Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday's Five - Tips for Giving Teachers Gifts

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

First of all, let me start by wishing each of you the happiest of holiday seasons.  I'm truly appreciative to all of you who have taught me so much over the past year by commenting and discussing blog topics on different social networking sites.

Every year parents of school age children struggle to come up with a great gift for their children's teacher.  I know this for two reasons.  First, I have two school age children and have experienced this first hand.  Second, I have a collection of cheesy holiday mugs that proves it.  In order to help out those looking to give the perfect gift to their child's teachers, here are five recommendations:

  1. If you wouldn't want it yourself, neither does your child's teacher.  Before buying that ugly mug or the tie made out of plastic at the dollar store, ask yourself, "What would I do with this if I had it?"  If you only want to spend a buck or two, scratch off lottery tickets don't take up shelf space in my cupboard and won't melt in the dryer.
  2. You (pretty much) can't go wrong with gift cards.  Starbucks, Amazon, Dunkin Donuts - all good.  Victoria's Secret - probably not a good idea.  Opening that in class would make for a very awkward moment.  
  3. If you know the teacher well, try and personalize the gift a bit.  For me, anything with Mickey ears and/or a Mets logo makes me smile (except for a plastic tie - I still can't do much with that).  If you know the teacher enjoys cooking, a nice bottle of olive oil would be a good idea.  If they are a photographer, they might appreciate a new lint-free lens cloth.  For a gardener, a new pair of gloves might be good. Giving a personalized gift tells a teacher that you appreciate them as a person as well as a teacher.  That's nice for us.
  4. Try and stay away from edible gifts.  It's not that we don't like chocolate, cookies, and candy, but this time of year is already brutal on our waistlines.  Teaching is not exactly a physically active profession (despite the way I tend to flail around with my arms when I'm excited about what I'm teaching).  If you are determined to give something that can be consumed, a nice quality tea or coffee is a better option.  Neither has any calories.  
  5. The best gift is a hand written card, note, or letter from your child.  It costs nothing, and we love it.  This year I got many gifts from students, but the one that gave me the biggest smile was a card from a student with a hand drawn picture and this message:
Dear Mr. Soskil,  
Thank you for being my teacher this year.  You help me when I'm confused, make me laugh, and make learning fun.  I hope you enjoy your break. 
Love, Student
It doesn't get any better than that.

Now it's your turn.  If you are a teacher, what are some of the best gifts you have gotten?  How about the worst?  (I once opened a box in front of my class that contained 2 bottles of champagne.  That was awkward.) Do you have any other advice to give?  If you are a parent, what are some gifts that you have given your kids' teachers?  Please share with us by leaving a comment below, and share the post with others on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and Plurk so that we can get their input as well.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

But, What Does it Look Like in My Classroom?

"But, what does it look like in my classroom?"

When discussing Project/Problem Based Learning (PBL) and other pedagogical practices this question sometimes pops up.  Teachers new to this type of learning often understand the theory, but have picturing the application of the ideas in their classrooms.

Today, I had my students watch a 25 min. video on how Disney Imagineers use levers and pulleys when designing attractions for Disney theme parks around the world.  I then told them that they had to design a new Disney attraction or restaurant with a story and theme in which pulleys and/or lever would be used.  After having lunch to think about their ideas, they were given 40 minutes in the afternoon to design a model or concept art of their idea to pitch to the class.  Tomorrow they will make their presentations and we will put their ideas into a Voicethread, which will be embedded on our class wikispace.

As my students (both regular and special education students) were totally engrossed in their work, having great discussions about their designs, and producing amazing visual descriptions of their ideas, I came up with my answer to the above question.

It looks a lot like me walking around my classroom looking for someone to help and nobody needing me because they are fully engaged, collaborating, and using technology to solve their own problems.  

Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday's Five - Teaching Responsibility

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

photo credit:
 As teachers, we know that we are preparing our students for the rest of their lives.  We want to teach them life skills in addition to content.  Among the most important life skills is responsibility.  Our students need to learn to be responsible.

Throughout history, many wise individuals have spoken and written about those with great power having increased responsibility.  How often in our classrooms do we preach to our students the importance of responsibility, but then refuse to allow them the power and autonomy to learn the skill?  Let's take a look at five ways we can help students learn to be responsible.
  1. Let them work on real problems.  If a student is assigned an essay on homelessness and doesn't write it well (or at all), they get a bad grade.  The poor grade will not teach them responsibility.  Most kids don't really buy into our grading system.  If that same student is asked to work with a homeless shelter to increase awareness of the problem in the community, they see the real consequences of not doing their part.  They know that their effort and work is directly contributing to helping others.
  2. Let them experience the rewards of their hard work.  Suppose in the first situation the student writes an amazing essay.  They get 100 on the top of their paper and that's the end of it.  They haven't learned anything about the value of being responsible.  There's no emotional reward other than the grade (which, again, doesn't mean a whole lot to most kids).  If they do a great job on the second task they feel the natural joy that comes authentically when one makes major contributions to a project. 
  3. Allow kids the autonomy and creative control over their work.  Too often we expect kids to learn responsibility by completing 40 problems out of a textbook every night.  We tell them that it's their job to play school, listen to their teachers, and do what they are told.  If great responsibility comes with great power, then it would stand to reason that little power requires little responsibility.  Kids need to be empowered to learn.  Tell them, "If you understand how to add fractions, find a way to prove it to me by Friday.  If not, my door is open for extra help between now and then.  Those who do a good job will create video lessons for next year's class on Monday.  Those who don't will spend Monday with me re-learning."  That's the kind of task that empowers students and allows them to learn responsibility.
  4. Model responsibility.  This one is pretty obvious, but if a teacher is constantly modeling behaviors that are unprofessional and irresponsible, it's tough to teach kids the skills they will need in life.  For many kids, we are the best role models they have.  We have great power in their lives, and our actions are watched very closely. 
  5. Find ways for students to get positive feedback from multiple sources.  Sure, it's important to give students positive feedback when they act responsibly.  It's so much more powerful, however, when that feedback comes from multiple and unexpected sources.  I've seen kids who don't like school become engaged and excited to do their work because they received positive comments on a blog post they wrote.  I've seen students who have attendence problems come to school more often because the school janitor noticed when they showed up for 3 straight days and told them, "Good Job!" 
Now it's your turn.  How do you teach responsibility?  Do you have experiences that you can share with us?  Let us know in the comment section below, and please pass the post on to friends and colleagues via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Plurk so that we can hear their points of view as well.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Student Learning vs. Student Evaluation

