Thursday, November 11, 2010

Take time to...

Today was an open house at my school, which is a private school which has suffered, in part, because of the troubles in the economy. I've been crazy-busy of late, but, like all the staff, I was asked to take a turn giving tours.

I ended up giving one tour to two very lively visitors and a former student of mine, presently a senior and a student tour guide at our school. We spent much of our time in the Upper Elementary part of our school, which follows a Montessori curriculum. I might mention at this point that I am Montessori trained myself, and taught in the same room we visited today for seven years before moving on to Middle School.

It was a marvelous thing to see - lots of students working independently, the visitors very impressed, and teachers giving individual lessons. It reminded me why I went into teaching in the first place. And, although we don't have all the cool-looking materials, much of the Middle and Upper School, although not Montessori, hews to the same idea of 'follow the child.'

I haven't gotten out of my own crazy-busy routine since school began, but it was an encouraging thing to see other areas of the school. It didn't hurt that we had the most families visit us during this open house that we've had in some time.

So, if you're working in a place where you like to work, my suggestion is to get out to areas of your school you haven't seen for a while. It just might remind you why you came to your school or to teaching in the first place.

Monday, September 6, 2010

It's not about you (or me either)

It's the start of a new year, and I find myself this year collaborating with a lot more teachers in presenting courses than I did last year. A lot of our collaboration has taken place over such shared files as, as well as emails.

One collaboration that I especially value is with a younger teacher who has not taught Humanities before, but who has a lot of energy and good ideas. It would be easy to fall into some sort of 'competition' as to who had the most kid-friendly, or tech-savvy class. It would be easy to take the casual email a bit personally, but it would be a serious mistake. What she's reminds me is that there is much I don't know, and I need to be open to it, whether it comes from her or from elsewhere.

One of my former administrators once said 'you can't take what goes on in school personally'. The more I teach, the more I find that I'm a better teacher if I don't let my ego get in the way.

Photo "No Ego, but 'Go' by Janice Frasier, clevergirl used under Creative Commons copyright.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Older but still good

For a variety of reasons, I've been spending much of my 'summer vacation' home doing a variety of school related tasks. One of my aims was to read or re-read books that touch on middle school learning. and one I just finished was Rick Wormeli's Meet Me in the Middle.

Wormeli's enthusiasm for middle school students come across on every page. I especially appreciate his section in Chapter 3 on "Teaching Young Adolescents to Reason" and his chapter on "Games in the Classroom." This is one guy I would have loved to have as a teacher when I was in middle school, and I'd love to have him as a colleague, if only for the inspiration he gives to encourage those around him to do better.

[For those of you who have trouble getting into books, think of it as a long hard-copy blog that you can read during a power failure, such as we had in our county recently :-) I sometimes find it easier to read for 10 minutes a day...this gives me a chance to think about some of the information involved. ]

(Picture: "Reading table" by Bob Esty)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Flat Classroom Workshop virtually

I attended a great workshop in St. Louis on Tuesday and Wednesday without leaving Maryland. The workshop was the Flat Classroom Workshop given by Julie Lindsay. For us relative newbies to technology, it was an excellent introduction to the Flat Classroom universe and several commonly-used Web 2.0 tools, and it gave me a chance to work with other workshop participants, both virtual and real, in designing a Flat Classroom-style project to work with other classrooms across the web.

In the course of the workshop, I worked with two collaboration tools which I highly recommend. One was Dabbleboard, which was a whiteboard that many people could edit simultaneously, with a chat room box attached, and a similar program called Sync In. And I managed to create a spreadsheet in Google Docs and share it ...small potatoes for you skilled Web 2.0 folks, but a step forward for me.

Was being a virtual attendee the same as being there? No. it was a small workshop, and those who were there were able to interact much more easily and fully than I as a virtual participant. The audio at times was hard to follow, and the web cam struggled to resolve the display screen with any clarity. But, was being a virtual attendee worth it? Definitely yes! Julie and the other workshop organizers clearly put a lot of time and effort to make it possible to attend virtually, and I got a lot out of it. I think the point of virtual participation is to make it possible to take part, not to replace the experience of being there. And the choice for me was virtual participation, or no participation at all. I would definitely encourage others to attend conferences virtually when it is not possible to be there in person.

