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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An American Education Success Story

Flickr/Douglas Heriot
 There has been a lot of negativity and controversy surrounding the American educational system lately.  I've often criticized some of our practices rather harshly.  It's important that we don't lose sight of what we do well, however.  Teachers have an incredible impact on students, and it's vital that we celebrate those successes, and share those stories as well. 

With that in mind, I'd like to share this short story from a member of my PLN, who has asked to remain anonymous.  The name of the upper-elementary student has also been changed.  It's about the kind of success that has nothing to do with increased test scores.
Kenny walked into my classroom on the first day of school with a big smile, pants that were too short, and dirty sneakers that were too small.  I knew from talking to his past teachers and looking in his file that he was a smart kid who struggled mightily at times because he missed so much school. 

I was happy to see Kenny in school every day the first week.  When the second week of school started, he was absent for five straight days.  Naturally, I became concerned that the pattern of past years was beginning to develop again.  After missing a week he returned to school and I pulled him aside.

"Kenny, how come you miss so much school?" I asked him.  "I'd really like for you to be here more often."

He told me that his family didn't have a car, that they live a few miles from the bus stop, and that he shares a room with his baby brother who keeps him up at times for much of the night.  Sometimes he's too tired to get up, and other times his parents don't wake him up in time to make the bus.

I told Kenny that I was going to get him an alarm clock. Kenny and I both agreed that from now on it would be his responsibility, and not his parents' responsibility, to get himself to school.  If there was a day where he was really tired from being up all night that he should still come to school and see me first thing in the morning.  I promised that on those days I would find a time and place for him to nap.

Kenny was absent the next few days.  I bought an alarm clock from the local hardware store and placed it on his desk.  When he got back to school I reminded him of our conversation and reinforced how important it was to me that he makes it to school.

The following morning he came into my classroom with a huge smile on his face.  He couldn't wait to tell me how he'd set his alarm clock for 1/2 hour earlier than normal, and how it was the first time he'd had a chance to eat breakfast before school all year.  He was absolutely glowing.

It's been three weeks.  Kenny hasn't missed a day of school since he started using the alarm clock.  On one day he came to me and told me that he didn't fall asleep until well after midnight and that his brother kept waking him up during the night.  He actually slept in the nurse's office from 8AM until 12:30 that day.  I made sure to tell him how proud I was that he made it to school that day.  What I'm most proud of is that he is learning responsibility skills that will help him throughout his life. 
Teachers do amazing things that can't be measured on standardized tests every day.  Whether Kenny is "proficient" or "basic" on this year's state test is inconsequential compared to the personal responsibility he is learning.  That is what teaching is about.  That's what our schools should be about.  This is the kind of teaching we need to be encouraging.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Friday's Five - Allow Students to Use Cell Phones in Class

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.