Image: Paul Gooddy /
Is it more important for us as educators to foster learning, or to evaluate our students?  I would bet that the majority of teachers would agree that our primary purpose is to promote learning.  I would hope that teachers prioritize teaching and learning over judging and evaluating, even if our current educational system doesn't.

For this reason, I am often perplexed by the push back on the idea of re-testing students.  I'd love to not give tests and focus on simply assessing student learning without grades, but that's not possible in our current system.  If a student doesn't learn something or tests poorly, isn't it my job to do what I can to remedy that?  Shouldn't I make sure that student learns?  Shouldn't I see this as a sign that I should give them more assistance, re-teach them, or get them some other sort of help?  Wouldn't it be beneficial to that student to have someone demand they actually learn instead of letting them go through school without doing so?

I've heard the arguments against re-testing, and I am yet to hear one that makes sense to me.

Re-testing allows kids to be lazy.  If they failed it's because they didn't study.

Perhaps the student's poor initial grade was due to lack of studying.  I refuse to use their laziness as an excuse to not fullfil my mission as a teacher.  It is my job to help them learn, not to punish them for laziness.  Then again, maybe they weren't lazy.  Maybe they didn't study because they were wondering where their next meal was coming from.  Or whether Mom would come home drunk that night.  Or whether their Dad's parole hearing was going to go well.  Or whatever.  It is not my job to judge.  It is my job to promote learning.

There's no re-testing in the "real world"

Really?  You don't think that doctors learn from their mistakes?  Or that teachers don't have lessons that fail miserably?  Or that artists never create works that are less than their best?  Or that those who work in sales never have days where they don't close a deal?  Or that lawyers never lose a case?  Life is full of failure.  Learning from one's mistakes is much more important than avoiding failure.

If you allow a kid to re-test and they get a higher grade than one who doesn't, that's not fair.

As I said above, assessing learning is much more important to me than assigning a grade.  "Assessment" and "grading" are not interchangeable terms.  When we use them as such, we are implying to students that assigning a score to them is more important than what they've learned.  They start to jump through hoops to get praise and good grades instead of making connections because that's what we are training them to do. Sure, the practice of re-testing might make it harder for kids (or their parents) to feel superior to others because they are a "straight A student", but is that really a bad thing?  Maybe the school can save some money on the "My kid is an honor student and yours is dumb" bumper stickers.

There's no time to re-test.  I've got to cover X, Y and Z.  Plus, what would I do with all the other kids?

There's no doubt that having a classroom where you are meeting the needs of all the students is difficult. It can be done, though.  I've had many classes where I'm sitting with a small group of kids who need more help while other groups of kids who already have proven they understand the topic are recording a podcast about it, developing a narrated slide show, using web 2.0 apps to produce content for our wiki, or sharing their learning in other ways.  The best part is that the content being created by the groups who already understand can be used as a way to study for the kids in the group who need more help that night.  Had I not taken the extra time to re-teach and allow for re-testing, some of my students would have never learned what they needed to, and others would have never had the opportunity to teach it, which deepened their understanding.  To me, not doing this in order to "cover" other topics that my students may or may not learn before moving on to "cover" something else seems destined to leave gaps in understanding for most kids.  

I guess it all comes down to how you view teaching.  If we are the deliverers of instruction, and it is the students' responsibility to learn, then there is no reason to re-test kids.  It's a nice, convenient way to look at things because it takes all the responsibility for failing students and places it upon students and their parents.  

Of course, if my job is to teach students and make sure they learn, not re-teaching and re-testing doesn't make sense.  Sure, there will still be students who struggle.  Maybe there are factors outside of my control that are preventing them from learning.  But taking this point of view ensures that their struggles won't be because of me.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Friday's Five - Misconceptions About Math

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

I believe that as we move further into the 21st Century, understanding mathematics is more vital than it has been at any time in history.  Math at its very nature is problem solving and critical thinking, skills that are sorely lacking in many of our students due to the pervasive culture of standardized testing we are forcing them to suffer through.

Here are five fallacies about math that too many people believe to be fact:

1.  Math is a series of rules to be memorized.  Too many times we teach math as something to be done in order to get a correct answer.  (i.e. Divide, multiply, subtract, and bring down in order to get the right answer to a long division problem.)  Students start to believe early in their school careers that the key to learning math is to memorize these rules.  The key to learning math is understanding why those rules work, though.  It's much more important for kids to understand that division means we are putting things into equal groups than the rule mentioned above.  The best math students are those who can creatively find different ways to figure out problems.

2.  Creativity is important in other subjects, but not math.  True math is creative.  Rarely do we give students the chance to be creative in our math classes, though.  I can't count the number of times I've heard stories of teachers taking points off (we'll save the discussion over the worthlessness of grades for another time) for doing a problem wrong, or not using the correct method to solve a problem.  At its very nature, math is about creative problem solving.  As Michael P. Goldenberg pointed out, Mathematicians don't calculate.  They have computers and calculators to do that for them.  Mathematicians solve problems.  In our math classes, we should expect and demand that our students act as mathematicians and not calculators.  We should allow them to explore different solutions, to fail, and to learn from that failure.  We should give them problems that may not have a clear cut answer.  We should have them identify problems in their community and try and solve them.

