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.