparing them to enter.
     Have questions? Need help integrating some tech? Email me: wolskim@mentorschools.org
I can help with what I know so far!
     

Friday, November 7, 2014

I Don't Know


"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."
     ----Socrates

"I know nothing! Nothing!"
     ----Sargent Schultz, Hogan's Heroes

     Three very powerful words that say a lot and mean a lot and I believe as teachers we should be saying more often.....

     What do I mean by this?? Well, I think for way too long that teachers, students, parents and even administrators have thought that teachers should or do know all of the information about the subject matter. While many teachers are very knowledgable and appear that way, isn't it a bit silly to think that one person knows and contains that much knowledge? What kind of message does it send to students that unless we as teachers have that knowledge that it doesn't exist? I think this is a product of giving answers to students and students repeat them for the test. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. But is that learning? Are students really being forced to think and analyze like we want them to? I don't think so.
     Bam! Then there was the internet. And Google. And smart phones. And tablets. And this beautiful Macbook Air I am using right now. (#techcrush) Now all of a sudden teachers monopolies on the truth was in jeopardy. We could no long claim to be the keeper of all knowledge about history, science, English, math and everything else. Mr. Wolski can I use my phone to look this up? Why would I say no?? When they leave my room they are going to do it anyhow. There are two ways we as teachers can look at this change (which by the by is already here). We can resist and refuse to change or we can embrace this world that all of our students are already living in and are trying to adjust to on a daily basis. But they need our help. They need us to say those three magical words of "I don't know" and help them to find the answer.
     But Mr. Wolski, you say, the students don't know how to use all of the information at their fingertips and get wrong answers and we have to teach them the right answers anyhow. So why bother teaching them search terms, reliability, bias, and how to formulate an argument? But isn't that our job? Are we not responsible to our students, parents, aye! our nation to produce thoughtful citizens that can solve problems? Even if the students need to be shown the right answer, isn't the process as important as the end result? Are we just teaching them content and not skill? I would argue that is 1950s thinking, not 2014 thinking. What kind of worker is needed right now? One that can recall simple knowledge or one that knows that same knowledge and can solve problems as well? Who would you hire?
     I don't know. What if we said this more often because we designed lessons that made the students investigate, explore, wonder,  and inquire? Instead of having students lather, rinse and repeat why don't we ask them to create something, to fix something, to actually solve a problem. By doing this, though, we have radically changed our role from the pronouncer of information to the guide who says I Don't Know often. I get it. I get it. Students want to be told here is the information repeat it later. Yes, it is a scary thought as a teacher to really not know where your lessons might take students.

Let go.

Tell your students, I Don't Know.

Help them discover the answer. They will learn. You will learn. But if you hold on to that notion, that tradition of always being right, how will you grow? How can you expect your students to grow? Model that growth. Be a student yourself and show them that being wrong or simply not knowing is a part of the process. It's powerful. If knowledge is power then not knowing is the fuel to that power.

Or maybe, I'm wrong.

I don't know......

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wolski's Top Ten Teaching Tips for Newbies


     I have been thinking about this post for a while and decided that it was high time I put my thoughts down. I know that many of us have collected wisdom over the years and while teaching for a long time does not necessarily mean you have been doing it right, but it does mean that hopefully you have found little things that have worked and that you could pass on to others. This is the purpose of this post. Tips to new teachers that I have found that have worked for me over the last 20 years or so. Remember folks! Teaching is not that hard, but teaching in a way that is compassionate, passionate while still being academically challenging is more of an art. So here we go.....