Taking was a big step forward for me, and, undoubtedly my personal development highlight of the summer! Thanks to all who organized the conference and allowed us to participate virtually!

Photo "virtual seat" by Bob Esty

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Summing up the Year, Part 2

Last year, when I asked students to evaluate my class at the end of the year, I received a lot of good and some bad comments, but the one that stuck with me was "You talk too much." I found it interesting because, that year, I had made a real effort to talk less. However, it got me thinking, and I ran across an intriguing book called "Never Work Harder than Your Students" by Robyn Jackson. I also had started working with a class wiki.

So, I tried a system where I would give out questions, and the students would research the answers on their own for the factual portion of our history units. It worked out very well. Now, instead of bored faces listening when I lectured, my students did their own research, and posted the results on the class wiki. Each student answered a question, and added his or her own name and the page numbers in the relevant textbook. The wiki page became the study guide for the test. And I talked a lot less, and students got more practice in using the index and looking up information for themselves. That's probably the thing I'm most proud of this year.

And what about this year's evaluations? Largely positive, but the thing that stuck in my mind was "Can we act out more scenes from history." Now I have some ideas for next year....

Image: Pearson's Falls, near Tryon NC, Photo by Maureen Esty, my daughter

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Summing up the Year, Part 1

This year, I invested some time and energy to work with ePals and found two classrooms, one in France and one in Spain, which agreed to exchange emails with my class. We spent a lot of time in the beginning just trying to get the logistics down, however, and didn't start exchanging emails until January.

My students were excited about the exchange at first, but, as time went on, and we didn't hear very often from our email correspondents, the enthusiasm waned. Between conflicting vacation times, and lack of time at each end, I'd say we had a total of four 'exchanges' with our French class, and but two or three with our Spanish class, which started later in the year.

I take some lessons from this. One is to start earlier. The teachers I worked with have tentatively agreed to work with me in the coming year, so that shouldn't be difficult. Another is to organize the emails around a theme or joint project. We did this a bit with the French class, where we would ask the students to talk about their families in one series of emails, to talk about their towns in another, and so on. More could be done with this.

I also wonder if we couldn't get more of a joint project with classes who have a better command of English. I know how difficult it is to express concepts in a language you're just learning, and my students this year, with the occasional exception, just knew English. I'm thinking of trying to come up with a joint story on some theme. Something for me to look into this summer.

Photo: View of PĂ©rigueux, France - Photo by Christine LĂ©croart

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Importance of Energy

Energy. You don't realize how important it is until you don't have it. I've come to realize that energy and enthusiasm are key to teaching. How can you expect your students to be excited about something if you aren't?

I'm still recovering from my angioplasty and stent implant, and, which the operation itself is a marvel of medical science, the recovery is taking its time. I shouldn't be is heart surgery after all, but the nature of the beast is that there is no immediate penalty for overextending yourself, but the next day you pay for it in lack of energy.

I had a bit of a scare today, after overextending myself the last weekend. I started having chest pains, so I called the doctor and went over, and, after doing this and that, he concluded that "You're fine. I don't know what is causing the pain, but it isn't your heart." I don't think I ever been so cheered by a negative result.

So, I rest, and trust that my energy will return.

Picture: 'Sun Bible' by Denis Collette used under a Creative Commons license.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Change or die!

Needlessly dramatic? Actually, not. I went to the emergency room last Monday for some tightness and pressure on my chest, and finally was released from the hospital last Thursday after an angioplasty and stent implant on an artery to my heart. How did this happen? The most likely villain is a cholesterol count that is not extremely bad, but clearly could stand some improvement.

So now, despite the fact that I eat a reasonably healthy diet, exercise some, and am only overweight by some 20 pounds or so, I'm confronted with the reality of coronary artery disease, and the fact that what I'm doing is not quite good enough. I'm now looking at my diet, my weight, my exercise routine, and (toughest of all) my overall level of stress. I'm going to have to learn some new vocabulary, such as 'partially hydrogenated vegetable oils' (these are bad), HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol). The choices won't be easy, but I've got some time and, if I start now, I should put myself in a much better position in the future.