3.  Our best math students are the ones who score highest on our state standardized math tests.  Those are the students who are best at calculating and memorizing.  They are not our best math students.  Standardized tests comprised of multiple choice questions and a few short answers cannot measure the understanding of mathematical concepts or the ability of a student to see the world mathematically.  While on this subject, it's terrible that we punish kids who do poorly on standardized math tests by forcing them to endure additional bad instruction in math (standardized test prep).  We should be teaching them to understand mathematics, not decipher test questions by looking for keywords, finding shortcuts to calculations, and how to format short answer responses.  That just makes it harder for them to actually think mathematically.

4.  It is acceptable to joke about not being able to pass an 8th (or 5th) grade math test.  At least once per week I hear a teacher, parent, or member of the community make the statement that they couldn't pass a middle school math test, don't understand "that math", or say with a smile that they aren't good at math.  Why do we, as a society, find this acceptable?  A person who can't read on a middle school level is almost illiterate.  They would never brag about it in public, and we would never want them teaching a group of students.  Math ineptitude is not cause for pride.  When students see adults display it as such, they are given silent permission to be prideful of their own stuggles in math.  Is that what we want to promote? 

5.  We should teach things the "traditional way" because that's what parents understand.  If parents really did "understand" math, they wouldn't have such a problem with their students actually learning it instead of just doing it.  Many times at a parent teacher conference I've had a parent tell me, "I hated math when I was in school and never understood it.  I'm bad at math."  Then, 30 seconds later they are demanding that I teach their kid the same way that they were taught.  Seriously?  If you hated math and never understood it, why on Earth would you want your kid to have the same experience?  For the past few years I have tried to keep an open line of communication with parents so that when they don't understand something we are exploring in class, they can notify me.  When that happens I try to put a video demonstration by myself or a student on the concept on our class wiki so that the parents can see what we are doing.  This has worked beautifully; parents and students end up watching the video together and the kids are able to teach their parents about the concepts to reinforce their learning. 

Now it's your turn.  What are your thoughts on teaching math, misconceptions, and the above thoughts?  Have you had some of the same experiences?  What other misconceptions do you think are out there about mathematics?  Please share with us in the comment section below, and pass the post on to others using Twitter, Plurk, Google+, and Facebook so that we can hear their points of view as well.   


Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday's Five - Hidden Educational Gems at Walt Disney World

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

The first thing that you think of when you hear "Walt Disney World" is education, right?  Probably not, yet as one who loves learning new things, I have great appreciation for the amount and diversity of the many educational opportunities that are available throughout the resort.  I'm well aware that a trip to Disney is not for "educational purposes" (despite the fact that many parents have to list that reason when taking their kids out of school), but that doesn't mean that you can't learn a few interesting things during your trip.

Here are five lesser-known, really cool, and free opportunities to learn while you are enjoying the Most Magical Place on Earth.

Norway's Viking Exhibit
1.  Mini-museums in Epcot's World Showcase country pavilions - There is lots to learn in Epcot's World Showcase.  Just talking with cast members from around the world can give one insight into many different cultures.  Many people never make it to the mini-museums that are hidden in some of the pavilions, though.  In Norway there are displays telling of the history of the Vikings.  In the American pavilion there are artifacts from Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and NASA's astronaut program among others.  In China there is a replica of the Terracotta Army.  In Japan there is a museum that describes how Japanese mythical creatures have inspired many of the characters in Amime.  Morocco's Gallary of Arts and History is beautiful and displays the science, technology, and music of the country.  Visiting these exhibits is very informative and well worth your time.

Animation Academy
2.  Disney Hollywood Studios Animation Academy - Tucked away amid character meet and greets in the Animation building at the Studios is the Animation Academy where every half hour a Disney animator teaches gives 20 minute lessons on how to draw a Disney character.  The character changes each time, so it's something you can do more than once.  In our session this trip, we learned to draw Buzz Lightyear.

3.  Wonders of the Lodge Tour at Disney's Wilderness Lodge - At 9AM each morning, a free tour of Disney's Wilderness Lodge is offered.  On the tour you will learn about Native American culture, history and legends, the geology of the Grand Canyon, and the history of steam trains.  You don't have to be staying at the Lodge to take the tour.

4.  Innoventions at Epcot - In Epcot's Future World there are two large buildings that host Innoventions (West and East).  Inside these buildings are games and activities sponsored by companies that teach you about recycling, fire safety, how to make paper, the physics of roller coasters, and many other topics.  My kids absolutely love spending time in there, and I've learned quite a bit myself.

Bird Spotting on the Pangani Trail
5.  Exploration Trails at Disney's Animal Kingdom - The Animal Kingdom has so many educational opportunities that it was hard to narrow them all down for this list.  My kids enjoyed learning about conservation and different kinds of animals when they completed the Kids Discovery Club program.  I decided to go with the exploration trails, however, because of the appeal to both kids and adults.  In addition to exhibits with signs and information to read, there are guide maps, bird identification guides, and knowledgeable cast members who will answer questions about any of the animals you encounter that you want to know more about.

Now it's your turn.  If you've been to Walt Disney World, what were your favorite educational activities?  Have you experienced any of the opportunities on this list?  If so, what did you think of them?  If you haven't been to Walt Disney World, what educational opportunity appeals to you most?  Please share with us in the comment section below and pass the post on to others on Google+, Twitter, Facebook, and Plurk so that we can hear their opinions as well.  

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Friday's Five - What I'm Thankful For

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

Flickr/Lynn Friedman
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  In addition to spending the day with family, watching football, and my uncle's spicy sausage stuffing, I enjoy taking time to reflect on those people and circumstances that have helped me.  There are many things that I am thankful in my personal life, but I'm going to focus here on people I am thankful for in my professional life as a teacher.

