The greatest resource in the fight for equity in American classrooms: teachers

The greatest resource in the fight for equity in American classrooms: teachers. My own anecdote.

There is plenty of research that shows the immense impact a teacher can have on students. That research is really in a way a supplement to the age-old nature vs. nurture debate. Of course the answer is both to some extent, but I think a teacher is naturally inclined to believe more in nurture (if not why would we choose to teach at all?). 

“Teaching is a great act of optimism”-Colleen Wilcox 

I write this with a clouded and tired mind. I’m frustrated and hopeful all at once. These are not new concepts to bear at once, nor are they even new in my short time of blogging to try and articulate things I find important or worth sharing.

My supervisor for student teaching mentioned once that the most important thing you could do for students was to simply be there - everyday - “keep showing up”; be a constant presence (something some students unfortunately lack anywhere else in their young lives).

I’ve alluded in previous posts to a fear that I’m worried will become a reality. I can feel, deep down, that my journey is reaching a precipice where many changes are convening all at once to forge what comes next. Critical mass. Balance has felt hard lately. I’m excited for my wedding in just a few months. We’ve started to house hunt. I’m slogging along with the end of graduate school in sight. And I’m still toiling in the trenches as my fifth year in the classroom winds down during “testing season”.

A strength and flaw I have is that when I invest in something, I’m all in. I put everything into it. This has been the case for the last 5 years of teaching and sometimes that has come at a cost. This internal conflict has been embroiled and magnified in the last year as I’ve tried to reconcile my desire to teach where I am with the financial risk that brings (I’m alluding to the trend of charter schools struggling to offer competitive salaries). 

Teaching is hard. It takes a special person to do it right. Teaching in Philadelphia is harder. It takes a special person to do it right. Even then the right person might not always be right (there can come a point where you’ve simply maxed out). 

Since I learned about “urban education” in my final year at Arcadia I’ve felt a calling to it. The plan has always been simple. Find a niche in the city where there is enough structure and let me do the rest. Let me do that for as long as I feel I can do it and for as long as I feel I can do it effectively. And you know what… I still love it, I can still do it, I still want to do it.

A friend of mine was working through the education program at Arcadia the same time as me and was a semester behind in student teaching. Her passion was also in urban education. She made a comment once that was innocuous enough at face value. She had requested a placement in Cheltenham High School. She explained to me that her reasoning was that she wanted to learn how “it was done right” in a suburban school for student teaching and then apply that when she got a job in the city.

I was surprised (and truthfully a bit insulted). I had taken the opposite approach. Put me in thick of it from the get-go so I know how best to accommodate and deal. I feel I’ve worked with some really great teachers at King and Cap. I feel like they would thrive just as much, if not more than, any teacher placed in an affluent suburban school, but this was not the path those teachers had chosen (or for some at least the one they could choose). They had different battles to fight and were all too often less supported, less respected, less rewarded, and less trusted. To be clear, I am certainly generalizing for the sake of brevity here, it’s not fair to label this simply as city and suburban to denote quality but I’m really envisioning socioeconomic status in a simplified way for this post.

In my mind this friend had the best of intentions, albeit misguided ones. I know the stats, there are bad teachers and when you start to examine the circumstances a lot of those teachers find themselves in urban schools (the only place emergency certification is usually needed and turnover rates are at their highest). Nevertheless, couldn’t she see that if she wanted to learn how “it was done right” she was going to be let down and unprepared when she entered the field in Philadelphia? The support systems she had learned would dissipate. New policies/edicts would be issued, before an about face and another ‘silver bullet’ was peddled introduced. This is a reality of many teachers in Philly. Do more with less. Be blamed for policy failures. My friend was not going to learn of this in the suburbs.

I’m obviously biased but I felt I had taken the right approach. King felt right for my induction. Trial by fire the best way. Sink or swim and damn if I wasn’t determined to at least float while I learned to swim.

