11 July 2017

When Fail is a Four-Letter Word



Something happened to me today while I was working at my summer tutoring job. Something that upset me very much. I was pulled aside by the director and told that I needed to make some changes. I was shocked to say the least and couldn't for the life of me fathom what the complaints could be. I was generally well-liked and respected, built strong relationships with students, and tried my best to make the excruciating test prep more bearable. What did I do to earn the scorn of the director you might ask? I'll tell you what I did. I had the audacity to look up a few of the SAT words while going over questions with the students. I was told that doing this "makes me look like I don't know what I'm doing." Furthermore, this "educator" (and I use that term in the lightest sense possible) suggested that I leave the room to look up a word in the future (to hide my incompetence I suppose). So here I am to talk about the "other-other" 'F' word. Failure. There, I said it.

While I have taken classes with teachers and professors who genuinely seemed to not know what they were doing, I always admired the humble teachers who openly admitted to not knowing something (as a history teacher, I know that knowing everything is quite impossible). I tried my best to incorporate that mentality in my own teaching practice. Don't know a date of a major event? Look it up! Forgot what president came after Chester A. Arthur? That's what the internet is for! (it's Grover Cleveland by the way)

Socrates (a pretty smart dude himself from what I hear) once said

"I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance."

In the age of accountability, failure is becoming a dirty word. Another "F" word, if you will. Many students carry the burden of perfection heaped on their slim shoulders by parents who are using them as an accessory, much like their designer purse or sports car. It's not only the parents, as was made clear by my interaction with the head of the tutoring company, it's societal. While the pursuit of perfection may suit the needs of the chosen few that are lucky enough to even catch a whiff of perfection, what is the cost to the rest of the student body? As a student, I struggled greatly (more from a lack of motivation than ability). One of the major factors that de-motivated me was the constant comparisons with other students; whether it be their super high GPA, compliant personalities, or general knowledge of how to play the education game. I was always reminded about my shortcomings. It was how they were trying to motivate me to pursue perfection like those other chosen kids I suppose.

Which brings me to another smart person, who once said,

“Perfection is what you are striving for, but perfection is an impossibility. However, striving for perfection is not an impossibility. Do the best you can under the conditions that exist. That is what counts.”
That man was legendary teacher and coach John Wooden (he always thought of himself as a teacher first and foremost).  He got it. He knew that he wasn't perfect and that he could never expect that from his pupils. Wooden saw the value in the pursuit of perfection, a road which includes many failures along the way. How are we supposed to grow as people if we are expected to be perfect and be ashamed of mistakes? By the way, go out and buy Wooden on Leadership. Seriously, it's the best book about leadership that I've ever read.


Theodore Roosevelt also had a firm belief about failure. He said

"The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Would Theodore Roosevelt have run and hid in shame if he didn't know a word? Absolutely not!! In fact, all of his life, TR tried his best to learn from those around him so he could continue on the road to constant improvement. We don't hear about his many failures because he never dwelled on them for long.

As infuriated as I was at the supervisor who derided my willingness to model a growth mindset to my students, I couldn't be. I was better than that. I was better than her. I was better than the tutoring center that forced teenagers to spend six hours a day during their summer break stuck inside doing practice problems out of a Kaplan test prep book. And if I'm being honest, I'm better than the system that rewards such pervasive nonsense. In that moment, I actually pitied her and the entire system that rewards that type of mindless, heartless teaching. However, I refuse to partake in the hypocrisy any longer. I will continue to look up word definitions if need be. Hell, I might even do it more! I refuse to cower. I refuse to be intimidated into accepting a teaching practice that I feel is harmful to both myself and my students.

As you might imagine, this will be the last summer I tutor for one of these types of "drill and kill" test prep factories (I would have quit right then and there but I have a one-year old baby at home so I bit my tongue. Sorry to disappoint you Teddy). In the future, I will tutor on my own terms. Learning is a process--and not a smooth one at that. I know I'm not perfect and that I never will be. All I know is that I'm unafraid to make mistakes in front of my students. It makes me more human. Maybe that's what the majority of students really need more of; a teacher who is willing to empower them to "dare greatly" and overcome failures. We need more daring and less fear of imperfection; in both schools and society. It is our responsibility as teachers to model how to "dare greatly" for our students. If not us, who? If not now, when?

