Stories (An Epiphany)

The thing about stories is that they don’t have to fascinate the storyteller. I mean, the event doesn’t have to be fascinating or extraordinary to you to have meaning to your audience.  Sometimes it’s the mundane that provides a lesson worth telling. I tell stories to my students all the time, some entertaining some not so, and I’m often struck by what they connect with in the story.
A story I have shared often with my students is the story of a bowling class I took in college. It’s not an interesting story, but I tell them how when I learned how to throw a hook and count boards, I immediately lost 30 pins on my average. I share that story with them to say, “Sometimes when you learn something new or develop a new skill your overall ability suffers in the short term, to make you better in the long term.” I tell them I’m a better bowler now than I would have been had I never learned these skills, but I was a frustrated bowler as I continued to practice. I use the story in math or coaching basketball because sometimes students need to know that learning often comes out of struggle. You backslide and grasp to old habits, but when the challenges get more difficult, you realize the old habits don’t help you, but the new skills and knowledge will. Once I tell the story to a room of fifth graders they start asking me about what my average bowling score was and is now, and I tell them my scores and say, “I’m far from a professional and I don’t play much anymore.” That’s irrelevant because usually when I tell that story it’s for the  benefit of the kids who think “Why do I need to show my work when I can solve it in my head?” or “Why should I shoot the ball from above my head when I make plenty of shots shooting it from my hip?” As teachers and coaches we can see the bigger picture, and our stories, especially ones that tell of our struggles, can help them learn a little more about that picture. Share.


The Meaning of Poker Chips

1997-98 was my first year as a teacher. I worked at a private school in Cincinnati as the middle school intern. I still consider that year to be the most important year of my professional life because it left no doubt in me that choosing education for my career was the absolutely right choice. I haven’t regretted that decision since, even on the difficult days. That year was also my introduction to Richard Lavoie and his philosophy on the importance of self esteem on learners called, “When the Chips are Down.” Mr. Lavoie compares self esteem of a student (his focus is on students with learning difficulties) to having poker chips. He believes the more “chips” one has, the more readily that student will take risks and grow.

I remember watching this video during my first year and then again in my second year teaching. My buddies and I quoted Lavoie often mocking the idea and telling each other things like, “you must not have many poker chips” or “that took a lot of poker chips to do that.” However, the idea resonated with me as one where I wanted to be a teacher who looked for ways to help kids gain or at least maintain their “poker chips” (self-esteem).

Conceptually, the analogy worked for me, even if it was a little sloppy. While comparing life to a poker game was not ideal, I did find that the idea a poker player with several chips would take risks that another player with only a few chips would not take seemed logical to what I had experienced in life. Confident students take risks that kids without confidence do not take. More importantly, kids with high self esteem can often take criticism more effectively then those with low esteem. The student with high esteem may look at a lower then expected score as a challenge for future work and strive to do better next time where the kid with low esteem may view it as a flaw in their character. Consequently, the kid with the inflated self esteem seems to struggle the most with constructive feedback as they are so used to being told their perfect that the feedback can be confusing and forces them to wonder if those telling them they’re perfect are right or wrong. It causes real tension in relationships between students, parents and teachers (and schools) when this is the case.

As teachers and parents, we have a lot of sway with our kids. We can give esteem, over-inflate it, or take it away in the way we talk (or not talk) to kids, in how we maintain patience with them, or when we allow them to take ownership in their learning and understanding. We have to be honest in our interactions or as this video shows, someone else will be brutally honest. Kids who are struggling need to know that they are struggling and need to be given tools to help them work through those struggles. Overcoming their difficulties will give them the kinds of self esteem that we want our kids to have. They’ll know that they can rely on themselves to solve problems, but they will also know that they can rely on your support to help them through those problems. In the end, it is that lesson that has ultimately guided my path as a teacher and now a parent. Plus, I’ve learned to be pretty good at beating my neighbors in poker.