The year after my time at King they were converted to the final step for underperforming schools. The school district has a lovely euphemism for what happens next. Renaissance. If it’s a renaissance it’s born from a conflagration first. I get it. Situations can be toxic. You clean house and start again. All administration is let go; no more than 50% of teachers can be hired back (I was told that King only hired back 6). But I don’t want to get it. King was making strides while I was there but the school district was setting them up to fail and then betting they would. We had to have the entire week written in lesson plans, that had to be in a black binder on your desk at all times, and random people could pop in at anytime and check that binder and expect you to be at that exact spot. I wrote previously of the loss of motivation and incentive. This was that at its worst.

King didn’t have an opening when I completed student teaching so I looked elsewhere. I only had to interview for one school before I was offered a job. A quick Google search would reveal the turmoil CAP has been battling just to stay open. SRC battles over votes to shut down the school. The cloud had been overhead and brewing for years now. Failed charter vote. The higher ups insisting we’re in the right and can fight. At what point do I bail? When is it okay to be selfish? And if I’m being selfish, where do I go? But I never left. I never even looked for other options (until this year). The pay freezes have finally started to catch up.

I realize this entire post is very “me” centered but my real frustration is that I have to worry about these things instead of just focusing on teaching in the city. This is where my heart wants to be. But my mind has been whispering impatiently… My anecdote is also just playing out a reality many teachers must confront.

It breaks a part of you, slowly. But what course can be taken? You hang in and do your best until… you don’t. And then you move on. You set aside your devotion to the kids because at times you have to do what’s best for you and there will always be more kids no matter where you go and there will never be a “perfect” time to leave the ones you know now… even the way I write that indicates how I’m grappling with convincing myself of it (and I don’t believe it now). The kids are why I’m here. It’s why all good teachers are here. It’s why those in bad teaching environments tolerate those circumstances and keep pushing.

This approaching crossroad was predictable 6 years ago when I was still an undergraduate. I wouldn’t change anything (does that make my idealism more naive than anything?) This was the plan. It was a simple plan. It’s still ongoing. I’m still fighting. I still love this. But this year I’ve felt like two forces have been pulling and tearing in opposite directions from within. When does the scale tip? I believe I’m a good teacher. I feel I would help no matter where I go. But I want to teach here, I want to help the students I already have.

I’ve always loved mythology. I’m still surprised by a core tenet of Norse mythology. Ragnarok. If you’re not familiar, in a nutshell: Ragnarok is the Norse version of the end of the world (though it is restarted after). What’s interesting is that the Norse gods and heroes all know they will lose before they even begin. And yet they fight. The only noble choice is to fight knowing defeat is assured, so they make it without hesitation or regret. I realize my situation compared to this is downright silly but it’s resonating with me right now. 

Something that is predictable and unfolds slowly is no less heartbreaking, if anything that makes it worse. No decision is imminent but somewhere unseen there is a clock ticking, grains of sand are falling. There is a fixed proposition to two opposing forces confined and anyone betting knows what side eventually wins…

When I mentioned to certain teachers at King that I wanted to teach in the city they quickly corrected me. I’m sure they meant well, but it was frustrating. “No, no, get to the suburbs” they would say, “you don’t want to be in the city”. If you don’t want to be here how do you expect the kids to want to be? I wrote previously that I’m not naive enough to think that teachers alone solve everything, but anyone else is naïve if they think one necessary part of the equation isn’t teachers who want to be a part of the solution. 

What happens when a fractured system continues to push them away and push them out?  

Self Assessment for the Course

1.               Exploring key ideas of connected learning (within weekly topics and cycles).

2.               Contribute to our classroom community in some way each week.

3.               Engage with another community outside this course each week.

4.               Document your journey as you go in support of your own assessment and reflection, with specific attention to issues of equity.

5.               Design a framework for a project you will take forward past this class

6.               Share/demonstrate/perform some aspect of this for community input/feedback.


• How well do you feel you successfully met these expectations this semester?

