Tuesday, December 31, 2013

One Resolution: BE BRAVE

As the calendar turns to 2014, it's inevitable that I think about myself as an educator. Really, after husband and father, I most identify myself as an educator. So, it's natural on this, the last day of 2013, to be thinking about school and my role in it.

I have just one resolution: Be Brave.

The older I get, the more daring I've become in my teaching. That daring has led to some significant changes in the classroom and I'm so happy. When change is made, I feel refreshed and I'm quite confident that rubs off on my students.

But I'm still scared of one thing and I'm determined to get over it.

In 2014, I will submit a piece of writing for publication. I don't know if it will be an article or a poem or a short story, but I will put my name on something, call it complete, and send it in to a publisher.

It might not be selected, but it definitely won't if I don't send it in. The willingness to fail allows for greatness to enter.

Happy New Year!


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Captain John Smith is 'Melo

So, let's turn early American literary figures into NBA superstars.  Or early American literary figures into musical instruments.

Those are my instructions for my students. Let's face it, The General History of Virginia by John Smith and Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford are just plain HARD to read and understand. So, we must find ways to make it interesting.

My recommendation? Blend what we don't know with what we DO know very well.

Turn John Smith into Carmelo Anthony. By using third person and talking about his own heroics in the face adversity, John Smith transforms into the New York Knicks' superstar: he's selfish. I mean, 'Melo doesn't have the assist stats or the rebound stats that LeBron has. AND--his shooting percentage proves that there isn't a shot he doesn't like.

Not a hoops fan? Find the musical instruments. The early native myths are the winds, connecting the natural beauty and Olaudah Equiano is the percussion segment, pounding at the heart of the human soul.

This is the challenge to my students and to me. Let's work hard to make this difficult literature interesting by connecting it to the things we already love.

Then--and only then--can we really love the literature.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

An IB State of Mind

For the past four days, I've been taking my first real swim in the International Baccalaureate pool. Previously, through a visit to an IB school and some discussion with colleagues and administrators, I've just dipped in my toe. This time, though, it was a full cannonball as I traveled to St. Pete Beach for my Category 1 training.

On the first day of training, I found myself in awe of the IB. Their mission statement echoes so much of what I believe about education, stating it, "...aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world..." as well as "encourage students across the world to become active, compassionate, and lifelong learners who understand that other people, with their differences, can also be right." When I look at that, I just see empathy and global connectedness. I couldn't be more excited.

We also examined some motifs that appear throughout the IB curriculum:

  • Students should be agents of their own learning--students must guide their own understanding with my assistance; they must be actively engaged
  • Everything is an argument--students need to make claims and support them with details because truth is so often determined by the individual's personal experience which means there is rarely, if ever, a single truth
  • Knowledge is a negotiation--students must derive meaning from all they read, see, and do, making knowledge a negotiation between what is presented and what is received
The IB waters were refreshing, indeed. But, come day two, it got a bit chilly.

While the IB claims ten different learner profiles, highlighting risk-taking and communicating and caring among many others, we started to dig into the assessments--all of which are fine; I mean, any company can use any assessment it likes. But I didn't initially see the ways that the students could use their learner profiles within the papers, oral commentaries, and exams. After day two, I was concerned that the ideals of the first day didn't mesh with the realities of the second.

But then, after leaving the pool a bit cold, I wrapped up in the warm blanket of the third day. 

On the last day of training, I started seeing my own students in the work. It brought me some calm, some warmth. I became convinced that, though they'll be pushed, they'll be successful because there is an incredible amount of choice within the IB curriculum. Yes, students have to write an essay, but they decide on the question and approach. Yes, students have an oral commentary, but they get to determine the direction in which it will go.

Our day-to-day class will be about negotiating our knowledge, about arguing with support, about being engaged in the learning. It will lead us to become more careful thinkers and, finally, to a world where we understand multiple versions of the truth because each individual's experiences are so different throughout the world. 

With IB, empathy is a desired trait.

And that is a pool I can swim in any day.

(I can't write this post without recognizing and thanking my district for sending me to this training. It's so rare for teachers to go on business trips, but this one was worth it. It was a great place to be and, for that, I'm thankful.)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

New Group, New Inspiration

As I continue on this great journey to become the best teacher that I can, I realize that so much of my job is inspiring students to learn. They have the power and they have (or have had) the curiosity. I just need to inspire them, to let them see value in learning, to allow them to create.

Because I'm in English guy, a words guy, I often find my inspiration in quotes, poems, sayings.

Tomorrow, I get a new group of students and I'm thinking of bombarding them with words that move me--and I hope move them.