10. Communicate, communicate, communicate
     Answer parent and student emails as soon as you can. Even if you take a few minutes during class to do so. The quicker you do this, especially when panicky parents email you for the first time, the better the relationship will be with both parents and students. Speaking as a parent myself, there is nothing more frustrating than emailing a teacher about an issue with your son/daughter and then either hearing from them 2 days later or never. And yes, yes, yes, you should be checking your email at home. Comes with the job.
9. Use humor
     I don't know if it has just been my luck, but some of my best teachers I have had are also the funniest teachers that I have had too. Look the bottom line is students do not truly want to be in school so anything you can do to make it more bearable will only be a win win for you as a teacher. Now I don't mean to just stand there and tell jokes but knowing your content and infusing humor into your discussions with students about either content or just whatever, only makes what you tell them more memorable. I also believe that the use of humor let's the students know in a subtle way that you know your content and are able to mix in some humor as well. They dig that. Work on it! Remember, 90% of teaching is building a rapport with students. If you can connect with them using humor as your vehicle you can get students to do a lot when it comes time to push them. (See #6)
8. Be human
     Today a student was so tired, I let her sleep a little in class. You know that phase when you are just so tired that you are slap happy? Yea, that was her. She was so unfocused that she was going to get nothing done anyhow. She is a good kid (aren't they all?) and remember it's the little things like that which will be remembered by the students She told me that she had not slept much in the last two days with homework and a non-school related sport, so I felt bad for her. Now if this happened every day we would have to have a discussion, but for 20 minutes? I wouldn't even bat an eye at that. Sometimes we get so focused on control and on task time that we forget that it's okay to be human and give our students a break every once in a while. Again, not a habit, but I honestly do think that little gestures like this allow students to see that you are in fact, human, and that you can sympathize with them.
7. Give up control
     You really never had control to begin with. It was an illusion that you lured yourself into as a teacher. Yes, yes, yes you can tell the students what to do and they "listen" but see that student in the second row? He's being sneaky and has his phone in his lap. Another student is looking at the worksheet you gave them to do and is drawing cartoons on it and will just copy a friends assignment later. I could come up with a million of these examples. But what do I mean by control? Well, it is a lot easier to not have to worry about "controlling" your students when you are engaged with them, moving around the room. Are students still going to try to be on their phones and copy stuff? Yes! But you have a much easier time when the lessons and units have student input and are designed with engagement in mind. These lessons should also allow for students to be the focus and not you. While I have yet to perfect this, I have found it a much better approach than the traditional stand and talk and give a worksheet.
6. Push your students
      No silly, not that kind of pushing! I could site research that says when teachers have high expectations, and demand those expectations are met, students perform better and meet those expectations. But it is hard to do. Students want the easy way out and sometimes we as teachers want to please students, so we cave in to those demands. But you cannot. You have to constantly fight with the students to do a little more, to dig deeper, to push themselves to go beyond what is expected. While students may say that they love teachers who "gave" them easy As, they will realize later on that it was the teachers that pushed them, that made them do a little more are the ones that they will thank later on.
5. It is about the students
     I know this is a phrase that sometimes gets overused or abused, but the statement is still true. Stuck on whether or not to do something? You should ask yourself whether or not it is the best interests of the students. Now again, that does not mean you let them run all over you, but you should still always consider the impact on students. Will this help them? Can they do it? Will it help them learn? I probably spend way too much time thinking about these things, but I also think that it has made me a better teacher. There are many traps that lure you in when you teach and you have to avoid ones that are not in the best interest of students. Deciding what those interests are is not always easy and you have to spend some a lot of time pondering this. Good luck!
4. Your grades should make sense
     This is probably my biggest pet peeves about teaching. What are you attempting to do with the assignment? What is it measuring? What should the students get out of this? Please don't say "points" Teaching has become a point obsessed profession. I hate to admit that, but we have. I think we have to do some soul searching as teachers and look at what the "points" are suppose to represent. Isn't it learning? That's what I thought we were suppose to be measuring with our assignments. So when you are going to have students do something that you want to put in the grade book, make sure it's not just an assignments for points and points only. Make sure it has meaning and is related to something in your content. Points are just points. Measuring learning is assessment.
3. Know your students names
     I know this sounds like a no brainer, but you would be surprised at the number of times I have heard students say that they seriously don't think one of their teachers knows their name. Wait. What? Look, make flashcards, take attendance using the seating chart, but you have to make it a point to know your student's names. The sooner the better. This gets back to designing lessons where you are not the center of attention and you can use the opportunity to know the students by walking around and not only making sure they are understanding the lesson, but you can learn their name in the process.
2. Do what is right, not what is easy
     Look, if someone told you teaching was "easy" because you get the summers off and all you have to do is stand there and talk about the subject, they clearly lied to you. Teaching is not easy. Not everyone can do it and I think some get into the profession thinking it's easy and then are sorely disappointed when it is not. Many times I think that people fall into the trap of doing what is easy in the classroom because well, it's easier on them as a teacher but it's not good for students. Doing your job as a teacher is by the very nature of doing it right, a difficult task. You have to constantly reassess what you are doing and cannot just SALY everything. (Same as Last Year) So you have to be introspective and remember that the goal of what you do is learning. Learning is not easy, its a very complicated process so it makes your job difficult. But again, it is the right thing to do, so DO IT!
1. Enthusiasm 
      Remember when I said that you should approach this job with passion? Well, yea. That. While simple enthusiasm is no substitute for a good lesson and content, it is far better to be in a classroom with a teacher that knows their content and is actually excited about what they are doing. Hey, you are going to have to do this job for a few years, so why not make the content interesting and approach it with some enthusiasm? I think that excitement and enthusiasm for a lesson is infectious and a great thing for a teacher to have. If you are into it, how could the students not be excited and into it? I also think that enthusiasm helps you as a teacher to grow and to have the mindset that continuing to want to improve your teaching is worthwhile. So dive in!

     I hope dear constant reader that you have found this helpful and I may add more lists like this in the future.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

I Am Magical & That Pesky Instant Gratification!

   
     When a problem comes along, you must whip it! Yea I know starting a blog entry with a quote from a Devo song might seem a bit odd, but if you know me at all or have read anything on here, you know that is to be expected. So I was going to put this in the 20 Time blog but on further review I realized that this blog belongs in the reflective section although it clearly has implications for the 20 time project as well. So here goes....
     I have slowly come to realize that I am not doing such a good job of teaching my students how to trouble shoot stuff as it comes along. While this is related to the teaching grit post, I have concluded that my students simply give up when something does not work. "Mr Wolski, this page won't load! Mr Wolski, I cannot find this website!" Ugh. I have always vigorously protested when other adults have exclaimed "These students are so tech savy!" No they really aren't. They can Tweet and Snapchat and maybe find a YouTube video but when it comes to anything else......not so much. And honestly, can you blame them? I think we need to teach them how to get around little problems that are easy to fix.
     Me: "Did you reload the page? Did you close the browser and reopen it? Did you make sure you spelled the URL right?" I often tell my students (I borrowed this from my wife who does the same thing) that I am magical!! They have a problem and they claim they try my solutions but when I come near the laptop or Chromebook and look at it, it magically works!! Wala! Bing! Ta Da! I am magical. I had a student the other day complain that something was taking too long to post to Google Classroom (My new fav.....Is there anything Google can't do?) and I said you have to wait, but it will post. And Ta Da! It did. Have patience young grasshoppers! It will work, post, load, etc. You don't always have the Wifi speed you want, but at least you have it!! I am sure that every generation has complained that the next generation is obsessed with having their wants and needs met immediately, but I think the advancement in the technology arena has accelerated this issue. 
     However, I think there is a moment here in education where we can create a generation of students who can not only think on their own, but who can trouble shoot situations as they arise. But we have to make a coordinated and conscientious effort to do so. However tempting it may be to just do solve the little things on our own and just trouble shoot for them, it does not help them in the future. It's like giving directions. I usually have the directions either on the Smart Board or the digital worksheet or both. However, I have instituted (or try to remember to!) the "Ask 3 then Me" policy when giving directions. Here's why: if I give directions to students and they are not listening even though they are in written form right in front of them what message I am sending if they know I will simply repeat them? We need to help them to focus when we are giving instructions. I don't talk all period, so when I do, students need to pay attention. It makes them lazy if we are constantly repeating ourselves. If ALL teachers did this, then the students who tend to wander might realize "Oh man, I better pay attention the first time!" So I think I need to make a sign and hang this up some where so students can see it. Then I can just point. It's time to train them on how to listen when it's important! I know they can do it, I have seen them do it when it's necessary. 
     In the end, isn't trouble shooting just critical thinking in disguise? Won't we have better students if we take the time and effort to show them that just because something does not work does not mean that we should give up or not even try. What if the first thing they try doesn't work??? Shouldn't we show them that perseverance pays off? The old Edison adage of "I have found 1000 ways it doesn't work" is what comes to mind here. Remember fellow educators: we are guides that supposed to be showing them how to do and then making sure they can on their own, not doing it for them!! Rock on!!!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 30: Be not afraid.....