            I think overall I was very successful in meeting the expectations of the course. I felt that my blogging was my biggest strength (which I guess makes sense as an English teacher).  I was worried that I would start to struggle to find blogging topics but I actually still have eight cool ideas lined up that I could write about still at this point. The nature of this course was also such that before I could post one idea I wanted to write about, the course material sprung up three more I wanted to go after (it was like a positive Hydra). That would make sense in a class focusing on connected learning, it’s a great big world within worlds out there, and the more you explore, the more you want to explore. 

            There were weeks where I intentionally drifted away from the weekly topic in my blog post (which we were allowed to do anyway) but it was done to be authentic with the process and it was usually related since my focus was often on issues of equity. I also felt like the topics I cared about and wanted to write about, connected seamlessly to what we were studying which made it that much worthwhile to put in the time for the writing.

            In addition to blogging, I also made a concerted effort to contribute to our classroom community with challenges posed to the class to try out. The six-word memoir is a personal favorite of mine for its accessibility and the wide net it can cast in its use.

            I’ve also started to focus more on cataloguing work and ideas in an organized way (catalogue isn’t the word I’m looking for but I’m completely blanking, please help!). I have entire folders of pictures but I’ve never found a satisfactory way to share that out (besides using them in lessons). This class made me think about ways to share this digitally to get the most out of them.

            I’m also really excited for the project this class inspired and how I will take it forward past this class. I think the framework is in place to allow it to flourish year after year. The project was inspired by previous work in the class and feedback from my peers was also helpful for that list.

            I also had some “failures” that I don’t consider failures at all (the class encouraged risk-taking which invited failure). One of my makes was to make a hollow book. After a lot of glue and cutting, my large dictionary ended up in the trash. And that’s okay. It’s all part of the process.

•                 Where do you think you could have improved?

            I think I should have approached how I engaged a community outside of our own differently. I made the effort every week but it wasn’t always successful. I also wish I had made one connection and continued to build on it instead of jumping around every week to a new community. I just never had that moment where the connection seemed to “click” to where I could continue to build it up. I should have made more of an effort to find a digital community as well (which would have helped with the problem I’m describing above).

            I engaged with different teaching communities (including those within my school), peers from my undergraduate work, friends who have writing organizations now, my other graduate class (in the context of the work in this one), I posted on NWP but didn’t take it any further (by say actively seeking out other writers on the site and posting on their work), I used my family as a resource (which was actually really interesting to discuss work from classes), and I also started to explore Twitter more (posting a comment on the wall of a teacher from the Precious Knowledge documentary).

            The beginning of the semester had me at my breaking point with teaching, coaching both basketball teams, wedding planning, and taking two graduate classes but this would have been the time to make meaningful community connections outside of this classes community and then continue to build on them weekly.

            I also had to miss out on the first few weeks of the Google hangout. That couldn’t be helped with my schedule but that made me feel distant (at first) with our community and made me feel a little behind in warming up those relationships. I don’t know if that’s one that could be improved given the schedule but it was worth extracting to remind myself of how transfer students might feel when they come into my classroom.  It’s not as if anyone was cold or unfriendly in this community, it was just the reality of missing out on those discussions at first much in the same way that I think myself and the students in a classroom are welcoming to a transfer student but that there’s just a process of acclimation that I should probably be more mindful of and actively seek to accelerate.

·       How do your successes and reflection on improvement inform your connected learning moving forward?

            I started answering this in the first bullet so I’ll pick up there. I genuinely do feel like I’m already in tune with issues of equity but it’s always great to continue to explore and dive deeper into that topic and this course offered an outlet to articulate questions and thoughts. You can never know a topic too well and indeed I think the more you know something the more questions you have on the subject.

            I’ve also started to focus more on cataloguing work and ideas in an organized way (still blanking on the word I want). I have entire folders of pictures with valuable teaching content I’ve been saving for the last three years but I’ve never found a satisfactory way to share that out (besides using them in lessons). This class made me think about ways to share this digitally and showed me the plethora of options through different digital tools. Obviously connected learning is not just about technology but there’s nothing wrong with using it either. This is going to be one of my summer projects (and then I can share it with English teachers at my school). I also floundered last summer on making a blog for my classroom but feel more confident in how to set it up after this class and plan on trying again this summer to create it. I’ve used Edmodo for years but I think I can modify how we use it so the classes get more out of it.