Here are just a few I'm considering, but I need your help! Besides, I think it could be quite powerful to know that others are paying attention to their actions, that others care that these students do a good job, too. So, reply. Whether it's Twitter or Facebook or right on this blog, get me your favorite words! And I'll put them on my board tomorrow as we start a new trimester.

"Only engagement can produce mastery."--Daniel Pink, Drive

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once."--Shakespeare

"I have no special talents; I am only passionately curious."--Albert Einstein via @delta_dc

"Ask a different question. How are you intelligent? Instead of the classic: How intelligent are you?"--Sir Ken Robinson

Keep the words coming! INSPIRE MY STUDENTS!!!

Sunday, November 24, 2013


In my classroom, we gave thanks one week before Thanksgiving.

Last Thursday, thirteen students gave twelve local non-profits $2500. It was a way for my students to say 'thank you' to those hard working organizations who try to make our community and the world a better place.

Here's how it happened!

The idea came from a conversation with my National Writing Project coordinator who encouraged me on my path to find more and more authentic audiences. She had done something just like this in a nearby community and said the rewards for students, organizations, and community alike were all extraordinary.

Once I had the idea, I needed the money. I went to the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation. I know the work of this organization well and thought this would be a perfect blend. They were willing to hear and ready to be involved.

(Quick note: I'm incredibly proud to live in a community where people are willing to listen to unique ideas and encourage them if they see the value.)

Then, three weeks ago, my students went to work. This was an MLA research paper--a staple in our curriculum--with a whole lot of power behind it.

The basic premise of the Words Have Power MLA argumentative essay contest were as follows:
  • Each student picked a local non-profit for which to argue.
  • Then, each student engaged in gathering research on that non-profit by working online and by contacting the director of the organization.
  • After the essay received its revisions and edits, we went through a class-determined democratic process to reach the final three essays.
  • Those three essays allowed the students of each class (four total classes, with one tie in one class) to award $350 for 1st place, $150 for 2nd, and $100 for 3rd.

So, what exactly, are the positive outcomes from this project? There are a slew of them, some of which are listed below:

  • It brings the schools and community closer together
  • It gives a real audience to my students who, in turn, work harder and better
  • It produces the same MLA research skills as have always been required in my class
  • It gives the students a sense of philanthropy
  • It makes the community aware that teenagers do not always fit the stereotype
  • It allows students to see the power of a vote
  • It taught students the value of formatting as some essays were voted out purely based on it
  • It requires students to find and interview the director of the organization
  • It gives parents a chance to feel what is happening in the classroom
  • It shows students that WORDS HAVE POWER

One student, in a reflection, said, "It benefits the students, it benefits the nonprofits, and everyone within the community."

Another stated, "As a community member I think I have grown. I didn't even know that some of these organizations existed and now I've learned of some amazing organizations that do truly amazing work for the world and this area."

I believe in this project. And I want to encourage YOU (if you're a teacher) to do it, too. I try to avoid being demanding in this blog, only offering up my experiences to be taken as you like.  

But, this one? This one you should try.

Because students don't have to wait to make a difference in our community. They can learn, right now, that WORDS HAVE POWER.

The students and the representatives of the local non-profits at an award ceremony last Thursday.

The organizations who benefited:
  • The NOAH Project
  • Center for Women in Transition
  • Michele's Rescue
  • Spring Lake High School Choir
  • West Michigan Hospice
  • Bethany Christian Services
  • Alliance for the Great Lakes
  • Children's Advocacy Center
  • GoodTemps
  • Children's Hair Loss
  • Spring Lake High School's Be Nice.
  • Habitat for Humanity

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Join Us as Upstanders to ELEVATE EMPATHY

In my commitment to writing one blog post per week, I have found myself only occasionally short on time. Tonight is one of those nights.


Tonight, instead putting in the usual amount of time to write this blog, I'm thinking about--and preparing for--tomorrow's final community book club event: THE LAUNCH. We're calling it that because that's precisely what it is: it is our community's launch to ELEVATE EMPATHY.

But, we want you to be upstanders with us, to ELEVATE EMPATHY in your own community as we keep working on ours. Whether you're viewing this in a different city, a different state, or a different country, please take the first step.

Join the conversation. Please join our Facebook group at this link:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/557455014319490/

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Letter to a (Struggling) Teacher Friend Just Starting Her Profession

Dear Friend,

Teaching is hard. The expectations are immense: we need to connect with students in order to change their lives, but we also need them to perform well on standardized tests for the sake of our school's success. We make plans and, if they go well, the day goes by unnoticed. If they go poorly, students begin to behave rudely and we question ourselves as effective teachers. It's just tough.