 Dear Constant Reader, (Yes, I stole it from the master Stephen King, so?)
     Before I begin the final post in the 30-day challenge, I want to give a couple of S/Os first. Thanks to Kirsten for putting the challenge before me while still doing it herself. Words of encouragement from BethJen,  Mr Lynch and Mr Wade were helpful in continuing the long haul of a post every day. Also, a big thanks to those of you who read this journey. While the readership numbers waned towards the end, (Yes, I check the stats!) it was still encouraging to know that someone out there was reading what I wrote. Remember, it is not the quantity but the quality! So thanks!!


I fear not, for I am a teacher.......

    A great man once said, "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself." (Had to throw some history in there....occupational habit!) Fear is a powerful motivator. To be paralyzed into inaction because one is afraid gives strength to a fog, a mist that disappears once you walk through it. FDR was right: fear of the unknown is an illusion. Beyond that fog, that mist is an illusion that your mind created because it is easier to stay back, to feel comfortable and not challenge the imaginary monsters your mind has created. Someone once said:

I have no monsters in my life, just small spiders and stepping in gum. I could have coped with monsters.

That is a great quote: it's the little things, the constant accumulation of little hurdles to get over that are difficult in life.  And even if you had monsters to deal with, facing them head on without the fog of fear clouding your judgement would be the approach to take.

I fear not....
     ....because I will teach every single child that comes into my room regardless of their ability, economic condition, home life or what school they attended the previous year.
     ....because even if I try something new and it completely crashes, I can fix it, no matter what the situation is. (I have seen a teacher teach a biology class on the bleachers during an extended building fire scare. Instant: hero!)
     ....because I have a great set of colleagues around me that I can go to when I don't know how to do something. I even have people in different countries via Twitter that I can count on too when I am stuck for an idea or have a problem.
     ....because no matter what initiative, idea, program or new idea that comes from the State or Federal government I have a building full of people and a great PLN that will help me to see through the fog of fear.
     ....because no matter what, I honestly believe I am surrounded by some of the best students in the world! I know that every teacher says that about their students, but I have been in this profession for over 20 years and I have always maintained that one of main reasons why I still do what I do is due to the students I see on a daily basis.

Every year this is true since 1993. Remember.....you cannot scare me, I am a teacher!!


Monday, September 29, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 29: How I have changed as an educator....


     A lot.

     I could leave that there, because honestly, I have changed sooooooo much as an educator since those days in the early 90s. (Yea, I am old!) Since this is the second last post for the challenge, it might be the longest. Well, maybe. Ha!
     I have always tried  to connect with students because early on I realized that if you make that connection, students will respond and your job will become easier. However, I have now used the available technology like Twitter and this blog to reach out to students in a different way. Sometimes it is difficult to reach all students, so you have to try different ways. Early in my career, it was harder to do this without the technology and so many times you were left with guessing as to what to do. Not that technology and social media are the only answer, but it does make it easier to do. (Just like most things) I feel more connected to my students because of this and in the long run, I believe it has made me connect better with students.
     You know when I reflect back on what I used to do in the classroom years ago, it is almost embarrassing. It's an aspect of teaching that has improved over the years: helping new teachers out and the quality of professional development. Don't get me wrong, there was available help for new teachers when I started, and I was surrounded by some of the best people on the planet, but I almost wish I had what is available today. I think I have become much more in tune with what is good, sound educational practice that is designed to help students. This is not to say that I was willingly not in touch before, but now I have really tried to focus on what is good for students, not what is easy for me. I have prided myself on always trying to find the best for what I do in the classroom, never settling for "good enough." I think what is different for me is I have more tools available and that is good for me.
     I also believe that I have changed by actively seeking to connect my teaching to the world the students will find themselves in someday. I had always related stuff to the world beyond the walls of the classroom, but now I have been a lot more aggressive about it. Everything is more connected now, so again, making that leap and connection is so much easier to do. Smartphones, tablets, personal computers make this job a whole lot easier. I have seen students actually come in relating stories that they saw on the news to the content we are/were discussing in class. I have always talked about the news and how it relates to what we do, but apparently I have gotten better at it.
     I think that is one of the things that has changed about me as an educator: I have such a large "bag of tricks" simply by doing, trying, failing, doing some more, failing a little less and succeeding a little more that I have found some things that work well. I can now augment that with the infusion of technology that the world has graciously given us. I find myself constantly trying to keep up, but I think that is a great thing to have to do. It keeps me out of trouble and on my toes where I should be as an educator.
    One of the biggest ways I have changed as an educator is the slow but sure process of removing myself from the front of the room where all I do is talk talk talk. I have never felt that talking to students was the most effective way of conveying information to students. Yes, I have done that before: talk talk talk. But it always frustrated me that the results were never really what I wanted. Sure some students did well, but not all. I have been trying and trying for years to make this better, to allow the students more choice and to get them more in charge of their own learning. It has not been easy and one of the ways that I have changed is I have had to be persistent, to trouble shoot and to find new ways to make it work. I have seen amazing results and students have responded well to the change. Sure there are students who are not used to this approach, but if I persist and fail and learn, I might just succeed! I have to be what I want my students to be!!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 28: The technology conundrum....