            I’m also really excited for the project this class inspired and how I will take it forward past this class. I think the framework is in place to allow it to flourish year after year. Precious Knowledge will replace First Person this year but next year both will return as options along with a few others (and the year after that I’ll add a few more and on and on if it’s successful). The content will become increasingly varied and student feedback/suggestion should indicate what documentaries to add next. I can see a few of my students binge watching on Netflix over the weekend and coming to school on Monday with a list of documentaries I need to check out and add next year.

            This class encouraged this same mantra (it was one of its greatest strengths). We were given the freedom to explore and diverge based off our own interests and studies. The digital world is an enormous rabbit hole and it was fun to spiral down at times and see where you might end up. At the same time, this class (like Outward Bound) also placed a heavy emphasis on reflection and reporting out. We were allowed to go where our interests and the material took us but like Campbell’s Journey of a Hero, we were expected to return to the “normal” world and tell about what we had explored. I have that same expectation for the documentary project I’m assembling. Students dive in but they come back and share what they’ve experienced and why we should care.

            In this same way there’s another idea I’ve been developing that I haven’t share with anyone yet. It’s a monumental undertaking that will take a while to put in place. I was at a coffee shop a few weeks ago when it hit me (I love when that happens). I was reading articles for my other graduate class and I think the idea is an amalgamation of studying from this class and my other class this semester.  My 10th graders have Genres of Literature for their class and nonfiction is always the toughest to engage them in. This is why I place such value on documentary choice (and the fact that I always use a documentary). Common Core is actually pushing for more and more nonfiction. I do not like this as an English teacher. Maybe I’m romanticizing (I doubt it) but writing does not always have to be practical (and fiction tells its own truths). When they push for more nonfiction this is why they’re pushing for it. They think it will prepare kids for the jobs they’ll inhabit in this 21st century. It misses the point (which is what my final blog/make post was all about). Let kids be imaginative and creative, the rest will come. I had very little interest in nonfiction all through high school and didn’t really dig into it until my 3rd year of college. With all of that said here’s the idea: an entire drawer of nonfiction articles. It’ll be organized by subject (cross-curriculum opportunity), and assessed by level of difficult (easy ability for differentiated instruction), and there will also be articles that should be helpful for my ESL students to engage in. And here’s why I’m excited (because really you might be reading that thinking that it’s not that big or exciting of an idea): students always have choice. At times the choice might be as few as three options (they would be offered a preview of each and asked to check what article they want to read), at other times the choice would be all theirs. I’ll need to make a generic form for reflection that could be used for any article they read. We’ll also create a routine for this. I’ve always done nonfiction articles throughout the year (which seems more tolerable for the kids) so that when we get to the nonfiction unit we’ve already covered a lot of content and don’t need to dedicate as much time to studying it. This use of routine is pretty similar to the structure of this class (read, blog, engage with community, make, repeat).

            As I’m winding down here, I’m also reflecting on the fact that one of the things that was most valuable for me was the opportunity to have an outlet to examine my own thoughts and refine them. I’ve always sought out different viewpoints and engaged them in debate for this same reason. This class was very rewarding on its own merits but I also appreciate that I had/have an outlet to document the trials and tribulations of the classroom. I also have a place to return to in the years to come to examine my progress as a teacher and to examine how my own thoughts have evolved. That’s pretty cool!

·       What else do you want me to consider when assessing your performance over the past semester?

Hmm… I genuinely feel like I reached the goals of the course. I felt like I was in a good place when we started on the topics we examined but I also think there is measurable growth in my work. Grades are not the end all (something I try to make my students appreciate) but I also work towards earning high A’s and feel my performance is on that level. Ultimately, I have faith in the work I’ve done and I trust you as a teacher either way in your evaluation. If you don’t feel I’ve earned it, I will respect your decision.