This episode strikes me as a metaphor for my professional life as well. I am a reasonably well-respected teacher at my private school, and I have taken some steps, as you can see in earlier posts of this blog, towards incorporating Web 2.0 technologies and other innovations in my teaching. I'm glad I have, and my teaching has definitely improved as a result. But is a visit to the 'emergency room' of teaching careers in my future? Do I need to do more? How do I strike a balance between incorporating the truly useful in a timely fashion and wasting my time, and, more importantly, my students' time, in chasing 'the latest thing' that turns out to be a dead end?

These are the questions I'm going to be struggling with in this newly re-titled blog. I was trying for something a bit more attractive than the 'label' I had previously (Bob's Middle School Web 2.0 Journey). Maybe you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but, hopefully, this fox is a bit smarter than that.

(fox picture by arudhio, used under Creative Commons license.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Brain Rules

I'm a bit behind in my professional reading, to put it mildly, but I'm almost finished John Medina's Brain Rules and I highly recommend it. Although not written specifically for teachers and not specifically about chidrens' or teenage brains, the book has a number of recommendations ('rules') that specifically apply to teaching. I especially appreciate rule #4: We don't pay attention to boring things, and rule #7: Sleep well, think well. If you've read some of the other literature on teenage brains, such as Barbara Strauch's The Primal Teen, you'll see some familiar territory, but what I like about Brain Rules is that it is a good but fairly easy read, with enough documentation to assure you that John Medina knows what he is talking about.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Great teachers and attractive Internet - all we need?

Having just gotten back from a brief vacation in West Virginia (see picture for some cool geology near Seneca Rocks) , I scanned the Outlook section of last Sunday's Washington Post and found two articles that intrigued me. One was What Makes a Teacher Great by Marc Fisher, in which he describes a day sitting as part of a group interviewing prospective teachers. The interesting bottom line was that, with guidance, even an non-professional, albeit well-informed one, such as Marc could pick out people likely to be good teachers. He found that the candidates he favored by and large reminded him of great teachers he had in the past. He also quotes Aleta Margolis of Inspired Teaching as saying that"many, if not most educators can be taught to turn away from an authoritarian approach and adopt values and methods that can help children become active, involved learners.

And what better way to get children become active learners than to offer courses on-line, where students spend much of their time anyway? That's the question asked by Katherine Mangu-Ward in her article on the same page called "Traditional Schools Aren't Working. Let's Move Learning On-line." For those who follow such bloggers as Vicki Davis, David Warwick, and many others, the arguments here are not new, and, in my opinion, the author is a bit too quick to write off all efforts in 'conventional' education (as in the "Traditional Schools Aren't Working" statement in the title), but she does quote some interesting statistics from the Florida Virtual School, which has some 100,000 students. According to the article, the students who enroll in AP courses on-line here average a higher score than those who enroll in AP courses in public school.

But I still remember my daughter trying to take a on-line course in Japanese when she was in high school, and eventually giving up because the technology was complicated and our cable service Internet couldn't keep up. I also remember several students in the school I teach, who, despite teachers as supportive as anyone could wish, refused to learn and disrupted class for other students. I certainly applaud the steps away from the "one size fits all" educational models, and I agree that the more 'great teachers' we have, the better we are. I think there are some students I know that could flourish in an on-line environment. But there are some that won't, and there are some that need a bit more structure in their learning lives than teachers who are merely supportive can give. We need a mix of alternatives because the kids we teach are not, in fact, identical. My own experience suggests that there are better ways and worse ways, but there need to be many ways, so that all kids can prosper.

Dropping back for a moment to the point of 'good teachering can be taught', I'm quite excited about an upcoming book "Teach Like a Champion" by Doug Lemov. I've heard a lot of good things about this book and have just ordered it. I"ll let you know how it is.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Andrew Carnegie Rides Again!

Last Friday, I put on my 19th century fancy outfit (why is it that I even have a 19th century fancy outfit? Long story here, another time perhaps.) and came into my class as Andrew Carnegie. As some of you may know, Carnegie came to the US as a poor immigrant from Scotland and ended up as the richest (or maybe second richest) American of his time.

I had asked my students to prepare some responses on the the proposition of "What is good for business is good for the US," and I gave them the opportunity to debate Carnegie, more or less in the flesh. Everyone seemed to have a good time of it. After a while, my students started asking the questions you would expect students from a upper-scale liberal background to ask, and I gave them the answers that someone who was a businessman in the latter half of the 19th century would give.