But, we need people like you. You are passionate, smart, and energetic. You want the absolute best for students even when they don't want it for themselves. You are creative and focused on improvement. You have good ideas--though they may fall on deaf ears from time to time.

I understand your frustrations--and I want to praise you for having and admitting them. It is the very best teachers who are concerned about their effectiveness. It is the very best teachers who are bothered by the students they can't reach emotionally instead of the many who they can reach easily.

Truth be told, you are effective; you've admitted that to me. In the classes you've taught before, you admit improvement. They are running easier and the plans have been rewritten to reflect understanding of your students. There is A LOT of good happening in your career. Are you celebrating that enough?

You work on the school's musical. You are willing to talk with students after school. You've created opportunities for students and parents to work together. You care about your subject area deeply, but you care about the students' learning even more.

All of this, put together, makes you a model teacher--someone to look up to, someone who is doing great work, someone who just needs to stick with it because it will get better with time.

All my best,

(P.S. For those of you who read my blog, please add to this the best you can. I know you don't know my particular friend, but you might know struggling new teachers. What do you say to those hard-working folks?)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Best Week Ever: Teacher Edition

There might have been better single moments--getting hired, some outstanding rehearsals--in my teaching career, but there has NEVER been a better week.

MONDAY--I've just started being an active presenter on education and I love it. On Monday, I had the opportunity to speak to a group of student teachers about my experiences transitioning the class into one that provides an authentic audience to my students. This group of student teachers made for an excellent audience. I loved their energy; I loved their idealism. And one of the things I hoped to get across in my presentation was that, even after eleven years of teaching, that doesn't go away.

TUESDAY--This past summer, I had an idea. In my attempt to reach real audiences (along with my deep passion for giving back to the community), I decided to make something better of the MLA-style research paper: we'd write them on behalf of local non-profit organizations. Those organizations can use my students' work in any way they choose. To up the ante, I asked our local community foundation if they would find donors to sponsor an in-class competition, so that we could be responsible for giving money to the organizations after a class vote. The fact that they agreed to my crazy idea is just a testament to our community and its willingness to give when opportunities present themselves. This Tuesday, I rolled out the WORDS HAVE POWER essay contest to my students and their eyes got wide. It didn't take much for them to start working hard.

WEDNESDAY--Running the community book club (see previous posts) has been an honor for me. I've had incredible conversations with both friends and strangers. As the book club comes to a close (though the initiatives and the real work on elevating empathy is just beginning), one of the highlights was welcoming author Emily Bazelon to our community for a luncheon with about fifty book club members. Long story short, Ms. Bazelon missed the connection in Chicago and could not make it in time. Instead of canceling the event, we changed the event. Emily was kind enough to join us for ten minutes via phone and then we broke into small groups to discuss three things: how was the book? what does bullying look like in our community? what are some possible solutions? We broke up the students who were in attendance and those teens really made the significant detour a very good path. The conversations were engaging and revealing.

Then, as scheduled, Ms. Bazelon gave her lecture on the Grand Rapids Community College campus. (She got into town a few hours later than scheduled, but in plenty of time to make the lecture.) The lecture itself was very impressive. I found it most encouraging when Emily showed a slide showing that real care on an issue can help that issue (think drunk driving numbers going down and seat belt wearer numbers going up). It tells me that a real focus on this issue can and will improve this issue.

Next (and this part is purely selfish), I was able to grab a bite to eat with Ms. Bazelon: one-on-one. Much of my last four months has been studying her book and thinking about her solutions and how they connect to our community. So, to have this opportunity to exchange thoughts, ideas, and stories was nothing short of a career highlight for me. If you don't know Emily Bazelon as journalist/writer, seek her out. She is smart, talented, humorous--all of that. While I wish I had an audio recording of our meal for the whole book club to hear, I will simply hold on to that moment tenderly and share it as much as possible.

THURSDAY--The school day, itself, was pretty spectacular. We worked on research techniques and composed letters to the directors of our local non-profits. We were making connections in our community. More than that, however, I had the privilege to take three young women out to dinner and then to my alma mater, Hope College to hear a reading from Domingo Martinez. The reading was great, for sure, but the time spent with these students in this way was even more special. It was a great introduction to what reading/writing can be.

FRIDAY--When the bell rang after another fine day of vocabulary study and research, I was able to connect with those I love the most: my family. We ate and then danced together to our favorite songs at our girls' elementary fundraiser.

A perfect ending to a perfect week.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Case for Digital Narration

For the past three weeks, my students have been working on personal narrative essays--digital personal narrative essays. But, why? What does creating a digital version of this essay allow that a regular type-on-paper essay does not?