      Thank you for an engaging class that is easily one of the most unique I have ever taken. It’s great to challenge basic assumptions (that can be so obvious people look past them). I saw Lizzy post the idea that in many ways this course challenges how we think about academics and what can be counted as academic (back to that equity issue, who gets to control the narrative, has to be considered). I’ve considered this before but there is a difference between thinking about in a traditional academic way and actually stepping outside of traditional academia to test and tease it out. That’s as good as place as any to call a wrap on this cool experiment of a semester (of course there’s always more to strive for). Thanks again and all the best!

Precious Knowledge and Motivation

Leave it to the English teacher to have an entire blog post just to set-up the motivation of what my final make is…

Two weeks ago, Lizzy wrote a post that hit me at just the right time (check it out). I was searching for my final make and frustrated since it’s that time of year when school becomes centralized around the approaching Keystones (that trend seems to creep in more and more every year).

I connected when Lizzy vented that “today made me really question what I’m doing.  Not because I don’t see the value in learning Algebra I, but because I don’t see the value in making learning Algebra I into a race that ends at a disappointing standardized test finish line.”

The teaching world we have inherited seems to be stressful (and frustrating) for all for the wrong reasons… Unfortunately, Lizzy is simply echoing a frustration you can hear from teachers all over the country, in all grade levels, and all subjects (unless the subject has been reduced or eliminated to make way). Of course, we’re also examining inequity. It’s only certain schools that have to stress and pressure for performance on the tests. This creates the paradox that I’m attempting to chip away at in my writing today (though smarter people have already captured this idea far better than I will in my attempt).

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At any rate, shortly after reading Lizzy’s blog post, I sat at my desk grading and planning on another Sunday after an especially stressful week of school (and professional developments centered around test prep). The weather was amazing and the windows were flung open to let Spring rush in.  My neighbors have had one of their sons practicing the tuba starting at around 11 a.m. every Sunday for the last year. They’re really great neighbors and the practice is always done at a respectable time; nonetheless, the wheels started turning in my head.

The professional developments were all about preparing students for the upcoming Keystones. The speaker was knowledgeable and there were some good tips offered but she was also insistent on some points that go against the very core of my teaching philosophy. The biggest thorn in my teaching soul was hearing that a student’s opinion doesn’t count and that we as teachers should not be asking these sorts of questions since they have no value for the test. I teach in a school where the biggest battle with some of my students is motivation. It’s creating buy-in. This is challenging day-to-day in my classroom but can feel almost impossible when it comes to motivating for a state test.  The speaker for our PD missed this point. The nature of high stakes testing not only misses this point but actively detracts from it. The tests are just supposed to be measuring progress, but instead they’re diminishing the very progress they are trying to measure. How many schools and teachers have yielded to the testing behemoth and surrendered their classes and how many kids have been lost as collateral damage? At a time when teaching should be striving to be innovative and encouraging creativity and critical thinking it’s becoming drill for the test, drill for the test, kids tuning out and kids who are stressed. Rote skills have their place but they should not be replacing. Teachers should be using data to inform decisions but there is also an art to the profession that is being sanctioned out of it.

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And with thoughts like these churning in my subconscious while I planned lessons, there was that tuba squeak resonating in my ear. I understand how music training works. You must sit and practice and practice and that process is far less glamorous than it’s made out to be. Learning is like that at times too (and those Disney movies always skip that part). Perhaps my neighbor will stick with it and loves playing that tuba. But after a year of playing, I still don’t hear any joy. It sounded like it’s just being done to go through the motions, like it’s something that must be done and checked off a box.

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I want my kids to be engaged and interested. That doesn’t happen when the end game is to pass a test. I want real learning, not something dressed up as learning masquerading around in the classroom. I want kids to have passion for what they’re doing. I want to foster their creativity. To encourage them to take risks. To help them find meaning and to care. In writing, there is a quality called duende that also fits here. It’s not easily defined or captured but it’s essentially authentic passion and inspiration. It’s like B.B. King closing his eyes and going to another place during a performance. (I like the Muddy Waters’ version of this song better though).