I think it was a good exercise for my students to debate someone who they clearly didn't agree with, and it certainly held their interest.

Granted, not much to do with high technology here, except that I was able to download a copy of Carnegie's essay "The Gospel of Wealth" (available here ) in a matter of minutes and a bit of an Internet search. That certainly made my job easier.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Feeding the Elephant

I was amused by Dane Peter's post on Dane's Education Blog which related a story in which a teacher from India asked a teacher from the United States whether the US did a lot of standardized testing. Upon receiving a confirmation, the Indian teacher noted. "Here, when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant."

I am fortunate to work at a private school that receives no Federal funding at all. This means we also don't have to abide by Federal mandates, including those about standardized testing. We used to do one set of standardized tests a year, in part as a 'sanity check' on how our students are doing both for ourselves and our parents, but we've stopped doing that, and I can't say that I miss it. Neither do many of my students, who, having come from the public schools, complain long and loud about the tests they had to take when the subject comes up.

One of the sillier mandates I positively enjoy ignoring is the one put in by Senator Byrd of West Virginia which mandates that all schools receiving Federal funding teach about the U.S. Constitution on Constitution Day, which I believe is September 24th. Don't get me wrong; I believe in teaching about the Constitution, and spend two weeks on it in my US History course for 6th graders that I teach. But I teach it where it fits in chronologically, after the American Revolution, which, this year, I got to some time in November. I did not have to interrupt my presentation about the Salem Witchcraft Trials to devote an out-of-context day to the U.S. Constitution.

It would be nice to think that, with No Child Left Behind coming up for revision/renewal, that we'd get off this emphasis on testing, but I haven't heard much to indicate that this will be the case. In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy my 'bubble' existence free from Federal mandates as I feed the elephant as best I can.

Picture by Oso, published under a Creative Common license.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Yeah, about this blogging thing...

I follow a number of blogs, including Vicki Davis's Cool Cat Teacher Blog and David Warlick's 2 Cents Worth (both of which I recommend, by the way), but when it comes to writing my own, I can't seem to muster the patience or even the time, to put the obligatory picture on top, and to wordsmith what I have to say to something pithy and wide-reaching, and I certainly can't find the time to blog as much as these folks do. When we had the 'snow siege' in our area two weeks ago, I made myself a promise to say something weekly, which I've tried to do, but I'm not sure that forcing myself to write that often has resulted in that much added wisdom.

But, to continue from my last blog, I did have my students use the discussion feature on our class wiki to start a discussion on our current historical literature book, Ashes of Roses. It's just the first go-round, and I can see, even from my own inexperienced eyes, that this will be a work in progress for some time. I can see that I'll be tinkering with the format for a while before I hit upon something that works. What I do find is that I can launch only so many new things at one time...otherwise some fail simply for lack of attention.

On the bright side, however, I did get the idea of using the discussion feature from the English Companion Ning (which I also highly recommend). For much of my day-t0-day needs, I find this Ning answers a bit better than some of the blogs I follow. However, I find it a challenge to just keep up with the modest amount of on-line reading I do, much less add to my blog even once a week. How some of these folks find the time to read widely, which they clearly do, and blog at the pace they do is beyond me.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bumps in the Road

Ah yes, it is always fun to imagine that life goes in an ever-ascending spiral upwards, and that projects once begun, will take on lives of their own. Sadly, reality, just like the economy, is full of ups and downs, and sometimes it does come to 'two steps forward, one back.'

Our ePals exchanges seem to be at a pause point. About half of my students sent out emails to their penpals during our 'snow week', but we didn't get any student responses back last week, and now the French class at least, is on break until March 8th. We're not sure why, but we haven't heard anything from our Spanish class this month. Some of my students are getting a bit frustrated at the lack of response.

Our class wiki continues to move along. Right now, the most active part is our book review section. This quarter, the students seem used to the idea of regular reading and posting book reports. We had our last batch of posted "Find Outs" for our US History unit on Reconstruction, which turned out to be very handy when our first date for the test was snowed out. Interestingly enough, I haven't gotten much in the way of reaction from parents when I made the wiki public except for one or two offhand comments about "gee, it's nice to see what you're up to."