The Summer Lifelong Learning List

I believe in lifelong learning as a goal. Sure, since I teach, I talk to students about becoming lifelong learners and that seems like the right thing to do, but I don’t do it because it’s the right thing to do, I do it because I believe in it. As a result I don’t believe in summer homework assignments or summer reading. I do believe that kids should read in the summer and I do hope that they flex their mental muscles with ideas, but schools shouldn’t be the ones to assign it. Summer is a good chunk of time to test the chops of lifelong learning.

For me, every summer is a chance for me to explore. I walk into the time off with a list of things I want to do, ways I want to expand my knowledge. Sometimes it’s curriculum driven and sometimes it isn’t. Take last summer, for example. I was staring down the exciting beginning of a 1:1 iPad program and the potential for me to get a Smartboard in my classroom. I focused my summer on technology by playing with ShowMe and Khan Academy, attending a workshop on using Smartboards in math classes, and became very familiar with the ways I could use the iPad. All of those activities were full of learning experiences, but I never allow my summer of learning to be limited to “school stuff.” For the past several summers it has been a goal of mine to become a better cook and expand my cooking horizons and skills. On the technology front I further explored Twitter as a tool for marketing and found that I could use it as a way to bring me information I never knew existed. My love of music and my former life as a college radio dj challenged me to explore podcasts and create a thirty minute radio show to get a better understanding of how they work. Every summer I learn so much to continue to grow as a person and to live the thing I believe.

This summer started early for me, as I began my paternity leave last week. My summer list is a little different this year. At the top of the list is to spend time getting to know my young son and create a bond with him that will serve the both of us well for the future. I want to develop better habits for buying food in order to spend less and waste less. I want to continue to explore the best uses of technology in the classroom as well well as expand my knowledge and experience with what’s out there. This blog is a learning experience for me, as I find a way to use my voice to interact with educators who happen to read these posts. I challenge you to make a summer lifelong learning list and make progress on it every day. You may find out things that you never knew, and that makes it a worthwhile activity.


Caine’s Inspirational Arcade

Have you seen the video about Caine’s Arcade? It’s about a nine year old boy in Los Angeles who creates an arcade for customers at his father’s used auto parts store. The documentary is ten minutes long and talks about Caine’s creation and how he started the arcade as some of the games he’s developed. The story is engaging and interesting.

Two things stood out to me. Since this is a blog to promote technology in education, let me begin with that piece. The filmmaker, Nirvan Mullick is also Caine’s first customer. He is so inspired by Caine that he decides to make a short film about the arcade as a way to get the word out that it exists. What struck me was the way Mr. Mullick went about spreading the word, navigating social media to promote his idea. Watch the film to see what tools he uses and how effective they were.

The second thing that struck me was Caine’s resilience. Starting at 3:50 in the film, Caine’s father begins to talk about the clientele at the store. He shares that most of his sales come from online and very few people walk in the store, but Caine, despite getting no sales, prepares everyday for success. He sweeps the floors, organizes the prizes, dusts the games, promotes his business, and despite limited customers he continues to be upbeat and hopeful. At one point his father suggests that they could go home early since there seemed to be so few customers, but Caine simply refuses to leave early, he refuses to cut corners.

Some would call Caine’s attempt at making an arcade a failure, but he never stops preparing for success, which is a wonderful lesson that we could all use reminding. Caine is unwilling to accept failure, he doesn’t define success by the money he is making, but by the creation of the arcade and the solving of problems (see the part where he wants to buy a claw game to pick up prizes, but on his dad’s insistence he comes up with his own version of the game). The ingenuity and determination of Caine is inspirational and should be a lesson for all those who would give up on goals and dreams too soon, before it has the chance to grow. The lesson? Prepare for success, even when it’s off in the distance, because with perseverance, it’s coming.