I know that school can’t be like this all of the time, but it needs to be a part of it. This idea is also what Shots of Awe is talking about here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AXwLsba2TOY

And another Shots of Awe actually cites Ken Robinson too and mentions the role of school: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VOVmVMJEhg8

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 This all connects to my final make: that tuba, the professional development, the great quandary of our generation and teaching to a test.

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             Motivation. Buy-in. Relevance. Connection.

This is essentially what Lizzy was writing about and this is also what Precious Knowledge excels in.

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I think of what I read in college and what I read now. I would have had no interest as a high school student in them. We must scaffold, but a kid doesn’t want to build with you if they don’t connect, if they don’t care. That’s the challenge and that’s what’s going ignored. There’s no value in student opinion and what they think? That’s what helped me become engaged in literature in the first place. I connected. From there, great things are bound to happen. Yet that’s the quintessential piece that’s all too often severed.

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Precious Knowledge focuses on the ethnic studies classes that were banned in Arizona. The classes boasted reducing the dropout rate (and did so much more). For Mexican-American students in Arizona there is a 50% dropout rate. For students who took the classes there was a 93% graduation rate. What’s more, the classes were about critical thinking and empowerment.

Check out the trailer for more.

My make is an inclusion of Precious Knowledge into my curriculum this year. 

It’s also designed in a way that it will continue to grow in the coming years. There is a handout that will help to provide context for the documentary and hopefully help to facilitate deep thinking on the topic. One of the strengths of the classes in the documentary is the college style discussion that takes place. This is something that I’ve always strived for in my classes too. There won’t be a way to measure this but this is the real purpose of the make: the discussion it will hopefully generate.

·       We’ll look at social justice issues.

·       We’ll talk about propaganda (the curriculum in the documentary is accused of being anti-American and one opponent even claims she feels it’s orchestrated by Mexico and meant to overthrew the U.S. government – no seriously).

·       We’ll debate issues classes in the documentary faced.

·       We’ll discuss how court cases work and look at the progress of the appeals process that’s still in the works (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/tonydiaz/the-house-on-mango-street-goes-to-trial_b_6391022.html ).

·       We’ll examine bias and censorship through book banning and modern examples (http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/18/us/oklahoma-ap-history/ & http://thinkprogress.org/health/2012/04/10/461402/teen-pregnancy-sex-education/

Each quarter has a project that accompanies it at my school. I often offer options based off of what we’re studying. For this quarter, for the first time, the students will generate the choices. I will have guidelines for the goals of the project but each student will meet with me to plan their own (and groups are encouraged for this assignment but not required). I will also have suggestions to help brainstorming get started. One of those suggestions is for students to group together to make their own short documentary (next year I’ll need to start this earlier to help it function better).

One of my goals this year (going into next year) is to offer more choice in my classroom whenever possible (the thought/goal being that this encourages students to connect and engage in what they’re studying). One of those ideas is to find a way to set-up my classroom for this unit next year to have numerous documentary choices. In my head I’m thinking I can reserve a laptop cart and have different stations in the room for groups to view their selected documentary. Students would pick what they want to view and if it works, I can continue to add options every year. I still think it’s important to provide context for what students are watching beforehand and have it set-up in a way that the reflection afterwards is meaningful which is why it’s nice to have a stable of choices already at my disposal with content already planned.

I guess a lot of the components of my make can’t be reported yet but I’ll update once we start digging into the documentary in a few weeks. Lizzy was discussing field trips in her post, and while that’s important, her words also fit for what I have in mind: "It is so vital for kids to travel outside of their comfort zone and experience the world… One of the most academic advantages we can give students lies in exposing them to this world.“  

I’ll close with a favorite quote of mine on this topic:

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#S7S

I’m starting to narrow down what I want my final make to be. I’ve blogged a lot about documentaries and there is one in particular that I watched from my other grad class that I want to integrate into my curriculum. 