  1. My former teachers - If the teachers that I had while I was growing up didn't foster a love of learning, I wouldn't be able to do the same for my students nearly as well.  Often people will talk about that one teacher who had a great impact on them.  I'm blessed to have had several "that one teachers."
  2. My professional learning network (PLN) - I cannot say enough how important my PLN has become to me, or how appreciative I am that I have a group of people who are willing to share ideas, give me feedback on my own professional practices, support me in times of need, and discuss best teaching practices.  
  3. My colleagues - The people I work with are fantastic.  Their commitment to the students and community in general inspires me on a daily basis.  Working in an collaborative environment with people who I respect is a blessing.
  4. My wife - I can't say enough about how appreciative I am that my wife is as understanding and supportive as she is (partially because she reads my posts).  In all seriousness, both of us being teachers helps each understand the others frustrations and successes at work in a way that is difficult for others outside the profession.  I wouldn't be nearly the teacher I am now without my wife.
  5. My children - I am thankful for my children in many ways, but professionally they have also had a large impact on me.  I now see my students differently than I did before I had children.  I'm more empathetic because I can imagine my own children in similar situations.  I also feel a sense of urgency to teach 21st century skills because I realize that my students will shape the world in which my children will live.  On a more personal level, I am inspired by the amazing curiosity and love of learning that I see in both of my children.  Seeing that makes me strive to inspire the same qualities in my students.
Now it's your turn.  What are you thankful for?  Who are the people that support and inspire you to be the person you are?  Please share with us by leaving a comment below and share the post with others on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Plurk so that we can hear their points of view as well.  Finally, I hope that my American readers had a happy Thanksgiving, and that all of you, regardless of where you live, experience the joy of appreciating others in your lives at this beginning of the holiday season.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Supercommittee: 21st Century Ineptitude Exemplified

Yesterday, the "Supercomittee" in the United States Congress, charged with decreasing the country's deficit and debt made this announcement:
After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee’s deadline.
At a time when those in education and business are striving to promote the 21st century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, effective communication, and innovation, has there ever been a group lacking in those skills more than the politicians we have elected to run our country?  They can't communicate or collaborate with each other.  They haven't been innovative or come up with any new ideas in the past decade.  It's painfully obvious that critical thinking and the ability to problem solve are non-existent.

J. Scott Applewhite - AP
Is it any wonder that the education laws and policies set forth by these people drive the 21st century skills out of our students?   Should we be shocked that our schools are forced to teach to a test that destroys critical thinking and innovation?  Are we really surprised that the preparation schools must do for that test makes teaching collaboration and effective communication of little importance?

What I'm baffled by is the fact that citizens of this country continue to allow those who are clearly unable to handle the complexities of the 21st century to continue to dictate how our children should be educated.  It's bad enough that they've made a mess of things for themselves.  They need to stop trying to mess it up for my children and students as well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday's Five - Success Stories

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

The moment that one realizes that which they are passionate about is a special moment.  In an instant motivation and possibility are awakened, usually leading to amazing results.  If you've been lucky enough to hear Kevin Honeycutt speak, you'll recognize this as what he refers to as seeing someone "launch."

I've been lucky enough to see people around me have such moments this year: my students, other students in my building, and colleagues.  It's these successes that make teaching one of the most rewarding professions.  Here are some of the awesome successes that I've seen and heard about in my district so far this year:
  1. A couple of weeks ago a teacher in the faculty room during lunch was frustrated because her students were not taking any pride in the reports they were writing.  They were totally unmotivated.  The conversation turned to Project Based Learning (PBL), and she made the decision to try something a bit out of her comfort zone. Instead of having students write reports on marine animals, she would have act as marine biologists to design an aquarium exhibit.  Students would have to learn about the animals to be able to determine which could share tanks, and how best to teach the public about them.  Today, as I walked down a stairwell, I heard a student go up to that teacher bubbling with excitement as he explained to that teacher the research he had learned about an octopus.  Another student (who is also in that teacher's class) earlier in the day asked me if she could skip her recess to research some marine animals.  I don't think that teacher has to worry about lack of engagement or interest any more. 
  2. For the past few years our 5th graders have collected food for the local food pantry during November and December.  This year we wanted them to understand the importance of what they were doing in addition to simply collecting the cans.  Each of the three 5th grade classrooms was responsible for running an advertising campaign that included posters, a bulletin board, and a video commercial convincing other students that they should bring in food.  It was fantastic to see students authentically engaged in debate over how best to help others.  Below is the commercial that my students created without any help from adults.
  3. I remember a few years ago I had a conversation with a teacher in the faculty room about math.  She was complaining that her students were asking her why multiplying two negative numbers resulted in a positive answer.  She just wanted the students to memorize the rule so that they could get the right answer.  That same teacher has started using Number Talks, a program from Math Solutions, with her students this year.  This afternoon she was excitedly telling me how her students are understanding addition, subtraction, and multiplication, making connections, and learning so much more than just the rules she used to teach them.  She also mentioned how much she's enjoying learning some of those connections along with them.  Launch!
  4. One of our special education teachers recently introduced her students to some new web 2.0 tools, including GoAnimate.  All of her students loved playing with the new tools, but one of them absolutely launched.  He's now more engaged in class and is constantly asking to share what he's learned by using the tools.  As an added bonus, the teacher told me that for the first time all year he is checking his spelling with a dictionary or the computer because he wants the pronunciation on GoAnimate and the other tools to be correct when he embeds them on the class wikispace they are building.
  5. I recently shared the benefits of student blogging in a class I'm teaching on 21st century skills to other teachers.  At the same time I got my 3rd grade daughter set up with a blog to share some of the things she is learning both in and out of school.  Several teachers shared my daughter's first blog post with their students, allowed them to comment, and told them that they would have the opportunity to share their learning on a blog, too.  Those teachers have overwhelmingly reported increased interest from those students in writing, and learning in general.  Those students want to learn so that they have something to share.  Writing is no longer an assignment to be handed to the teacher, but rather a mode of communicating with the world.  
Now it's your turn.  Take a moment and share something inspiring that you have seen this year.  Have you seen a student "launch?"  What amazing things are you and your colleagues doing?  Share with us in the comment section below, and share the post on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Plurk so that we can hear from others as well.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It's About the Actions, Not the Outcomes

I'm going to be a bit philosophical in this post.  Lately I've been feeling a lot of stress because I'm not happy with the direction we are headed as an educational system or as a country.  I've wanted desperately to change things in some way for the better.