Let's start, actually, with what we're giving up by doing this. The truth is--there is very little loss. In the past, I would introduce the topic, run a session on generating the topic, allow for a bit of drafting and revising, and then we'd call it done. All in the same three-week span because I filled the space with a movie, a quick grammar lesson, along with some other ideas. (Okay, okay--let me confess. For this assignment, we spend very little time on grammar and punctuation because, in the end, it just doesn't matter for this particular form of writing.)

By using the digital essay format, my classes are going through the exact same process of writing an essay on paper--I introduce the topic, generate ideas, draft, revise--but, this time, we're far from done.

  • First, we record the voice. This allows us to focus on our speech patterns. Pauses in the reading allows the student to highlight an important moment. A fast reading by the student tells the reader that there is anxiety. It teaches us that how we use our voice to give emotion to the audience is meaningful. 
  • Then, we find and include photos that go along with the essay. Here, students are going through a deciphering process making sure that they communicate their essay the best they can. Students ask themselves if personal photos are the only way to go. Or, what if they pull some from the Internet? How can the essay work if video is included? They see their essay differently.
  • After that, we add music--or not. Even the decision of adding music or not is an interesting choice. Some students think music adds to the tone of the essay (yes, they are now actually thinking about tone) while others think it distracts. They have to think about the mood they want to communicate to the audience and then follow through accordingly. 
  • Finally, the students have to manipulate all of these elements to tell the story they want to tell. They speed up video, hit a picture on a certain line of writing, use special effects--all to make a bigger impact on the audience. 
Though students are well-versed in uploading pictures to social media and downloading music from iTunes, manipulating media to tell a story about themselves--sometimes silly, sometimes serious, ALWAYS REVEALING--simply results in a better piece of work.

The Essays (some essays do contain swearing):

1st Hour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIIUd4SP5LI&list=PLEA8OeWcRSg5qltLch7BYYG7EwCJ7pent

3rd Hour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmzVpQ_ZOqI&list=PLEA8OeWcRSg62g-yoQ3MzPQVU341kj0MP

4th Hour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmzVpQ_ZOqI&list=PLEA8OeWcRSg7zF3COBV_H9u9EBEhn4Hvd

5th Hour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmzVpQ_ZOqI&list=PLEA8OeWcRSg4vzMHZB_rtOy2osx3T68rO

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Death by Essay Assessment

I have suffered DEATH BY ESSAY ASSESSMENT today after eight hours of staring at the screen.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Thank You, Daniel Pink

I'd like to thank Daniel Pink for putting my educational philosophy so eloquently and so simply. When I usually start talking about my pedagogical theories with my friends, or colleagues, or parents, or administration, I start taking up all kinds of time trying to explain my constant push toward internal motivation and away from grade shaming. I reference all kinds of texts I've read and motivational speakers I've heard. Finally, about thirty minutes later (and about twenty-five minutes after people have stopped listening), I get to the end of my mantra.

I've been reading Daniel Pink's Drive this week and I came across this beauty of a quote--five words that sum up my educational thoughts: "Only engagement can produce mastery." I look at it like this:


It's my belief that the best learning happens at engagement. When the teacher and the students are fully engaged, learning is optimal. So, two things need to happen: 1) the teacher constantly needs to push his lesson plans to be more engaging and 2) the student has to find optimal engagement in the activities presented. I refuse to believe that it is just one person's job. Like most jobs and activities, to have a great classroom, the whole group is needed.

To maximize engagement, I've made some major changes to the classroom. I do NOT claim that I have the answers, but I DO claim that I have been working very hard to create a more engaging classroom than I've offered in the past. Some specifics that have helped:
  • Change the seats so students face each other and then create the classroom environment so students don't get yelled at for talking. That collaboration is essential.
  • Create assignments that matter, that go beyond the classroom. For my writing class, we try to reach out to authentic audiences. Daily assignments are meant to help us get better for that purpose.
  • Be prepared to make changes mid-term. I had to do this with my vocabulary work last week. Students just didn't care about how we were doing it. So, I made changes to aim for more engagement. 
But there are important lessons for the students, too.
  • Not everything will be fun and engaging all the time. You may have to fake it and be okay with mildly engaging activities from time-to-time. 
  • When students get choice, they MUST make the reading/writing topic/journal entry engaging. If it isn't, that is squarely on them.
  • They should also, calmly and appropriately, ask the teacher why a certain assignment is being done. We teachers need to have answers to this question. If asked nicely (no sass allowed), most teachers will happily give the reasons.
So, it's a two-way street. But it's a beautiful journey because the destination is engagement. And, when engagement happens, so can mastery.