     This is a great prompt. There has never been a time in education where there has been access to so much technology available to teachers: from Google Drive to almost all students having access to a device, even if it is their own. There are so many tools available on line to assist in what teachers do it is sometimes overwhelming. This wonderful time comes with some caution that has always been around since I have started my teaching in 1993: how do use technology without it taking place of the content I am supposed to teach?
     I remember one of my college professors complaining that when teachers showed a movie in a history class that it was Hollywood and not history. So even something simple as showing a movie, which I have done, comes with criticism. Some of my professors concern came from stories of students where teachers would just pop in a movie, regardless of whether the content was relevant or appropriate for the class. I understand that concern. I have seen this too. However, does that mean that you should never show a movie in a history class? I believe the answer to this question is the same answer to any question about what you do in your classroom: it depends on whether or not it supports the curriculum/content. That answer still applies today.
     In there interesting look at the teaching profession in the 1970s, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argue that what we do in our classroom matters. "The medium is the message" was their thought. In other words, what kind of message are we sending to students if we show movies (much to my professors chagrin) that have no or a weak connection to the content? What kind of message do we send to students if we give notes on an overhead for an entire class period? What kind of message do we send to students if we have them put a few Power Point slides together where they just cut and paste information from the internet? I have always believed that what you do in your classroom should not only be relevant to the lives of your students, but should not stray so far away from the content that students lose sight of the subject. It's about balance.
     Let's be clear here: the content/standards should drive what you do in your classroom. Whether you have a high stakes test attached to the content or not, the standards are the standards and they are what should drive your teaching. I know there is a lot of concern and complaining about the Common Core and the new set of standards contained therein. Standards are standards. Give me anything you want my students to know and I will teach them/it. In that regard, is the uproar over the new standards that big of a deal? Nah. Now I know end result of how the assessment looks like might be a different subject, but the content is the content.
     I believe that technology today is a tool to add to your bag of teaching tricks. However, it again depends on how you use it. Never stray from the content due to the lure of some new piece of technology. You know your content. Use these great tools of technology to simply enhance what you are doing in your classroom. I also believe that it is just as silly to reject wholeheartedly any inclusion of technology thinking it cannot enhance what you already do in your class. It is folly to reject the tools out there under the rationale that it either cannot help you or due to the fact that some other teacher did not use it properly. There is, trust me, something out there that you can use in terms of technology that can help you in your classroom with your content.
     I know that sometimes in education people believe that initiatives come and go and that all you have to do is wait it out and it will pass. However, the integration of technology is not an educational fad. The students are using this in their lives right now. From my experience students are eager to embrace the use of technology. It is everywhere in the world and there is no better way to show students how to use it when they go into the world than your classroom! 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 27: The weekend role....


     Since I am sitting here drinking coffee, in my sweats with no socks while writing this gives you some idea of what role the weekend/holiday/summer plays in my teaching. It is a time to relax and rest, but you still do work here and there, but it's a relaxed mode. Time to think, to reflect. (Ha!) People who don't teach have a hard time fathoming that there is simply not enough time during the day to get done what needs to get done. With the movement towards blended and on line learning (Which I think is a good thing!) there is going to be a definite shift in how teachers do their work. But I think with all of the tools available, it will make the work easier.
     There is no doubt that the weekend and holidays (even if we include the summer) help me to relax and be with family, enjoy my interests, and not take the day at 48 minutes at a time. My biggest problem sometimes is thinking too much about what I am doing in the classroom and not stepping away for a little bit to not think and allow the sub-conscience to process what I am thinking about. So don't think to actually think. It is like the shower phenomenon....most people will tell you they do their best thinking in the shower where they are not really trying to think. Just lather, rinse, repeat.
     I think it is important, especially for new teachers, to make sure to set aside time for yourself. Teaching is one profession I think that can be all consuming where you lose yourself in what you are doing. Little things here and there can help you to avoid burnout. Don't forget yourself and the things you like to do that are not school related: treat yourself to a dinner out; go see a movie; meet with friends and family; go for a walk; listen to the music you like; read for pleasure!! I always thought that reading for pleasure during the school year was too hard to do given the amount I have to read for school. But, it really is something that is quite helpful. I love to read and this type of reading takes your mind off of thinking too much about the other reading you have to do.
     The weekends and holidays truly help to make for better teaching. One of the untaught aspects of teacher training is helping new teachers to still have a little bit of their lives that doesn't disappear when they step into the classroom. Most, if not all, teachers go into the profession to help others, to make a contribution to the future of this great nation. However, it can be easy to get lost in that. I would say to new or potentially new teachers to save some time for you! You can still make a great impact and keep yourself you!  

Friday, September 26, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 26: 3 Go to sites


     We live in a wonderful age where there is so much information out there that, like the students, sometimes as a teacher it can be overwhelming. Where do I look? How do I find what I need amongst all the great information out there??? Here are my go to sites when I need something:

1. Twitter: There is no place on the planet where questions can be asked and then answered in literally under a minute. If you build up your PLN for education on Twitter, then you will realize just like people looking towards the stars: you are not alone! Once you start reciprocating too, then the amount of information and great ideas going back and forth is crazy. But it's a good crazy. In the last 2 years I have had more of my teaching influenced by my friends on Twitter than at any other point in my career. And for someone with 20+ years in, that says a lot. Remember folks, Twitter is not just a place to post selfies and following your favorite celebrities, it is also a place to connect and get help from a global audience of friends and followers! #tweeton

2. Teach Thought: The fact that I am oh so close to finishing this challenge, this gauntlet, by Teach Thought has no bearing on having them on my list. (okay, maybe a little! ;)) But there is sooooo much on their site from Apps to Learning and Teaching that it is a great place to start when looking for resources and help. The fact that there are so many other educators on this site only adds to not only my PLN on Twitter, but it also expands the pool of people I can go to when I am stuck for ideas or need some feedback. If you would have told me a month ago that I would be 5 days away from blogging every day given how busy the beginning of the year is, I would have told you that you are crazy! But this has been really really good for me. Why? It has made me think about what I am doing and put fingers to keyboard to illuminate it. I may include this as a part of my growth plan too: reflecting on learning. Anytime you have the ability to explain and justify what you are doing, the better off you are as a teacher. No pressure. No evaluation, just simple introspection.

3. Free Tech! Are you kidding me??? Have you seen what Richard Byrne has put together on this blogger site? Unbelievable amount of great tech stuff you can use in your classroom. The best part? It's all FREE. That's right. FREE! Why wouldn't I use it? I just finished a 3 1/2 page annotated list of great websites that students can use to present their 20 Time project with and many of the ideas came from Richard's site. There are Google tips and he doesn't ignore the Android market either alongside the iPad/App world too. It is not simply a list of resources, there are ideas on how to incorporate them too into what you already do. This is a great help because it gives you the tools but also the ideas on how to use those tools as well. I have just started to dig through this treasure trove of tech information and I am really glad that Richard keeps this up to date and posts often. Check it out!