The Reimagining of Learning

What is it that makes technology something to be feared? One of my biggest disappointments in sports is that as leagues have embraced the use of more and more technology when it comes to showing you the games, they have often been very stubborn to use that technology as an officiating tool. I have often said, to the few people who listen to me, that at the elite level of sports, the camera can serve as a means to slow down the action and double check the accuracy of moments that are too fast or at an angle that is too severe for the officials on the field to see. Instant replay has allowed the missed calls and the wrong calls to be shown dozens of times and shines a light on human error that is unnecessary.

This is no different in the classroom. Technology expands the classroom. It is a tool to make learning more interactice, more accurate, and more pertinent for our students. A tool like Today’s Meet allows teachers to set up a short term chatroom where students and teachers can engage in a silent conversation with one another. I have used this tool when watching a movie during class, allowing students to engage with the movie, without interrupting the experience for others. They can ask questions that not only get answered by the teacher, but other students are empowered to respond. It is a potential way to get the student who rarely speaks during class to get out their thoughts by writing them down. It takes us away from the “sage on the stage” and allows students to answer questions for their classmates, allowing them to be the “sage.” It makes learning and teaching more collaborative for all involved, which is a goal that more and more classrooms strive to reach.

Technology reimagines the classroom, just as I suggested officiating should be reimagined using technology. Like athletes are bigger and stronger, students are coming to us with other skills and more knowledge than ever before, and we need to use the tools available to us, to meet their needs effectively.



Would Socrates like Socrative?

During my school’s adoption of a 1:1 iPad program this year, I have discovered several apps that have played significant roles in student learning and achievement. At the top of that list has been Socrative, a self proclaimed student/audience response system. It’s accessible through an app on the iPad as well as through the web. This tool allows you to create tests, quizzes, or polls for your students to respond to questions as a free response or multiple choice scenario. Once you’ve collected the information, you can email yourself a detailed report of the responses for each question by your students. I have used it to conduct tests and quizzes as well as to get feedback about classroom activies. The reports have allowed me to use exact student quotes as part of the grade reports and not just paraphrase their thoughts.

Socrative allows you to set the pace or let students work at their own pace, differentiating for ability and processing speeds. I have found that students like using the site, the interface is good and I found that students quickly adapt to the site. Socrative is a good way to get feedback that can be used to improve your teaching and help students become better learners. Play around with it and see what you think about it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Works in progress

When talking about students in the moment we too often hold them to who they are at that time. If they are serious and studious, we assume that that is who they will be for life, same with the students who are argumentative, disrespectful, or underachieving. In the middle of a school year it’s difficult to foresee that the student who shows little personality as a sixth grade, is still transforming into the person they are going to be.

When we talk about students becoming lifelong learners, we cannot complain that they don’t “show the desire to learn” now because they don’t like arithmetic or conjugating verbs in Spanish. The truth is, schools are artificial places of learning. Teachers are here to introduce what’s out there to be learned, but we have decided what they are going to learn, and we don’t often match it to what they “want” to learn, but what WE feel they NEED to learn. For the most part, they learn just enough of it to get an acceptable grade and move on. However in teaching third grade, fifth grade, or eleventh grade, we only get a glimpse of who they are. We get to be a small part of that journey, and I have often lamented the fact, that I don’t get to see how the product progresses.

Recently, however, (Thanks to Facebook to help with the organizing) I had the opportunity to get together with former students, now in their careers, and in their mid to late twenties. I got to catch up with them and see where their lives have gone since they were in my classroom as 7th, 9th, or 12th grade students. The first time I had lunch with twelve students and a former colleague and while we talked about the school, we mainly just caught up. We found out where life had led us. We talked about marriages, jobs, career starts and changes. We talked about advanced degrees pursued, and next steps to be taken. We laughed about stories from the classroom as well as remarked how much we had grown.