Right, Mr. Pink?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Say it With Me: I WILL LISTEN

Helping to administer a 245-person book club has meant--well--everything to me over the last few months. And one thing has become incredibly apparent--people are willing to talk if you let them know you are willing to listen.

Simply by tying my name to this book club, I have let people know that I want to listen to them, that I'm open to listening to them.

I do not have answers for everyone. Hell, I'm not a counselor. I'm not a researcher.

But, I AM a listener.

In just two weeks since the Kickoff of our Spring Lake Community Book Club of Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones, I have had conversations at the grocery store, at the school, at my daughters' playing fields. But these conversations aren't always with people I know. Over Facebook and email and Twitter, the conversation has extended to people of all ages in all parts of the community with people I know and with people I don't.

And I keep thinking, the conversation has only just begun.

And all I did was listen. So, please listen with me--even if it's the only thing we can do.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

So Much To Say: A Week of Wonder!

In my early college years, I couldn't get enough of Dave Matthews Band. So many songs stand out, but there is one--"So Much To Say"--that captures my feeling about the week I've had. In the chorus, Dave Matthews repeats So much to say over and over in his unique tone. (If you don't know the song, take a listen. It's lots of fun.)

Well, in my own boisterous voice, over and over and over again, I just have so much to say about my incredible week.

  • I could say that I'm proud to take a group of twenty students for each of the past seven years to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We just returned one week ago today and the trip, like each of the past seven, was spectacular. The city's setting was as beautiful as always. And it's theatre was riveting. We saw The Three Musketeers on Friday night, Othello on the Saturday matinee, and finished with The Who's Tommy which blew all of our minds with its theatre technology wonders. It was a great start to the week of wonder.
  • On Tuesday, 235 members of the community and I started a book club to discuss bullying. With six other committee members, we informed the group of the inner workings of the book club (how we plan to use social media to model positive behavior, when we plan to meet, our goals/objectives, etc.) and we tried to inspire them as well by showing bits of the Shane Koyczan poem "To This Day" and an interview I was able to have with author Emily Bazelon. (Both are embedded below.) It's hard to say what the result of this book club will be--we've only just begun--but when 235 people are thinking about the same topic (in this case, bullying), good is sure to happen. A solid Tuesday to my week of wonder.

  • Then, come Friday, I welcomed 33 parents, grandparents, siblings, and teachers into my classroom for an essay reading from my students. We just wrapped up a two-week intense workshop on descriptive essays and, as my major shift in education happens, we needed an authentic audience. For most of these parents, it's the first time they've come into the high school classroom during the school day to hear their student's work--and the students were outstanding. They were nervous, sure, but it resulted in powerful writing and powerful voices. Perhaps more importantly, it resulted in respect to each other's work. It was a phenomenal conclusion to this week of wonder.
So, as I look back, I now understand why I'm so tired--it's been a busy, long week. But I also see why I'm so energized for the future--great work lies ahead.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Community Book Club

Two months of dreaming,
Six dedicated committee members,
Countless meaningful conversations to come,

And ONE community making it happen.

Sign Up Now--Kickoff on Tuesday night
Spring Lake Community Book Club

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Increase Meaning, Decrease Cheating

Let me be clear: If a student cheats, he has to own that.

Did you see this today? Almost Half of Incoming Harvard Students Admit Cheating  I read it. I saw it on The Today Show. Cheating is a problem.

But what's the school's role in it? The teacher's? The culture's?

I'm concerned that our love affair with grades and test scores shows that we value those numbers over actual learning. That's damaging to an educational system. If the best students in the nation, as Harvard students are so often considered, are cheating, something is wrong.

On a local level, when I asked my students to dream about themselves in my Advanced Composition class, more of them answered that they dreamed of getting an A than of writing meaningful essays. More cared about the final number than the process of creating a powerfully written piece.

But what can we do? How can this change? I know that GPAs and ACT scores are important in the current educational setting, but we must set up a system that rewards internal motivation. We must show the students that there is more than grades.

Colleges can help by putting more emphasis on the class's taken, the application essays, and the extracurricular activities and less emphasis on the time-efficient, but easily-manipulated-by-cheating numbers.

As for me in the classroom, I try to create meaningful work, work the students want to do. (Quick note: I know that ALL dedicated educators are constantly working on this. Just by trying to do it, doesn't mean I'm always successful. But the effort does matter.) I also try to offer time within the class to do the bulk of the homework which so many of my math colleagues do by flipping their classes. By giving time in class, I can see the work being done and offer solutions to problems on the spot. I don't have to worry as much about copying in the hallway--an act I see almost every day. Also, by utilizing GoogleDocs' Revision History, I can keep tabs on the progress of written work. There are ways to detract cheating.