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 25: Student collaboration


     To get your students to collaborate, you first have to set the environment up to make that happen. While this is true of any collaboration, it is especially true for students in a learning environment. They are not used to this type of process in a school. Sure sure. They are used to group work where maybe two people do all the work and the others do nothing and everyone gets the same grade. No, true collaboration is a shared process where everyone comes together to share ideas and to solve a problem. So, what does this look like in a classroom? Here are my thoughts...
     First how you arrange the room is a simple start. I also think it sends a message to students. Traditional rows and rows of desks, while practical, tells students that the teacher is the only one that is delivering the material and talking to their peers is frowned upon. When you simply arrange them in such a manner that it makes it easier for students to talk to one another, (groups of four or five) then they get the idea that it is not only okay to talk to each other, but that perhaps this will be the focus of the class in general.
     Collaboration not only requires a face to face approach, but I also think the addition of technology can make a huge difference in collaboration. Having students all have a device makes life easier. I love that our district is headed towards becoming a one to one school with students all having the same device that they can take home. It's great to have a set of Chromebooks to work with, but when they can take it home and it's theirs to use, that makes a huge difference. There are so many digital tools for students to collaborate together that they don't even have to be in the same room while they are doing it!
     For example, Google Drive is a great way for students to continue the process of collaboration while they are at home or after school. I love Google by the way so if I gush, please forgive my company crush. If you don't know Google allows the students to work on the same document at the same time even when they are not together in school. They can see each other editing the document and can even chat on the side while working. I have seen them do this in class and it was great to see the collaboration back and forth. I have seen them divide tasks, share ideas and make changes as a group. In an ideal world, you would see more of this but with more student-motivated desire rather than a compliance with teacher assignments.
     In an ideal situation, students would want to take the collaboration beyond the classroom and be motivated to use other means of collaboration like Twitter, Facebook, and other social media like they do when making plans for the weekend. They would even begin to collaborate with people in the outside world to get feedback and help on whatever they are working on. Think about when you collaborate with your colleagues and how that makes you want to do more of that. Can you imagine having students want this as well? The would be awesome....

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 24: Learning Trend

     There is A LOT going on in education right now. Some of it not so good, some of it swawesome (sweet + awesome) While it is difficult to narrow it down to one trend that captures my attention, there is one that am I doing right now that  has caught me attention that I would like to investigate and expand more. That trend is the movement towards project based learning or PBL.
      Part of my interest is due to the 20 Time Project that I have been doing for the past 2 years. I think this form of authentic learning has even more relevance in the face of the push for testing, testing, testing, testing and more testing. Did I say we test like a lot? But for the longest time I think educators thought that authentic learning and standardized testing are polar opposites. I have never really believed that students learn well by "teaching to the test." Not that I have completely ignored the fact that my students have a test to prepare for, but I certainly have never made it the only focus of what we do in class. So how does project based learning fit into the world of testing? Well.....
     Sometimes I think what educators forget in the world of high stakes testing is the impact that this shift has had on the students. Trust me I have had many conversations with students about testing. They don't like it any better than we do as professionals. So, why not venture out of that comfort zone and try something like project based learning, where the students have more choice, more freedom and more interest than a classroom focused solely on testing? To me, it's teaching them what they need to know for that high stakes test without them really knowing it. (Shhh....don't tell them!) If you do it right, plan it out, you can still meet all the criteria that testing demands. I truly believe that as educators, we have more capacity to change to any situation that anyone throws at us, we just have to get that "comfort monkey" off our back. Once we do that, there is enough talent and brilliance to make anything work.
     One of the shifts in this new round of testing is the emphasis on students being able to produce something, to be given a problem that they have to solve given a set of parameters. Isn't that what PBL is all about? Shift the role of the teacher from the sage to the guide? You set the guidelines (Again, aligned with whatever standards are given to you), make sure the students understand the goal, give them the tools and turn them loose. They need to practice all of the skills that are expected of them. What better way to do this than with you helping them? Isn't that what we are supposed to do? Isn't this "teaching like the test?" (See what I did there??) Model what they are suppose to be doing on the high stakes test so when they get to it, they are like "Pffft....I got this!"
     Finally, there has never, ever in the history of teaching been a better time to dive into PBL right now. Are you serious? Technology? Devices? Wifi? What are you waiting for??? Don't tell me you don't have time. If it is worth it, then it's worth the time. Work smarter not harder y'all!! I started small with 20 Time and now have plans to expand it more and more. Now in all fairness I teach a class that lends itself to the PBL style (Contemporary World Issues) but I believe anything can be adapted to this model. Math. English. Science. Anything. The key is finding out how. And there you are covered: others are doing it. Connect. Get in touch. For goodness sake: Google it! It's what the kids do! So go ahead: baby step it. Just a little. Try a project instead of a test. Play around with it. Talk to colleagues. Join twitter and find out what others are doing. The time is right. Banish comfort and stretch yourself! I can always help too, ya know!

Pretending you know what you're doing is almost the same as knowing what you are doing, so just accept that you know what you're doing even if you don't and do it.

Laugh at perfection. It's boring and keeps you from being done.

People without dirty hands are wrong. Doing something makes you right.
---The Done Manifesto  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 23: Community Involvement in Learning