One week later a couple of my former students emailed me to invite me to have dinner with them. This time there were four of us and the dinner had the feel of four friends, not a teacher and three students. I was amazed at how interesting each of their lives were, and how much they had continued to grow as learners since I had taught them all those years ago. Each of them had unique stories and ambitions about what they wanted to do with their lives, and had plans for how to reach their goals. They weren’t the kids I remembered, even though each of them still had the same spark of life in their eyes. They had a joy of learning that continued to permeate their beings, and had found what it was they wanted to learn about most. They didn’t thank me for instilling this in them, because truth be known, it wasn’t me, it was their parents, other family members, and the collection of teachers who had taught them from pre school through college, but I appreciate being in that list. I was part of their stories, and that was plenty for me. Now they have grown up, and they continue to be learners, and I can think to myself, “Wow, my insticts were right, kids love learning.” Because even though some of them didn’t turn in every assignment on time, or didn’t always show interest in knowing the accomplishments of Augustus Caesar, they all kept learning and continue to learn.

Teachers, continue to teach the works while they’re in progress, and if you get the chance, take the time to get to chat with some of them when they are further along in their progress so that you can take heart for being part of the process. It’s truly one of the best things I have ever done.


School Violence

My first year teaching was during the 1997-98 school year. During that year we found out about intern Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton’s relationship, it was the year of Princess Diana’s fatal car crash, but what I most remember about that year was that there were three school shootings that spring, a full year before Columbine. What I most recall was the tragedy in Jonesboro, Arkansas where two boys pulled the fire alarm and waited for students and teachers outside and began firing as they exited the school. Why does this one stand out? Because the next day my school had an unscheduled fire alarm, and I remember the faces of my students and the head teacher, whose room I was in, as we slowly made our way out of the building, praying that this was just a drill. It was by far the worst timed fire drill in history.

On Tuesday, March 6, 2012, in Jacksonville, Florida, my friend and former employer Dale Regan, head of school at Episcopal School of Jacksonville, was shot and killed by a recently fired employee of the school. It was the third school shooting in little more than a week. Chardon, Ohio had suffered a fatal school shooting a week earlier and late last week in Arizona there had also been a shooting at a school, where fortunately no deaths had occured. Is this a blip on the radar or trend to be watched carefully?

The reality is that, schools cannot have this. One school shooting in 100 years is one school shooting too many. Learning can only thrive under the fertility of safety. Ask a kid who has ever been bullied if they are capable of learning at their full capacity, when they are afraid of being physically or mentally threatened. As educators, parents, students and administrators of schools we have to continue to fight bullying, teasing, and hazing on our campuses and in our homes. We have to find ways to help people feel included in the community and continue to fight maintaining traditions that undermine these efforts. We have to help everyone develop better strategies for dealing with stress and disappointment, and urge them to seek professional guidance when that is necessary.

All of our learning tools, whether it’s ShowMe, Khan Academy or 1:1 technology programs; all the creative and talented teachers out there working with students; and all the innovative and child-centered schools and curricula won’t amount to much learning if people don’t feel safe on their school campus.

Dedicated to the memory of Dale Regan.


Virtual Teaching

My wife and I recently travelled to California to adopt a four week old little boy. It was a quick process, and many pieces were left up in the air at home, most notably, what do I do with my classes? Prior to this year I would have slapped together a worksheet, a project, or just labeled my days away as “free time.” Seeing as my life was about to make a major shift, perhaps nobody would have blamed me for not focusing on creating authentic lesson plans for my math students. This, however, is no longer an excuse. With all the tools available to us to teach lessons that kids can access online, it’s no longer okay to pass out busy work, when students can and should continue progressing and learning new concepts.

The Monday morning I was out, I woke up at 4:30 (my new son’s wake-up call) and put together a ShowMe presentation on algebraic expressions whose link I emailed to students before heading back to bed. Upon my return I checked in with the students to see if they had understood the lesson and the work associated with it, and each student was able to show that they had understood the lesson and could apply what they had learned. It was an example of the best of both worlds, I get to bond in person with the newest edition to my family and also do virtually what I love…teach.