Mostly, this is the student's issue. He needs to keep himself in check. She needs to be honest with herself.

But the educational system and I, as the classroom teacher, can do things to help.

Let's make work meaningful. And by doing so, we'll decrease cheating.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Summer Goals Revisited

On June 9, at the beginning of summer, I created a list of six 6-word goals for the summer. Here's the post: Summer Goals. Now, in my final blog post of the summer, I'd like to see if I succeeded in my goals. Here we go.  

1. Reconnect with family who sacrificed time

  • One week road trip to Boston, ten visits to Michigan's Adventure (local amusement park with season pass), and countless backyard bonfires. Success!

2. Read a professional development book monthly

  • Dave Burgess's Teach Like a Pirate, Stephen King's On Writing, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones, and more. Success!

3. Promote "Theune Fireside Chats" to students

  • Though there was only one chat (which was wonderful, by the way, and resulted in a particularly good working relationship with a student--we share a bond in graphic novels), I did promote each one through emails to parents, posts on Facebook, and direct messages on Twitter. Success!

4. Allow English colleagues to motivate me

  • NERDVANA! Though the groups were a little smaller this summer, I was able to take advantage of two Nerdvana gatherings. We talked about Penny Kittle and we discussed male success (or lack thereof) in high school English classes. Every time we meet, I find myself newly inspired. So, I was inspired twice. Success!

5. Be silly with friends, laugh lots

  • I just got done shooting eighteen holes at a local golf course with some of my best friends! There were many occasions at local watering holes. I went to two professional baseball games this summer: one good team (Tigers) and one not as good (Cubs). Success!

6. Learn from unexpected moments and transform

  • Mostly, I thank my friends and mentors at the LAKE MICHIGAN WRITING PROJECT for this one. They let me re-identify myself as a teacher/writer, not just a teacher. They encouraged me in some wild ideas, namely a community book club which will be kicking off this fall to over 100 people. Also, I transformed as a dad and husband. My twins just turned ten three days ago. They are different and, because of them, I am transformed into a better man. Success!
So, yeah, great summer. But the cool part? I anticipate an even better school year.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Book Club

Let's pretend no one signs up for this community book club idea that has been wonderfully consuming my summer. (Quick note: this is NOT a reality since 53 have signed up in just the first week of releasing its details, but let's just pretend.) I've learned an incredible amount already which will directly impact my students. It's certainly impacted me.

Lesson 1: Human connection is critical.

I was working on this project on my own for quite awhile. (Again, another fib. Emily Bazelon had to write the book, Superintendent Furton had to give the go-ahead and help with some ideas, and I used some friends to think through the concept more thoroughly.) Mostly, though, the work was my own: I set up the website, I emailed Ms. Bazelon, I created the format. But, as I was working on this project and hoped for it to reach a bigger audience, I knew that I was limited. 

My education came at the hands of Jill--a friend and parent of three students. After taking an hour with me to think about the details of the project and speaking to me from a parent perspective, she brought up the idea of a small committee. "More hands make light work," she said. So, I called a small group together and the idea has soared because of them. They had the idea of advertisement, personal stories filmed and embedded in the website, outreach ideas to parents and the community-at-large which never would have crossed my mind. (Not all of these ideas have been put into place, but they will.) They gave specific feedback to the website and to the sign-up form. Their work has been beyond valuable--and that was after just one hour of meeting. 

So, there's the lesson for my students: working with others will improve the quality of your own work. This committee has already improved the project. The same MUST be the case for my students. By THINKING together, ideas progress. The work gets better.

Lesson 2: Technology makes life easier.

I've never created a website with embedded video before. I've never created a Google Form before. I've never used a spreadsheet to gather data like this before. Already, in just a month or two of work on this project, I've learned an incredible amount about the technology that is at my fingertips--for free.

Students need these skills. The skills of forming websites, sharing them, creating spreadsheets filled with data is going to be part of their life. Honestly, if it's become a part of mine, it will be part of theirs. 

Lesson 3: Revision is necessary. 

Throughout this process, I've re-written the sign-up form about four times--maybe more. I've composed emails to administrators in my school district as well as my colleagues. Those emails went through many drafts. I've created presentation slides for the board of education and for local organizations. Soon, I'll be writing to all of the parents. Each one of these pieces, in my opinion, requires a slightly different tone. Some tweaks here and there change the writing based on my audience.  

Revisions have been necessary on all kinds of levels: sometimes the sentences aren't clear, sometimes my audience wants me to be less wordy (perhaps like right now--during this blog), and sometimes the information changes (a date here and there, a venue). To get the information right, revisions need to be made.