     This has been one area of my teaching that has always been a bit lacking. It is hard to make connections with the community when you are stressed about trying to get through the content. I know that is not the best excuse, but when you have to make decisions about what is going to help students out, some good things fall by the side of the road. I always felt if given the right conditions, including the community into the classroom would be an easy and welcomed fit, I just was not really sure how to make it meaningful for students. Enter the 20 Time Project!!
     The 20 Time Project came about because I wanted students to complete a semester long project that would allow them some freedom within guidelines. I had read about it on line and dove into the project a few years ago. I made a mess of it at first, got better and now feel that we are truly humming right along. Before I continue, let me briefly (if that is all possible for me) to explain the project. 20 Time was born out of companies like Google that would allow their engineers one day a week (20% of their time) to work on anything they wanted to as long as it was related to Google. This gave us such great tools as Gmail, Goole Earth and Sky and many other great Google products. The idea of radical autonomy with some general guidelines was then adopted into the classroom and education inspired by writers and speakers like Daniel Pink. It was a way to allow students to do something rather than just sit and soak up information. They had to produce something at the end, ie a TED Talk style presentation. So I ran with it and two years later here we are.
     So as my little 20 time project has evolved, I have included another class to the mix, Contemporary World Issues (not just AP American Government and Politics). This class is perfect for this kind of project as it really is not the traditional multiple choice test type class. It really lends itself to the project based learning. 20 time is PBL. So, I made it a goal for me personally this year to have the students branch out and make contact with someone beyond the walls of school. I really had no idea what this was going to look like or how this was going to work, (Shhh.....don't tell anyone!) but I did it anyhow. I think sometimes we get so scared and caught up in not messing up as teachers that we do not venture out of our safe zone and that prevents us from growing as educators. Just do it! Find a way to make it work! Show the students it's okay to have something totally flop and then make adjustments to make it work. Isn't that life?
     Things have gone far far better than I have anticipated with connecting to the community so far. I have students connecting with the local government in Lake County, Ohio; major automakers like Toyota and Ford; agencies like the UN and NASA; police departments all throughout the nation from Los Angeles to New York; major companies like Google, BP, and IBM; and many others. I even had a student attend a conference on her topic and she took 6 pages of notes. Seriously?!!  This has only been in the first 5 weeks of school!! The best part is how the students have reacted to this connection. One company refused to answer any questions from the students about their project. The students called them and they hung up after a brief conversation. I told them to try someone else. I also told them that this happens sometimes and to not take it personally. The best thing I have seen is a student who almost bounced out of her seat with excitement when a company emailed her back about her project. (And it had legitimate answers to questions! Score!!!)
     This kind of connection to the community and the real world was exactly what I was looking for! I am seriously amazed at how easy it has been (especially when you admittedly aren't sure what you are doing!! Ha!) for students to make contact. Although I have to credit them, they have really ran with it and been a lot more persistent than some adults I know. So S/O to my students for working this part like a BOSS! Boom! I don't know where to expand this too, maybe just refine it and make it better, but I do have one ambitious thought. What if I could actually bring some of these people in to be interviewed by the groups? Since most students have different projects (although some are similar) I don't know if this would be too complicated. Hmmm......time to ponder that......


Monday, September 22, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 22: My PLN.....

     I have many PLNs! I have the one that is scheduled at my school during the last period of the day. This one is new this year as I switched subjects that I teach. More on that in a minute. The second PLN I have is the one I have built over the last year and a half on Twitter. If you are a teacher and reading this, are you on Twitter? If not, why the !O#(#&&@(#$ not? I will explain the awesomeness that is my PLN on Twitter in a minute. Third, I have a PLN that really never meets and walks around randomly in my building. Wait. What? I guess I should start with this last one as it is the most confusing of the 3.
     We began the process of creating collaborative groups based on subject matter taught about 8 years ago in my building. While this has been a valuable tool for improving the instruction in that content area,  it also had another side effect that was unexpected. What happened is teachers who wanted to collaborate out of necessity or just simple curiosity began having conversations in the lunch room, the mail room, in the halls, and just whenever it was possible. That is why this PLN is out roaming the halls. You just never know when it will pop up. However, as fleeting as it may appear, there have been many great ideas born out of this style of collaboration. Follow up conversations or emails have yielded tremendous ideas like the Stamp and Sticker Reward Program, the Student Tracking idea and many others too numerous to mention. This "parking lot" style allows me to flush ideas out and also give other teachers ideas that had not thought of before. Never underestimate the power of simple conversations......
     My second PLN is the formal one set up by the district years ago. I was in the same US History PLN for years until we shifted government to the junior year this year to have our curriculum match the State model since they were going to end of course exams. While this new PLN is not necessary based on a common subject, there are some themes that have been wonderfully helpful. For example, this new PLN is only myself and another teacher. But we both teach AP courses and those subjects have been too hard to try to match together. (A lot of singleton courses) This for me has been a wonderful change as I have always felt alone in my AP class even though some of the other teachers and I have talked in passing. This is a lot more formal. It has given me new hope and inspiration for a class that is more challenging than people think. We both have classes (AP Euro and AP American Government) that have students in it that are taking their first AP course in their high school career. So one thing we came up with is to 2-3 times a week write formative questions on the board that are AP style questions so the first time they see a question like this is not the day of the AP test in May! We can work through their thought process and fix any errors in thinking. We have only met 4 times, so I am excited to see what the rest of the year brings.
     My Twitter PLN: the greatest group of dedicated and inspiring teachers on the planet. Period. They save my sanity and my love for teaching almost on a daily basis. I truly love you guys. All of you! If I have a question or need something, I get an answer almost instantly from not only all over the country, but the world as well. The best thing? I love to share back: the more you do, the more you get back in return. I have been in so many #edchats that the discussions have literally changed what I do and how I approach my teaching. From 20 Time projects to standards based grading and project based learning, I have had more epiphanies in the last 2 years than in the past 19 years of my career. If you are not on Twitter, why aren't you? 140 characters does not take up that much time! It could be in between classes or during lunch. Get involved! Give a shout out to students! Get a following and follow back! Join an #edchat and expand that network of great educators beyond the people in your building. I 100% guarantee you won't regret it. I have not. Not for a single second.

"This is where I will stand
And here is where I will stay until my last breath
Until my dying day"
---Boysetsfire, Never Said

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 21: My hobbies and interests....


     One of the best ways to build good relationships with your students is to open up a little to them by showing them that you are actually a person! Haha. I know that sounds silly but I think if you are genuine with your students, showing them that learning isn't a "me vs you"  mentality. There are so many points throughout the day during those "in-between" times that present themselves at different points during the year. While there is no exact recipe for how to build relationships with students, here is what I do to incorporate my hobbies/interests into the classroom:

     Every morning you can hear music emanating out of C-210 at MHS. Yea it's me. I need a little extra boost in the AM (6:30 am is waaaay too early) as the caffeine is starting to kick in. I have a wide variety of musical interests from classical to punk music. I think some students appreciate it and I have had many a conversation with students about bands and what music they like too. I have even had students ask if I could play music while they are working on something in class. To avoid any arguments, I usually pick something that has no lyrics like Ratatat, Fatboy Slim, or Blue Man Group. They may complain, but I know they are into it when you walk around and see students tapping their feet or pencil. I also believe that lyrics are too distracting and if you play the music low enough it is not overpowering them when they are trying to concentrate.
     I am constantly quoting movies in class where it fits. Not all the students "get it" but those that due usually get a little chuckle out of it. The quotes always (okay usually!) fit with what we are doing, so for me it's a win-win. Relationship building with humor. Sprinkle in a little bit of content and you have a great way to interact with students. A few years ago, some of my AP American Government students were curious about the movies I kept quoting in class. They wanted me to make a movie list of ones I would recommend to watch or that I quote. (I watch a lot of movies so it was an ever expanding list) If I can find where I have it saved, maybe I will post it here.
      I have many hobbies like reading, video games, soccer, and fishing that I have used in discussions with students in a multitude of ways. It is amazing the way a student's demeanor changes when they realize you have something in common. I know that sounds silly, but anything you can do to show the students you are not the enemy to their learning, the easier it will be to push them or help them when that is needed. I also think that since I have a wide array of things I do when not in school, that it's easier not to exclude anyone in my class. If I was only interested in sports let's say, there are students who are not athletic. So would students perceive that I would treat the athletic students differently (ie better) if that is all I talked about? Remember, perception can be reality if you do not open up to all of your students you could be in for a long year. 
     If I could give one piece of advice to new teachers it would be this: if you put yourself into your teaching and allow students to see you how you want to see them, as a person, then much of the other academic stuff will be easier to accomplish when students can relate to you.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 20: Curating student work....