I now realize that my ego got the best of me.  I no more have the power to change those things than I do to alter time, speed up the harvest, or teleport people.  The only things I can control are my actions.  The outcomes are controlled by a power much greater than me.  If they are meant to happen, then they will.  If they aren't, there's not much I can do about it.

So, I'm going to focus on changing myself for the better.  I'm going to focus on giving my students the best education that I can.  I'm going to focus on teaching 21st century skills.  I'm going to focus on giving back to my community where I can.  I'll share what I'm doing with people if they ask.  Hopefully, that will make a difference in some way. 

Best of all, I'm going to let go of the stress that comes with feeling like it's my responsibility to change things.  It's not.  It never was.  That was just a product of my ego.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday's Five - Catalysts for Innovation

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page
Flickr: Ewa Rozcosz
In order for our students to become more innovative, it is important that their teachers become more innovative.  We need to model 21st century skills for our students to learn them.  In today's educational climate, teachers face great resistance to this type of change and are encouraged to standardize their practices.  Often they are told to teach canned lessons from a textbook.  Here are five changes that would act as catalysts for innovation.

  1. Switch the focus from standardized testing to formative assessment. - Standardized tests are taken once or twice per year and give a broad range of data on student achievement that is returned to teachers months after the student takes the test.  Formative assessment yields specific data on student understanding that is delivered to teachers and students within lessons allowing changes in instruction to happen instantly.  Teachers can then use that data to instantly determine the best way to change teaching in order to reach students that are falling behind.  Formative assessment allows teachers opportunities to do what is best for students in creative ways.  It also is proven to be highly effective in increasing student learning.  Standardized testing leads to standardization, the opposite of innovation.
  2. Showcase innovation. - Instead of faculty meetings and in-service days being spent on fire drill procedures, special education law, or months-old assessment data, administrators should identify the most innovative teachers and ask them to share what they are doing with their colleagues.   
  3. Replace textbooks with on-line versions created by teachers and students. - I came across an article yesterday about Minnesota teachers who created their own textbook.  In doing so, they saved their district $175,000.  Creating a textbook in itself is incredibly innovative.  Because the textbook is on-line and easily editable, innovative pedagogy, alternative methods, and new ideas can easily be added as teachers and students discover them.
  4. Limit filtering - Schools should embrace social networking and the exchange of ideas.  Creativity inspires creativity.  The more amazing ideas one is exposed to, the more likely they are to come up with amazing ideas on their own.  The internet is not something to be feared, but rather something to be harnessed. 
  5. Encourage risk taking by allowing teachers more autonomy. - Fear of failure never led to greatness.  We have a culture in education right now that places great emphasis on not being wrong.  There is no emphasis on learning from mistakes or trying new things.  Obviously, innovating is difficult in such a climate.  Give teachers the freedom to try new things and to learn. 
Now it's your turn.  What changes do you think could be made to current educational practices that would encourage more creativity and innovation?  What have you seen work in your school?  What do you see holding teachers back from taking risks and being creative?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below, and pass the post on to others via Google+, Twitter, Facebook, and Plurk so that we can hear their ideas.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Open Letter to Legislators

The following is a letter that I recently sent to a state legislator.  I believe the sentiments are applicable to many locations and not just Pennsylvania, so I am publishing it as an open letter here.  Individual names have been eliminated from this version.

Dear Legislator,

Thank you for your e-mail keeping me updated on the status of the current legislation and your views.  I appreciate that you are looking at the legislation from many different points of view and that you have seen some of the ways vouchers will hurt the students in our district.

I would like to share the point of view of a classroom teacher with you, however.  I enjoy debating politics as much as anyone else, but I assure you the following sentiments are based on what I have come to understand as a teacher who is committed to inspiring my students to develop the attributes they will need to succeed in life.  These comments are not motivated by a desire to protect teaching jobs, or any other union agenda.  They are simply what I believe is best for students.

Any legislation using standardized test data in a punitive way will have a negative effect on students.  This includes legislation that allows students to use vouchers to transfer from "failing schools."  Even though there are no such schools in our district does not mean that students here will be immune from the detriments of such a law.  Administrators, teachers, and students will still face pressure to "pass" tests that do not focus on 21st century skills our students need.  Those skills will continue to be ignored, and our students will continue to graduate unprepared for the world into which we are sending them.

In the past decade we've seen a great change in the world.  As the internet has evolved, computers have become ubiquitous, and portable devices have become more prevalent, information has become easy to obtain instantaneously.  Preparing students for this world in the same way we prepared them before it is negligent and harmful.

I have also seen a change in my students.  They are increasingly unable to think critically.  They are less creative.  They are less comfortable working with others to complete tasks.  I believe the majority of teachers would agree with these observations.

For those of us working directly with students, it's easy to see the correlation between the above statements and the increased focus on standardized test scores.  I am not writing this because I am forced to teach to the test.  I am not.  I choose not to.  I choose to teach my students to learn 21st century skills like collaboration, innovation, critical thinking, and digital communication.  Most teachers are not as fortunate as I am.  They either lack the support of administration or lack the confidence to take a leap of faith.  In either case, good teaching is prevented by fear of a test that provides data which cannot be used to guide the teaching of students until months after the test is taken.