Often, students see revision as just something their teacher makes them do, just another step in a process they've been doing ten years before they get to me. But, there is HUGE value. I need to work harder to make sure that my students see it, understand it, and do it.

Most importantly--the best lesson I've learned so far to pass along to my students--it matters. Because I care for the book club's success so much, I'm willing to meet with people, to work with new technology, to revise and revise and revise. THAT is what I have to give to my students--meaningful assignments. Once we have that, the work becomes important and feels less and less like work.

(Side note: I did my BODY+MIND REGIMEN, mentioned in last week's blog, six out of seven days this week. Feeling pretty good about that.) 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A New Exercise Regimen: THE MIND+BODY WORKOUT

Most of my life, I've been the chubby one, the husky one, the Fat Albert. Sure, I've had a year or two of losing some major weight, but for whatever reason (mostly, lack of willpower), it hasn't stayed off. Being big takes its toll. I hate buying clothes--passionately. It actually makes me spiral into significant--though quick, thank God--spurts of depression.

But, in the last year, I've started to see my world differently. I now have a new reason to lose weight: my mind. Like I mentioned in my last blog post--Like MJ, I'm in the (Teacher) Zone--my brain is firing at a rapid speed right now. I'm thinking about my future differently. I see ways that I can teach my students with more power. I see ways that I can be more active in the educational field. I see myself writing stories for my children. There's a lot going on in my mind's eye.

But, my body must follow.

I realize that all of my educational visions cannot be fully realized with a tired body, with a body that peters out too soon.

So, if I start seeing that the physical and the intellectual work together, then I might just be able to buy in a bit more. I'm off to a good start--I've exercised six of the last seven days. Of course, it feels great--in all areas. My knees feel better when I exercise; my mood takes a turn up which must make my family happy; my head clears of garbage to make more room for the storm of positive educational ideas.

They work together--the mind and body.

So, I've come up with my workout regimen for the fall.

THE MIND+BODY WORKOUT is 30 minutes of exercise, 30 minutes of writing, and 30 minutes of reading five times/week.

But, I need you. In whatever way we connect--Facebook, email, Twitter or face-to-face--I'm asking that you hold me accountable. Ask me what I'm reading. Ask me how my writing projects are going. Ask me what new exercise I'm doing.

Basically, ask me if I'm healthy.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Like MJ, I'm in the (Teacher) Zone

When I was around twelve or thirteen, I remember having that great Michael Jordan poster, his arms stretched out wide with just the word "W-I-N-G-S" spread across it. I wasn't a Jordan lover, but I certainly wasn't a hater. I guess I was--an admirer. I like watching athletes at their peak.

I recall Jordan describing, after one of his many games where it seemed he couldn't miss, the hoop like an ocean. He could just throw the ball toward the rim and--SPLOOSH!--right in without touching anything buy nylon.


I don't want to call this summer my absolute zone, my peak; I would never do that. I intend to improve my entire career. But, I'm feeling more in the zone than ever before. And it is an awesome feeling.

If Jordan described the hoop as an ocean, I describe my brain as a lightning storm, just electricity firing about how to make my students' work more meaningful.

I'll take a little bit of credit later, but most of the credit really goes out to others. I stopped thinking I was such a great teacher and I let others show me how to be better. It is because of my connection with others that I am in the (teacher) zone.

From the books I've read:

  • Emily Bazelon's Sticks and Stones has moved me to action; I'm hoping to get a community book club going involving students, teachers, business people, anyone. "It takes a village" is an old, but appropriate saying. If we're going to have a real discussion about bullying, it needs the whole community. 
  • Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing have both pushed me to look at myself as a writer. Better than that, they've given me material to push my students to believe in themselves as writers.
  • Dave Burgess's Teach Like a Pirate has me energized to get back with students. As I read his book, the lightning storm inside my head was fierce. He gave me immediate ways to improve my teaching.

From the conferences/professional development I've attended:

  • MACUL 2013 was last March, but the electricity from it is still in my brain. It got me to act on bringing great technology into my classroom. I'm implementing those strategies.
  • Twitter Chats allow me to connect with people around the world. These folks have their digital door open, offering up their greatest techniques for all to have. 
  • The Lake Michigan Writing Project changed my identity from teacher to teacher/writer. I am a writer. From the people I met and the time I was given just to work, new ideas entered the lightning storm and they're turning the sand into glass as we speak. The Lake Michigan Writing Project made me work and produce. 
  • NERDVANA--a group of 7-12 English staff in my district--gets together to discuss whatever professional text we're reading at the time. It's wonderful connection within the school and it improves all of our teaching.