     I have always tried to get students to share their work with not only me but other students as well. With a class full of 30 students, just the logistics became really difficult and I was a bit frustrated really never knowing quite how to do it. Then little cracks started to appear and I began to find a few ways to change my approach. Then a revolution came and it really helped me to re-think how I approach this problem. But first.....the slow creep of those cracks..
     A few years back the State had a great two year program to include literacy consultants for districts to train teachers using Marzano strategies in their classroom. It was a series of training sessions in house that had teachers learn and then create strategies for their classroom. I got to know the person who was the consultant and she kind of roped me into taking the training sessions. Trust me, it was the best thing I could have done. I have always felt that I did things naturally that fit into the Marzano model, but really never formally thought about it. Through this training I learned and began to implement using groups in a different way for students to not only share but also display their work to each other. I began to dub it Wolski Group Work: you may collaborate together, but everyone in the group had to do the work. So students started to display their work and share in smaller groups. Then I began to get them to share with the rest of the class but always found that students listening were not really paying attention and it was hard to get their input. Slowly a revolution started to happen....
     Due to changes in curriculum for other departments, our revision of our curriculum in Social Studies was delayed a few years to make adjustments for the district. While this was happening, the district got Google accounts for both the students and staff and we were very fortunate enough to get two carts with 30 Chromebooks a piece for our department. I began to mess around with all of the fun stuff on Google Drive a year prior but now since the students had their own account, I could now start to incorporate this into my lessons and daily use. I began to have students not only sharing their work via Google Drive put also having them display it to each other, even if it was on the Chromebook in a one on one fashion. Students could now share their work via the Smartboard too! I have now began to branch out even further by having students share their work with the world.
     One of the ways that I have done this sharing with the world is the 20 Time project. All my classes are now doing this starting this year. Students now generate an essential question based on the content and have to produce, at the end of the semester, a 3-5 minute TED Talk style presentation to teachers and administrators. Not only is this displaying their work, but it is also makes them answer questions about their project too. They even do a "pitch proposal" to a group of admin and teachers at the beginning of the project. Finally, one of my personal goals for this project is for students to connect their project to the outside world. This has gone amazingly well and I cannot wait until they present them this year. More info about that is here on my 20 Time Project Blog

Friday, September 19, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 19: 3 Powerful tools for student reflection.....


   I almost did not respond to this tonight. I just got home from the football game and I am beat. It's Friday and the week beat me up. (Doesn't it always?) But I have so many days under my belt and I have worked so hard to complete the challenge, that I am going to do this one now. You have to have persistence, not allowing the situation or excuses to dictate your dedication. Rub some dirt on it and move on. Oooo rah!
     One tool that I like to use for students is Socrative. I used it a little last year but really started to use it this year more often. It is an on line formative tool that allows you to make a variety of questions that students can get immediate feedback as they are taking it and also allows you to collect data for each student. I like to do these after a lesson or two to see where the kids are in terms of understanding. I also like to go through each question to allow students to think about their thinking. (A little meta cognition never hurt anyone!) It's quick it's easy and you can track a lot of data very easily.
     A second tool is Kaizena. I love this tool. It is an online program that allows you to put comments on documents created in Google Drive. While you could argue that this is as much of a tool for me as it is for the students, it still allows students to reflect on what they have learned. This is a wonderful way to add comments to documents and then students can read them. I like being able to have students read these comments and then reflect on what they could have done better. I am thinking of moving towards having discussions with students once the comments are read and see if they understand what they did wrong. I know this takes time, but I think it will be worth it.
     The third tool I like to use is, ironically two blogging tools: Kidblog and Pro Boards. While Pro Boards is more of a forum, they both do a great job of getting students to reflect on their learning. I like to post essential questions that they can respond to, and here's the best part: other students can post comments on other students comments. While at first this made me nervous that they would say something inappropriate to each other but I have been pleasantly surprised. Most students have been very mature and have not attempted to make fun of anyone in the class. I have seen some great comments on their essential questions. I also have the students work on a semester long project and we use the blog a lot for it. The students posted their essential question and I as well as the other students were able to make suggestions on how to improve their essential questions. This was very productive and some great questions came out of that. I am trying to have the students use it more to reflect on what they are doing on their projects but I just started working with these so I have to do a better job of making them use it. I would love for them to find how much doing this is benefiting me.

Okay folks, night!  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reflective Teaching Day 18: Teaching philosophy: Training Jedis


Teaching is like training a Jedi

 "You must unlearn what you have learned."

Luke: "I can't believe it."
Yoda: "That is why you fail."

"Truly wonderful the mind of a child is."