I am a huge proponent of data-driven assessment.  The assessments and data must be much more immediate than that which we get from standardized tests to have any impact on student learning.  Data must be collected within lessons and days.  There is much research to support this.

Just because data is easy to collect and organize does not make it the best data to use.  Standardized tests were put in to place to benefit many people.  Students were not among them.  Anyone who believes otherwise has either not spent enough time working with students or has a political agenda.  It is time we focused on what's best for students in education.  Any reform that doesn't is destined for failure.

Thank you for your attention and for your consideration of the above ideas.

Best Regards,
Michael A. Soskil
5th Grade Teacher

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why We Struggle to Change

Photo - snbeach:
Education has struggled to join the 21st Century.  While businesses are utilizing new technology, videoconferencing, and innovative practices to boost their profits, few educators are comfortable doing the same things.  Part of the problem is the culture of standardized testing we are immersed in.  I've written enough about that. 

Another problem is that few teachers are innovative by nature.  Most teachers chose this profession because they care about kids and because they liked school.  In general, teachers were the kids in class who did what the teacher told them to do and then beamed when they received praise for doing it.  We weren't challenging the system.  We weren't innovating.  Those things were frowned upon in school.  We were trained to learn facts in quiet, neat rows and then spit them back when asked.

Now we are the ones in front of the classrooms and we want our kids to be compliant in the same way.  Some are, but most know that the world has changed.  They realized way before we did that compliance and facts are obsolete. The 21st century belongs to those who can innovate.  It belongs to those who can think of solutions that others cannot.  Companies don't need book smart employees; nuggets of information can be obtained instantly on one's phone now.

So, we struggle to change education in a way that focuses on 21st century skills that many teachers don't possess and find threatening.  It's impossible to teach what you don't understand. 

Our teachers aren't at fault.  They played the game very well, but the rules were changed.  Now it's time to adjust to those changes, and for those in power to pave the way for this adjustment by providing professional development and policies that allow teachers to take risks.

We need to start recruiting innovators into the profession.  That will take time and resources.  We need our educators in the profession right now to embrace change instead of fighting against it.  We need them to both realize the new reality and take the difficult steps of changing their entire way of thinking about school. 

It won't be easy.  We are 12 years into the 21st Century.  How long are we going to make our students wait to begin building the skill set they will need in their futures so that we can feel comfortable?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Standardization is the Death of Excellence

The push in education for the past decade has been to standardize.  We have standardized tests for students.  Teachers are being asked to standardize their lessons, grading practices, and the pace that they teach.  States have made a push to standardize curricula by listing state standards in each subject.  Now the Common Core will standardize curricula in the entire country.

It's time to stop standardizing.  Standardization is the death of excellence.
Photo Credit: Jei-Are

Nobody goes to a car show to see standard models that rolled off a factory assembly line.

In a science lab, standardizing the experiments that all scientists are doing would be foolish and would prevent new discoveries.

You don't want all players on your favorite sports team to play at a standard level.

Nobody ever won an award for being the most standard in their field.

Standardization is not compatible with the world for which we are supposed to be preparing our students.  Innovation isn't standardized.  Critical thinking isn't standardized.  Students who are forced to focus solely on standardized testing in their school careers are prevented from excelling.  Teachers who are forced to standardize their teaching are prevented from being excellent teachers. 

In either case, innovation is impossible.

It's time to move in another direction.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday's Five - What to Do With Your Textbooks (Now That They're Obsolete)

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

Let me just get this out of the way upfront.  I despise textbooks.

I also have a big problem with anyone involved in education who cares more about political agendas and profit than what's best for my students.  For that reason I despise textbook companies.
Photo Credit: Michael Essany

That may sound harsh, but I'm not using hyperbole. Tamim Ansary, a former textbook editor, does a great job of summarizing the problem with our textbooks in his article A Textbook Example of What's Wrong With Education.  James Loewen, a former textbook author, describes many of the same problems in more depth in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me.  Both are worth reading.

The good news, though, is that textbooks are becoming obsolete by the minute.  The ubiquity of computers, iPads, smartphones, and other portable devices makes accessing information instantaneous and easy.  I've yet to come across any information in the 5th grade textbooks that are provided to my students that couldn't be found on-line for free.  As an added advantage, differing viewpoints and opinions are offered on that information allowing my students the opportunity to analyze and evaluate that information.  You'd be hard pressed to find a textbook that made kids use those higher-order thinking skills.  At a time when school districts are facing debilitating budget cuts, textbooks are decreasingly being viewed as necessities.

When I've had discussions with others before and suggested that we should get rid of textbooks, I often get asked, "How will teachers know what to teach, then?"  My usual response is that they should try teaching their students.  Teachers need to stop using textbooks as a crutch that allows them to simply deliver instruction instead of teaching.

So, in the age of free and easily obtainable information, iPads, and Google, I asked my PLN on Plurk, Twitter, and the Teacher's Life for Me Facebook Page to suggest ideas for using the textbooks in your room now that they are obsolete.  I'm appreciative to everyone who chimed in with great ideas, both practical and satirical.  Here are five ideas for your textbooks:

1.  This idea came from @emprimrose on Plurk.  She suggested turning the textbooks into storage boxes for students.  In addition to being incredibly practical, it looks like a fun activity.

2.  In my classroom, I use textbooks to support our technology use.  Literally.  My classroom projector is propped up on old textbooks so that the image fits nicely on our classroom whiteboard.  One leg of the table in the front of my room is shorter than the others.  I've got an old book leveling that out as well.

3.  @SStephensC200 on Plurk suggested packaging up the books and shipping them to classrooms in countries that are less affluent like the Philippines and those in Africa.  She mentions that shipping costs are one drawback.  I can see a great opportunity for a service learning project here.  How great would it be for our students to help others in another country by raising the funds to send them books?