I'm trying something different tomorrow. I'm going to use the discussion feature on the class wiki to talk about our current book, Ashes of Roses. Right now, I'm just requiring a post some time this week. We'll see what happens.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Questioning Web 2.0

I read a review of the book "You are not a gadget" by Jaron Lanier, described in the interview as "a pioneer in the invention of virtual reality." According to the interview, our experience on the Web is being controlled by the "lords" of technology, who have deeper access into the workings of the Web and who write the algorithms which we ordinary users follow. I'm not sure I agree with the argument, which seems to reprise the old "TV controls your life" idea, but it does raise a cautionary note to all the 'happy talk' about Web 2.0.

How do we know, for example, what any application really does? The advent of "Google Buzz," for example, has been accompanied with concerns raised about how private it really is. For the moment, the decentralized nature of the Internet serves as a check to some of the abuses of popular programs. I hope that nature continues.

But, as a less-experienced user, it does lead me to be more, rather than less cautious about trying out the "next new thing."

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snowed in? S'no problem

Our school has been closed since last Friday due to two snowstorms, and it won't reopen until Tuesday at the earliest. By email, my administrator asked us as a faculty to suggest things to do for our students that would allow them to work at home. For my students, I suggested that they write their French and Spanish epals, and I set up a place on our class wiki for them to share what they found out about the French and Spanish schools. I'm rather looking forward to the results!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Man proposes, nature disposes

We in the DC area have been hit with three snowstorms in the course of eight days. The first two were ordinary, about 5" each, but the third, christened by some the "Snowpocalypse" dumped 23" on an area generally unused to storms that big. Now another storm is forecast tomorrow with 10" or over.

During our last storm, we lost power, and it was amazing how most of our time that powerless day was spent in shovelling snow, eating, and trying to keep warm, while the temperature inside the house gradually dropped. Fortunately, our power was restored before our house temperature got below 50 degrees, but it made for a very pleasant evening sitting around the fire in our fireplace.

Not much to do with web 2.0 on this post, although certain of the high-tech stuff, such as remote terminal connections, has made it at least possible for me to do some work. If this keeps up, certainly there are possibilities for distance learning.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Update for January

Well, if anyone were following this blog, they'd be mighty disappointed, since I've been posting at the rate of one post per month! Outside of being busy, as we all are, with various school duties, I'm somehow reluctant to post unless I feel I have something to say. Another issue is that I come lately to the entire Web 2.0 world, and I've never gotten into the swing of either checking or commenting daily. There's a part of me that is turned off by the concept of Twitter; yet I can certainly see that it has been useful for some people.

My email exchanges are moving along. My students and I have gotten a number of responses from both our French and Spanish classes. I have a picture of the town, Perigueux, in Aquitaine, in which our French correspondents have their school posted on our class wiki. I'm thinking of some kind of summing up exercise for my kids, in which they combine information they've received from their French correspondents to try and get a picture of what their school is like.

Meanwhile, I'm moving ahead with a version of my 6th grade Humanities course which features very little lecturing at all. As I've mentioned before, I've tried to be very specific on what I want my students to get out of a particular section, and have institutionalized this in a list of "Find Outs" or short points for identification. For my current unit, Reconstruction, I've put in for each item a "identity" and a "significance" header, following what the 7th grade teachers do at my school. I split up the "Find Outs" among the kids, each researching one and posting their answers on the class wiki. I also include some broader questions, some of which I also assign as homework. When I write the test, I have them fill in the identity and significance of some of the "Find Outs" and write answers to one or more of the questions I've put on the wiki.

So far, I'd have to say that it's been a screaming success. The students are engaged, and all of them do at least passing on the tests and most do very well. In the meantime, they're actually reading the textbook, or at least parts of it, using chapter headers and the index to find subjects, and synthesizing what they know in their own words.

One of my colleagues pointed out, however, that taking notes during lectures is a skill that is needed in upper school and college courses. Hmmm...have to think about that. Got some ideas already, but let's see what happens. When I ran that idea by my students, however, they were almost unanimous in their lack of enthusiasm for lecture, and my sense of some of them is that they are too restless or too distracted to pay attention during a lecture of more than, well, five minutes. At least, that's my impression judging from when I give instructions....