As for my #s6s, I drew a lot from the Wednesday discussion for ideas I enjoyed.  One of the important things this class emphasizes, at least for me, is honest discussion with the right focus. That open discussion and the opportunity to experiment and explore can lead to some really great things. With that in mind, I’m searching for opportunities/tools to do just that in this post:

  1. I loved the idea of kids in the class giving advice to those who will be in the class for next year through a short video (I think Lizzy shared that one). 
  2. The activity Christina started the meeting off with was also great. The idea of each member generating ideas before the class focused down on particular ones of interest is certainly worth using. 
  3. The activity above also reminded me of an activity that was introduced to me in my 2nd year of teaching. I’ve just called it the questioning method but it works in the same way. The teacher provides a prompt that offers a situation. Each student is given a certain amount of time to generate as many questions as possible (the emphasis is on generating lots of ideas instead of filtering them for quality). Next, they are provided with a little more time to pick the 3 questions they like the best. Afterwards, they partner up with 2 other people and share all of their 3 questions before deciding on 3 for the entire group. You can continue to combine groups in this way depending on how many questions you want. I always like to do this before starting a unit, and it’s great to see some of these questions being answered as we go organically and others creating new opportunities of study that wouldn’t be present otherwise.
  4. The “yes and” premise also had me flashing back to my public speaking class in high school. I love the idea of building off of each other, it created a great positive sense of collaboration and support. 
  5. Some of the discussion from this class (and especially the Wednesday meeting) have me considering things I use in the classroom and how I could adapt them to be easier with technology use. The discussion of homework being accessible also had me considering my introspective journal assignment I do with every class a few times per quarter. I think it would be just as beneficial if next year I provided a second option that’s the same but done through a blog. I would be curious to see how many students choose each one when given the choice. The opportunity for introspection and reflection is also another strength of this class and something I certainly value. 
  6. Introspection is also a core value of the Outward Bound Program and something I loved from that that I have adapted is letter writing. The last night of Outward Bound we wrote a letter to ourselves (that was mailed 6 months later). I use this idea by having my 10th and 11th graders write letters that they won’t get until they are about to graduate. 
  7. Connecting to 2 and 3, this was shared with me by one of poetry club students from her AP Literature class. I haven’t tested the idea in the classroom yet but I love the idea (and it went well when we tested it out in poetry club). 
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#S14S – teaching “hacks” pop-up results

For my S7S I figured I would share some of the “hacks” that have been shared with me this week (most of which were during our Wednesday meeting). 