     Yea. I went with Star Wars. But it fits. Whether it's teaching a young teen like Anakin or a slightly older Luke, teaching is dealing with teens who have the power within them, but are not in control yet and don't know how to use them properly. What I usually do is read today's prompt in the am when I get out of bed and then to think about it as the day goes on. The longer I thought about this particular prompt, the more my answer seemed to make more and more sense. 
     There is always two sides to the force: the light side of Yoda and the Dark Side of Darth Vader. So I feel that I am fighting against the Dark Side: whether it represents ignorance or students taking the easy way out (which Luke tries to do on Dagoba) and not pushing themselves to try harder, to dive into the deeper end of the pool.
     While Yoda talks in such a way that might confuse students today "You must unlearn what you have learned" his approach is one that I believe teachers should embrace: using questions and inquiry rather than direct instruction all the time. Teachers shouldn't allow students to say "I'll try it." As a teacher, you should use the retort of Yoda: "Do or do not, there is no try." Just do it! Don't say you are going to try, because implicit in that word is that you might fail. We need to encourage students to do, not just try. Also, showing students how to learn, not just telling them, is exactly what Yoda does. So while his word choice might be confusing, his approach and method are not. 
     I have always found the approach to teaching Jedis to harness their power both a body and mind dualism approach. Sure Jedis have amazing physical skills, but they also have very powerful mental abilities too. "These aren't the droids you are looking for." However, those powers are untapped and potentially dangerous. (See Anakin Skywalker who starts good and turns into Vader) While none of our students are potential dangerous with the knowledge they could be taught, I still believe that left untapped, that lack of potential is something we should not see.  Unlike the Jedi who only choose to teach a select few, every young padawan that walks into my room has that potential. My job and any school's job is to find out how to tap into that potential.
     While I don't want every single kid to leave my classroom and turn into a teacher, I still want them to use that knowledge in one form or another to help others. Padawans turn into Jedis who then can pass that knowledge on by becoming a teacher to others. Think about that potential: having our students passing on (paying forward) the tapped into potential that we awoke in them to others. Isn't that the goal of education?

Mind what you have learned. Save you it can ----Yoda 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 17: Most challenging issue in education today


     Wow there could be many things I write about today: the Common Core (yea or nay); the influence of politics on the educational process; testing, testing, testing; the push for college for all; Bill and Melinda Gates in education; digital learning; social media. However, when I began to think about this topic, something else struck me and I can boil it down to one single word: comfort.
     This single word I believe is one of the biggest challenges in education today. It is related to all other concerns I have listed. What I mean by comfort is the tendency in the education world for teachers to stay in their comfort zone, stay comfortable and cease to grow. It is an easy trap to fall into too. It creeps up on you and before you know it, you are in a rut, shunning the possibility of being uncomfortable, unwilling to challenge yourself to stretch, to move into a growth mindset. SALY: Same as last year. It is so attractive too: you are used to it, you know the material, and you have, after a while, worked out all of the kinks. But have you evaluated it to see if it is effective? Have you made any adjustments to it at all? Did you try to approach from a different angle? While I don't believe change for the sake of change is good, I also believe that if you are not being reflective (See what I did there? See??) in your teaching then you are too comfortable. Get out of that zone, try something and fail. It's okay. I firmly believe that failing in that manner vastly improves your ability to teach. How else are you supposed to learn? From doing the same thing over and over and over again? That doesn't seem to make sense.
     Educational reforms come and go. The "do this and everything will get better" models are all lined up around the corner waiting to take a dip into the educational world. Politicians, business leaders, and everyone else who thinks they have a solution to our educational problem offer advice on what to do. However, instead of looking outside, we need to look inside. The reason everyone is critical of teaching in general is too many of us for too long have been driving that comfort zone. We just were using the lather, rinse, repeat cycle over and over again. I am not, I repeat NOT saying that you change everything you do from year to year. However, you have to make sure it's effective and reaching as many students as humanly possible. Be critical of yourself first. Don't force outside influences to mandate what you do in your classroom! You have the power!!! Don't relinquish that power for comfort.
    Here is the great news: it is never too late to move into the growth mindset. I don't care if it is your 29th year or your first. In the past 5 years I have been very fortunate to have forced myself out of that zone of comfort out of my connection to other educators (too many to list here) via social media like Twitter and in conversations in my PLCs within and without my department. I firmly believe that if we took this growth mindset as a challenge to ignore the impulse towards saying statements like "I don't have time for that" or "that will never work because..." the things we could accomplish would rid the perception for the need for outside consulting. So my advice to you is this:

1. Jump out of that rut of comfort you have put yourself into and go beyond!
2. Make a mess. An awful mess. Learn from it, fix it and try it again and make another mess. Repeat.
3. Gently nudge your colleagues out of their rut and challenge them to do something that they maybe would not do. Kirsten, Jen THANKS!
4. Show your students that it's okay to do #2 above. They could learn from that too!!

#nomorecomfort
    

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Reflective Teacher Day 16: A Teacher with Superpowers? Oh man.....


     I want to preface this post with this: If I were ever granted a superpower, even in the classroom setting, I would still only use my power for good not evil. The second thing is this: this is a tough one for me. I love superheros and I think all adults who work with kids should wear a cape, but the traditional model of leaping tall buildings in a single bound or spinning webs or even having all the great tech tools like Batman. Hmm.....wait a minute, can you imagine a teacher-like Bat Signal? Now that would rock!!! A huge W in the skies of Mentor, Ohio would be funny. Check that. The skies in South Euclid....
     There can be only one!!! Quote from which movie? Anyone? Anyone? Highlander. Classic movie about immortals that can only die from a beheading and who occasionally fight each other. However, in the end when there are only two highlanders left, the last highlander standing gets the ability to hear what others are thinking. I know I know I don't want to hear what the students are thinking all the time, but if used wisely, this might aide me tremendously in the classroom.
     First off, I would have to have the ability to turn this power to hear others thoughts on and off at will and be able to control it quite well or I don't really want it. I would have to practice it so I could turn it on or off quickly or simply tune it out. This fact is key. One of biggest problems I have always had, especially teaching students history, is how to think historically. Remember, it's an unnatural act for many students. I have tried and tried and I don't know if after 21 years I have made a difference on this issue. I have tried scaffolding and modeling the behavior (demo my thinking, etc) students still have a difficult time with thinking this way. Many of these historical skills apply to other subjects and life as well! 
     If I had the ability to hear others thoughts, I could use it to help the students navigate the thought process and help them to see their flaws in thinking and how to guide them in the right direction. Thinking critically, asking the right questions, supporting thoughts with evidence are difficult skills to teach. If I could briefly "hear" the process as its going on, it might be easier to improve the process. As I am typing this, I realize how creepy this power would be and I wouldn't want to have everyone have it, but teaching these things takes a lot of time and practice. Can you imagine what a classroom would look like if there was a way to improve upon the skills that we all wish students had? I know all of us are fighting that fight, pushing students to use the skills to be critical thinkers, et al, but anything, even a superpower like this, that could help would make reaching ALL students a lot easier to do.