4.  Textbooks (and outdated encyclopedias) stack very nicely.  Allow your students to get creative by using books to build something.  @cmay inspired this idea by sharing the picture on the right.

5.  Lately, everyone from the CDC to Chinese police forces seem worried about the impending Zombie Apocalypse.  @nkrahn suggests saving the textbooks for just such an occasion, claiming that nothing kills a brain better than a college textbook - both when read and when used as a projectile.

Now it's your turn.  What do you think we can do with our obsolete textbooks?  Share your best ideas in the comment section below and pass the post along to friends and colleagues via Twitter, Plurk, Google+ and Facebook so that we can hear their ideas as well.  If you'd like to suggest and vote for future Friday's Five topics, or join in the discussion on ways to improve education, please stop by A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook and click on the "like" button.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday's Five - My Five Favorite Topics to Teach

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page

Photo Credit:  Merrimack College
I have to admit that I had a tough time deciding on a topic for this week's Friday's Five.  I'd imagine that all writers go through stretches where they just don't feel as creative or motivated as usual.  I finally decided to write about five of my favorite curriculum topics to teach because every time these subjects come up in class I get reinvigorated.  They may not be the most important things for 5th graders to learn, but for me, teaching these things is like a shot of instant motivation.

  1. Idioms - I know that you are probably laughing at me right now.  I won't take it to heart.  I've got thick skin.  For the most part, native English speakers never really think about the literal meaning of the idioms we use every day.  When I ask my 5th graders to look at idioms from the point of view of someone learning English for the first time, there are always plenty of chuckles as they imagine someone who's eyes really are bigger than their stomach, actually paying through your nose, and how horrible it would be to actually be bent out of shape.  They love to draw pictures of the literal meanings of some common idioms.
  2. The Bill of Rights - If you've read my blog before it shouldn't come as a shock that I believe that educating students in civics is vital to the success of our democracy.  The magic happens when students start believing that their understanding is vital to the success of our democracy.  That seems to happen when we start discussing the Bill of Rights every year.  About 10 years ago I picked up a paper back book on the Constitution at a yard sale for a quarter.  It's got notes and markings all over it.  It's the best 25 cents I've ever spent.  Inside that book are real and hypothetical Supreme Court cases on each article and amendment to the Constitution.  Students love playing Supreme Court - hearing the facts of the cases, debating how the case relates to the Constitution and comparing their opinions to the actual rulings.  
  3. Graphing and Statistics - When I was growing up in New York during my elementary school years I loved collecting and trading baseball cards.  I was fascinated by the statistics on the backs of the cards and what they meant.  When we work with data in class I try and inspire that same passion for my students.  Teaching them how powerful data is when trying to get others to see one's point of view always helps.  Introducing graphing to my students also allows me to dump 20 lbs. of pasta all over the floor in one of my absolute favorite lessons, Pasta Mining.  
  4. The American Revolution - The events of the 1760's and 1770's in North America make up a great narrative.  Like a great Hollywood movie there are interesting characters and an underdog overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles to emerge victorious.  In addition, the number of resources available about the American Revolution makes it easy to teach students several of the things every social studies students should be learning that I blogged about last week. 
  5. Fractions - Many reports have come out in recent years showing that both high school students and American teachers have trouble understanding fractions.  It's because of the way we teach math as a series of rules to be memorized instead of a series of concepts that need to be understood.  The great thing about teaching fractions is how easy it is to have the students work with visual models and manipulatives.  Playing with "stuff" is much more fun than learning "stuff."

Now it's your turn.  What are the topics in your curriculum that you love to teach?  What is it about them that makes them fun for you?  Please share in the comment section below, and pass the post along to others via Twitter, Google+, Plurk, or Facebook so that we can hear their comments as well.  There's also an e-mail button on the bottom if you wish to share that way.  

Friday, October 21, 2011

Friday's Five - What Every Social Studies Student Should Be Learning

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page
Flickr/Topeka and Shawnee Public Library

This week I switched things up by placing a poll on the A Teacher's Life for Me Facebook Page to ask you what you'd like to see me write about.  The four choices were:

  • "Great Ways to Use Voicethread in Your Classroom" 
  • "Hidden Educational Gems in Walt Disney World"
  • "Important Things Every Social Studies Student Should be Learning"
  • "Why the 'Traditional Way' is Holding Our Math Students Back"
While every one of the topics were chosen by some, the majority of those chiming in wanted to discuss important skills our social studies students need to learn.  With federal and state focus on standardized testing our students are getting less opportunity to learn vital lessons that are best taught in our social studies classes.  Here are five vital skills and ideas that our social studies students should be learning from early elementary school straight through high school.
  1. Identifying Bias - Now that we are in the internet age, we are constantly barraged with information.  Students need to understand that all of that information is being given to them with an agenda.  The same news story on Fox News is being presented differently than it is on MSNBC, and kids (and their parents) need to know how to sift through the opinions to get to the fact.  We often teach Social Studies out of a textbook, but the process in which textbooks are developed leads to books that are so biased that they often do more harm than good for our students.  To combat this, schools are increasingly looking to use on-line content.  Obviously, with the number of people putting information on the internet, identifying the agenda within content is vital in order for our students to understand history.  
  2. There are very few absolutes.  The United States (or any other place) is not a perfect country.  We've done a lot of great things, and quite a few things that aren't so great.  Eliminating the controversy and blemishes makes history dreadfully boring, and robs students the opportunity to learn from past mistakes.  Who would watch a movie where the main character went through life without problems or mistakes?  There's no plot.  At the same time, teaching kids that some countries, or groups of people are all bad is harmful.  There are very few absolutes in life.  Teaching kids to look at all sides of an issue is much more important than any nugget of information we could give them.
  3. "Why" and "How" are much more important than "Where, When, and Who." - Often social studies class consists of a bunch of dates, people, and places that kids have to know about and spit back on a test.  The real lessons in social studies are within the "Why" and "How."  Instead of teaching students only that the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 and what each bill says, ask them to find out why some colonists thought those protections were needed, how some colonists fought against them, and why two of the proposed amendments weren't ratified. (Although one of them did eventually pass and become an amendment in 1992.)  Facts are great for winning Jeopardy, but the real thinking comes from debating the reasons those facts came to be.
  4. Identifying Sources and their Validity - Our students should be taught to question everything that is told to them.  This is something that is greatly lacking in today's society.  How many times have you received forwarded e-mails, seen Facebook posts, or heard someone talking about something as fact that is clearly fabricated?  Students should be encouraged to ask teachers "Why?" and "How do you know?"  They should learn to find who is responsible for the website they are reading, the source of the information in the Wikipedia article to which they are directed, and the motivations of the cleverly named organization behind the political campaign ad they just watched.
  5. It's OK to disagree, but you better bring strong facts to the debate.  Students are usually taken aback when I ask them their opinions for the first time.  When they do answer, it's usually by parroting what their parents have told them, or what they think I want to hear.  They need to start thinking for themselves.  We should be asking them whether they agree or disagree all the time in our social studies classes.  We also should be demanding that they back their opinion with fact.  Students need to understand that to truly debate a position, they should be able to argue the opposite side of the argument as well.  Only then can they be sure that it is not their emotional bias that is blinding them.  The more we demand that students take a position and back it up, the better they will be able to cope with the bombardment of opinions they face outside our classrooms.  
Now it's your turn.  What skills do you think we should be teaching our students in our social studies classes?  How do you teach the skills and ideas listed above?  Are there any that you disagree with?  Please share your ideas in the comment section, and pass the post along on Twitter, Google+, Plurk, and Facebook so that we can hear their opinions as well.  Also, if you aren't a fan on Facebook yet, stop by the Facebook page and click the "like" button so that you can chime in on future Friday's Five topics, discuss ways to improve education, and receive new posts in your news feed.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

21st Century Learning: We Need to Change How We Teach

I developed this presentation for a graduate class I'm going to be teaching in a few weeks, and I thought it was worth sharing.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday's Five - Creative Ideas for This School Year

Friday's Five is a feature every week where I pick a new topic and list five items that I think fit best.  Then I ask you, my readers, to share your thoughts in the comment section.  For an archive of past topics, check the Friday's Five Page.  If you'd like to make suggestions about future topics or discuss topics I bring up on the blog with others, make sure you click the "like" button on the right hand side of the page to join A Teacher's Life for Me on Facebook.  Don't be shy about sharing the blog and Facebook Page with others.  Each post has a "Tweet" button on top and buttons on the bottom that allow you to share in several ways, including e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter.

When discussing the skills out students will need after graduation, creativity is always near the top of the list.  In order to nurture that skill in our students, it's important that we model creative thinking in our teaching.  A teacher who rarely takes risks and fears failure is unlikely to inspire students to attempt out-of-the-box thinking and innovative methods to solving problems.

With that in mind, here are five ideas that I've been thinking of trying out with my 5th grade students this year.  These endeavors may end up being wildly successful or spectacular failures, but I can guarantee that students will find them more relevant than 40 problems in a textbook.  I can also guarantee that any failures, on my part or the students, will be celebrated as learning experiences.

  1. Create public-service commercials - Each afternoon our 5th grade students create a 5 minute news broadcast that is played the following morning.  I'd like to have my class get into groups of two or three students, choose a cause that they feel passionate about, and create a 30 second public-service video that will be played at the end of a morning broadcast.  In addition to 21st century skills like creativity and collaboration, this will certainly force students to meet several language arts standards in our curriculum.
  2. Create math "how-to" videos for each of the four operations - It's important to me that my math students truly understand math.  I expect them to do much more than get the correct answer to calculations.  I demand conceptual understanding to the point that they can truly explain not only "what" they are doing as they solve a problem, but also "why" they are doing it.  Often, my students tell me that it's the first time they have really understood math.  To help others we will create a series of videos explaining the concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  They will be shared on our class wiki.  We've already done a few addition videos.  Last year's class set the bar pretty high with their multiplication video, although they didn't make videos for the other 3 operations.  
  3. Partner with a local business to have students create an ad campaign -  I've just started thinking about this one and whether it could work.  I'd like to approach a local business or two and see if they would be interested in sponsoring an activity in which a few teams of students compete to create the best quarter or half page print advertisement.  If it works out, the business would pay for the winning group's ad to run in the high school play's playbill or something similar.  
  4. FedEx Days - In Daniel Pink's TED talk video, he talks about how companies have sparked amazing productivity from employees by giving them the autonomy to pursue their own passions for a period of time.  Google famously allows its employees 20% of their time to do this.  Pink mentions how the software company Atlassian has gotten amazing results from what they call "FedEx Days."  Basically the company gives it's employees 24 hours to work on whatever they want and develop a presentation of what they have accomplished.  The term "FedEx Days" comes from the fact that employees have to deliver overnight.  I'd like to give something like this a try and see what happens.
  5. I don't know what to call this last idea, but it's something I want to try.  I'd like to give my students a social studies test before we begin a unit.  I won't ask them to actually "take" the test.  I'm just going to hand it to them.  I'm then going to tell them that they have a week or two to create the best wiki page study guide that they can for the test.  I'll grade their study guide based on a rubric I create instead of grading the test as usual.
Now it's your turn.  What are some creative ideas you want to try this year?  What creative ideas have you tried that failed spectacularly?  Which ones were brilliant successes?  What's holding us back from being more creative as teachers?  Let us know your thoughts, and please share your stories in the comment section below.  Also, pass the post along to others on Twitter, Google+, Plurk, and Facebook so that we can hear their opinions and anecdotes as well.