  1. Pop-up joke: Lizzy shared that she builds jokes into her math lessons to keep the class engaged and on track. I think the use of humor in the classroom is a very underappreciated tool in the academic world; I was glad to see Lizzy bring up its relevance and effectiveness.
  2. Fan fiction as a literature hack: Amy shared this one that she uses in class. I was interested to hear more but from what I understood she saw it as a way to empower students in their learning. The work connects to what they’re studying but also encourages creativity and allows the student to add to what they already know. 
  3. Blog for absent students: Use of blogs is multifaceted and I really liked this idea from Lizzy to keep absent students on track without disrupting the lesson when they’re back. 
  4. One-on one for absent students: Tahira also posted about a procedure in her class for students who are often absent. I’m sure many of us have those students and obviously we want them to stop being chronically absent but what are we to do when that doesn’t stop? I like Tahira’s mention of having them at her desk for mini-lesson of sorts to catch them up and the opportunities this creates later in class. 
  5. Textbook hack: Another one from Lizzy and Wednesday with creating books from the work in class that students have ownership over and have created. I like the idea of students having a tangible measurement in their hands of the work they have done and the progress they have made. 
  6. Poetry Anthology: Similar to the ownership and creation aspect of #5, for my poetry units I always have students create poems as we study published poets. The project for the quarter becomes their own 10 poems and afterwards each student submits a poem by e-mail to me and we have a class anthology of poems (we also take a day where students can read their poem in the anthology and signs books). 
  7. Books for cross-curriculum: I don’t remember who brought it up but the use of certain books is an easy “hack” to connect curriculum between classes (and students should value the learning that much more when they see the ideas represented in different classes).
  8. Easter Eggs: In the TV world there is a concept of show creators hiding “Easter Eggs”. It’s a subtle nods to other things, it’s not distracting to the average viewer, and it allows dedicated fans an opportunity to dig deeper into the material (not coincidentally something a teacher is always striving to inspire in their students). There are a number of ways I can see this being used in the classroom but similar to #1, I will often have one multiple choice question on a test/exam that has a “throw away” answer that’s meant to give the kids a chuckle. I’ve done this so often some kids eagerly seek out the “Easter Egg” and at the least I hope it gives them a chuckle which might help to slightly alleviate the stress some testers feel in those situations. 
  9. Extra Credit that Helps the Teacher: Speaking of testing “hacks” one of my favorite extra credit options has the dual purpose of also reminding a teacher of what covered material might not have been represented equitably on the test. On some tests I will ask: “What’s one thing you learned about during this unit that was not on the test?” I know I hated studying something in depth only to find it wasn’t even on the test and this seems to be a way to address that (and as I said remind you if you forgot to cover something on the test). 
  10. Sci-fi for Real World Discussion: I’ve never taught a sci-fi book in class but our discussion of Gattaca this week allowed me to see the possibilities. At times sic-fi can actually predict what’s to come (especially from a technological standpoint). At times this can raise some serious moral dilemma’s that I could see classes really diving into. So the right sci-fi book would be a great way to bridge the gap to moral implications and connections. 
  11. Kids Leading Discussion: I can’t find the link but the Digital Is website discusses a symposium on ethics and medical issues that is student lead. I love this idea and all of the things it does to empower. 
  12. Genius Hour: I’m interested in seeing how I can adapt this idea that was discussed this week: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMFQUtHsWhc
  13. Opt-Out Movement: Okay so this isn’t a hack in the general sense that it makes things easier (there’s nothing easy about the dedication and risk involved in the Opt-Out Movement). Teachers can’t change laws. They can’t change the system in place. What I’m thinking is that it’s a hack in the sense that it accelerates the process of fighting back against the culture of standardized testing (at a time when the options of stopping this seem very limited).  It’s always been my understanding that one of the big goals of the opt-out movement is to tip the scales when enough participate to force the system to adjust. 
  14. #Hashtags: Obviously hashtags themselves are hacks but I’m referring to the Jimmy Fallon segment on the Tonight Show. What they’re really doing is making their audience do the work for them and then curating the results. The fan provide the content (the work), they get the credit (curate) and the result is usually hilarious. Here’s an example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0LtIsuZz6w

Pop-up Teaching Hack

I’m going to experiment this week in the hopes of collaboration (I’m also trying to kill two birds with my make for the week). 

I’ve mentioned previously that the popularity of “life hacks” seems to be in keeping with our digital age. 

Every morning I write the date on the board (as I’m sure most teachers do). However, entering my 3rd year of teaching I had a brilliant idea in August. I Googled free calendars and printed one out for every month from September to June. I then took 40 minutes the day before school started to look through my online gradebook and write down the birthdays of all of my students on the calendars. These are hung up right next to where I write the date every morning and so I check every day and write “Happy birthday ____” for whoever has a birthday on that day. If someone has a birthday on a weekend, I will write “Happy early birthday ______” on Friday and “Happy belated birthday ______” on Monday to catch them. The last week of school I also take up an entire board to write all of the summer birthdays for recognition. 

The thing I’m getting at is that this is a ridiculously simple idea but it’s become very meaningful in the classroom. It doesn’t cost anything and the time invested isn’t much. More importantly, it helps to build community and it’s a small way to show that you care (and the little things add up). And this is where the idea for teaching hacks comes into play and where I would love some collaboration/help. 

What is one “teaching hack” that you would like to share with your colleagues? What’s one “trick” that makes your life as a teacher easier and/or more effective? 

Now obviously you can google “teaching hacks” and you’ll find some pretty cool ideas but a lot of these seem to focus on organizational aspects of the classroom. I’m really asking in a bigger sense, in small things that make big differences (which loops back around to equity and community in the classroom). 

Do you have a good one?