From the people I've talked to (This is where I don't know how I'll ever stop. The people I mention, and many more who I don't, have made the lightning bolts flash brighter from their encouragement.):
  • It starts with my family. My wife, as I've been working more hours than ever on my craft, has only been encouraging. After deciding the parameters (no working meal times or children's bedtime), she's encouraged the lightning storm. My daughters are fun. Lots of fun. That's been essential in the down time.
  • New friends from the Writing Project--Lindsey, Erica, Ben, Chris, Greg, Rachel, and all--have given me the pushes to believe in myself. They've encouraged the storm. They've asked necessary questions about my writing and then they've encouraged me to continue when I questioned myself.
  • Old friends from life--JB, Garth, Rim, Eric, Joe, and their families--have been essential to me being in the zone. They have given me encouragement and laughter. They have given me fun.
  • I'm also grateful to authors/speakers who didn't have to take time with me, but did. Without this kind of help and encouragement, the lightning storm would have dimmed. Because of them, it has intensified. Emily Bazelon, Kevin Honeycutt, Penny Kittle, and Dave Burgess have all been wonderful at various points over the summer.
Finally, I do take some credit--from the reflections I've forced myself to have:

  • Writing this blog forces me to pull my thoughts together. Because of it, I have proposed ideas, thanked necessary people, offered concerns and fixes on education.
  • In getting ready to lead some workshops, I've been able to question myself: am I really qualified to be leading a group of educators? Each time, after more work and practice and reflection, I've come out on the other side of that question with the same answer: YES! I can be a leader.

I also remember that shrug Jordan gave (I think it was against the Trailblazers in one of his six championships) to the announcers when the man just couldn't miss. He was having straight-up fun. And so am I. In my spare time, I want to get on Twitter. I want to read and write. I want to plan for my students. I want to get another presentation ready.

An athlete knows he's in the zone because he never wants it to stop.

Neither do I.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

All That Matters: a co-authored poem

This summer, I've spent much of my time writing poetry incorporating the educational setting. I've spoken from the view of a retired teacher, a pregnant teacher, a quiet student, and an aggressive student.

I've even spoken as myself.

But, I wanted to work with a collective group of educators. So, I asked all of my Facebook teacher friends and my wonderful Twitter PLN to write with me. I gave the skeleton for a poem (just a couple of the categories) and asked that the co-authors not touch my last stanza. Then, I opened it up as a GoogleDoc for all to edit and the following is the outcome.

Here's the deal. The life of an educator is not easy. There is SO much to consider. The poem below shows all of the pressures, all of the thoughts, and, finally, the one great joy, the one simple truth.

Thank you, fellow educators. Enjoy the poem!

All That Matters
David Theune, Eric Kipling, John Golden, Tracy Meinzer, Michelle Rynbrandt, Danna Yeager, Paul Henry, Amy Perry, Erica Beaton, Tammy Hagerz, Chris Norton, and many Anonymous Authors

All these categories:
Special Education
Economically Disadvantaged

All these platforms:
My Big Campus

All these buzz words:
Blended Learning
1:1 Technology
Virtual Learning Environment
Flipped Class
Holistic Grading
Project-Based Learning
6+1 Rubrics
Cross Curricular Integration
The Whole Brain
Multiple Intelligences
Flexible Grouping
Formative Assessment

All these tests:
No Child Left Behind
Smarter Balanced

All that’s measured:
Narrow abilities
Narrow knowledge
Socio-economic status
Parental participation
Multiple choice elimination
Student achievement
Teacher achievement

All that’s not measured:
Student thinking
Student learning
Student Motivation

All these meetings:
Professional Development
School Improvement
Parent Teacher

All these meetings:
Quietness and Thoughtfulness
Pencil and Clean Paper
Head and Heart
Evening and Morning
Idea and action
Inspiration, time and materials

All these resources:
Corporate grants
Instructional Leaders/Coaches

All these missing resources:
Updated spaces
Quality professional development
Continuous professional development
administrative assistance

All these technologies:
QR codes
Social media
Smart Board

All this support:
Literacy Coaches

All this missing support:
Parent involvement
Caring mayor and board of education members

All these teacher types:
Old School
New School
Open Minded
Non-traditional or New Age
My Way or the Highway
Do What You Love
Do What I Say
Sage on the Stage
Blame the Student

All These Learners:
Loud and Boisterous
Quiet and Thoughtful
English Language Learners
Right Brained
Left Brained
Premature at birth
Home Impaired
Students who Learn Differently
Special Needs Students
English as Second Language Learners

All that's missing:
Student Choice
Student Voice
Time for passion
Time for collaboration
Time for lunch
Time for bathroom breaks
Time for failure
student/parent accountability

All These Hashtags:

All that matters:
Human connection