Flickr/William Hook

Last week I wrote about reasons my PLN is so important to me.  This morning, a discussion between members of my PLN on Plurk got me thinking about rules in school that ban cell phone usage.  In today's post I'm going to explore five reasons why banning cell phones in schools is bad policy and detrimental for our students.
  1. If we are preparing our students for life after school, we should allow them to use the tools they will be using when they get there.  How many jobs can you think of right now where a smart phone is not beneficial?  Mechanics order parts on their phone, engineers view blueprints, doctors calculate dosages, and grocers check inventory.  The list is endless.  By the time our students enter their professions the need to utilize mobile technology will be even stronger.  Not preparing our students for that world is negligent. 
  2. In a time when schools are facing tightening budgets, using technology that is readily available is logical.  How many schools point to a lack of funds as a reason they are not doing more with technology?  We can go a long way towards solving that problem by using technology that is available for free and probably in a majority of HS students' pockets.
  3. Mobile devices are great for teaching 21st century skills.  If you want kids to learn to collaborate, what better tool can you use than a phone?  Videoconferencing with people all over the world becomes easy.  One of the main arguments against student phone use is that kids might cheat.  My response is that tests that are so lacking in rigor that students can look up answers on a phone or get them from another student are lousy and outdated in a world where information is free and easy.  We need to get used to the fact that kids don't need to know "stuff" nearly as much as they need to learn to use that "stuff."  Tests of recall don't prepare our students for the world ahead.  Kids know this - it's why they think school is irrelevant.  Kids working together to find solutions to problems (collaboration) should be encouraged, not labeled as "cheating."  Policies that ban cell phones because students might text each other are short-sighted.  As Kevin Honeycutt is fond of saying, "Students used to pass notes on paper.  We never banned paper."
  4. Double standards are not OK.  I know of several districts where administrators come into classrooms with iPhones and/or iPads to take notes on teacher observations.  Yet, in these same classrooms students are not allowed to use mobile devices.  The message this sends to students is totally unacceptable.  These are great tools.  Kids know it.  Let them use them.
  5. We need to teach kids responsible ways to use technology.  Keeping them "safe" by refusing to expose them to technology is irresponsible on our part.  Students are using cell phones whether we ban them in school or not.  They are communicating, sending pictures to each other, using social media and social networking, and consuming information.  We need to be teaching them how to do this while protecting themselves from both mistakes they might make that will follow them for decades and others who want to do them harm.  The dangers and pitfalls of using mobile devices aren't going away.  Isn't it our responsibility to teach our students to be safe?
For those who have read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies, a member of my PLN showed drew a great parallel between events in those stories and this debate with the following quote:
"Children, put away your wands. You won't be needing them." - Delores Umbridge
Now it's your turn.  What are the policies on cell phones in your school?  Do you think phones should be used by students in schools?  Are there ways to ensure that phones are not misused in schools if we allow them?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below and pass the post on to others using Plurk, Twitter, Google+, and Facebook so that we can hear as many opinions as possible.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Arrogance of American Public Education

Today a member of my PLN posted this picture on Facebook:

The sad fact is that our schools are designed for students who listen well, comply with authority, have no urge to think for themselves, don't question the bias of information being given to them, have no desire to experiment, and learn at exactly the pace that we teach. 

If they learn too quickly, we force them to sit quietly (often bored out of their minds) while the rest catch up with them. 

If they learn too slowly, refuse to buy into the factory model of the 1900's that we force upon them, are interested in the arts more than standardized test prep, or prefer to learn while doing instead of listening, we label them as "learning disabled."  Often we medicate them to make them more compliant to our methodology.

Maybe we need to start teaching differently.   
Maybe our students have realized something that we have yet to discover.
Maybe we have a collective teaching disability and are too arrogant to change ourselves. 

After all, if our job is to educate and our students aren't learning, are we doing our jobs?  

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Future Will Force Us to Change

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr. Michio Kaku on what scientific advances will change our life in the next 90 years.  The lecture was sponsored by the Lackawanna County Library System and was free to any member of the public with a library card.  Over a thousand people attended.  Every seat in the theater was full, and many people stood without seats to hear what the future has in store for us.

Dr. Kaku began by telling us about scientific advances that are already being explored and that will be part of our lives by the year 2020.  One of his reoccurring themes was the fact that computers and the internet are going to be so inexpensive, ubiquitous, and natural to us in the future that everything, including our clothes, wallpaper, toilets, and toothbrushes will be "smart."

As he discussed the year 2020, Dr. Kaku showed us contact lenses that would be connected to the internet.  Apparently, the military is already working on something similar.  Information would be available to you instantly without anyone knowing that you are even searching or getting it.  One of the humorous moments was when Dr. Kaku mentioned that, "The first people to buy these contact lenses will be college students taking examinations."  As I chuckled, I immediately thought to myself, "I don't think many high school teachers or college professors would think that is so funny."

I've often written about the need for us to change the focus of education from delivering instruction of fact to teaching critical thinking and innovation.  It seems as though the technology of the future is going to force our hand.  Right now, information is becoming more and more pervasive in our culture.  We teach students things that they know they can Google in less than 30 seconds on their cell phone.  Students believe that the education we are providing is irrelevant because of this.

Within the next decade students won't have to pull out their cellphones, and we won't be able to prevent them from wearing contact lenses in the classroom.  They will be connected to to an almost infinitely large network of information.  When that time comes, schools will be forced to make the changes I mentioned above.  The focus of our assessments, and education in general, is going to have to change from low-level thinking recall of information to gathering information and using it to create, innovate, problem solve, and communicate with others.

Why not make those changes now, before technology forces our hand?