My cooperating teacher during my teaching internship, Maura Lincoln, told our students on day one that they would fail that year. The students all looked up in shock (I think my eyes were open even wider than the students'). She then explained that failure was a part of learning process and that no one achieved true greatness by running from failure. Even though I have my own classroom now, I still start my year with the same speech as Maura.

 In closing, I'll leave you with quote from another powerful writer, Winston Churchill, who said,

“Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.

I hope you embrace your failures and find strength in overcoming them. I know I will!!


08 August 2016

Get Your Students Creating Content with the Adobe Spark Suite


Ah summertime!! Now is the time when I reflect on my past school year and look toward next year. I also evaluate the tech tools that I used in my class last year and see if I can find new ways to make social studies come to life for my students.

In comes the Adobe Spark Suite. I first came across Adobe Voice (now Adobe Spark Video) a few years ago. At the time, it was only available for iPad. It was quite an extraordinary app and you can see my post about it here.  The only drawbacks were that it was only available on iPads and it was difficult to share with others or upload to Youtube. At the time, I marveled at  how great of a tool it was but then they went ahead and made it way better! So, as many of you know, Adobe is best known for making the software that helps you read PDFs (they actually do way more than that but it's probably how most people interact with their products). Now it seems that they are branching out!

With the release of their new suite of tools, Adobe Spark Post, Adobe Spark Page and Adobe Spark Video, Adobe has really made a name for itself in the design world. Adobe has also made these three tools available on the iPhone AND through the web (for FREE I might add). Sharing your (or your student's) creation is now way easier than it was on Adobe Voice. The design quality is also stunning. This is the type of content creation tool that will allow students to make authentic content and share with others in the school, community and across the globe! Let's take a look at each one individually. For this blog, I have chosen to use the web version of each tool for the purposes of ease of screencasting but as mentioned before, all these tools are available as apps in the Apple App Store. The bonus of having the app is that students can use their devices to take photos and insert them directly into their product with the mobile versions of these apps. So if they draw a picture, they can take a photo of it and upload it to the app. Without further adieu, I give you the Adobe Spark Suite:

29 July 2016

5 Simple Ways to Expand your PLN



PLNs, or Professional Learning Networks, have gained a lot of traction in education over the past few years, and with good reason. PLNs make it easier for teachers to seek out new ways to develop their craft. Sound like something that can't fit on a teacher's plate already piled high with IEP reports and other bureaucratic minutiae? Think again. You actually already have a PLN. Think about it; you have your coworkers, department members, college classmates, college professors and staff/district teacher development specialists. If used correctly, each of these people could offer you a wealth of experience, strategies and methods. Many people assume (wrongly) that PLNs are only online. Well, as you can see, you already had a PLN before you even clicked your mouse.

I have given multiple sessions on PLNs over the years. Ever since I discovered these wonderful fountains of knowledge, I have been a strong proponent of them. In this day and age, it is easier than ever to connect with other teachers across the globe. Recently, I heard a podcast from Visions of Ed (which, if you haven't subscribed to yet, I would highly recommend doing), in which the hosts, Dan Krutka and Michael Milton interviewed PLN expert Torrey Trust, who stated that any teacher who is not connecting with other educators online is doing it by choice.


People I work with are always asking me where I get all my cool teacher toys from. My response is the same every time. I get them from my PLN! They are amazed at how easy it is. I'm not spending 10 hours a day searching the internet for the newest ed tech toys or social studies strategies. I simply aggregate all the information into a few tools that funnel all the information to me. Below are the five ways that I get my PLN to work for ME.

10 July 2016

Glenn Wiebe--Social Studies Superstar Spotlight



For this month's Social Studies Superstar Spotlight we have a very special guest interview. When I began my journey as a budding educator I began to research extensively so I could become the best possible teacher I could be. One name kept popping up during my research. That person was Glenn Wiebe. He seemed to be on the cutting edge of everything social studies related. He was always posting amazing ways to make history come alive and he also had a wealth of ed tech resources that he shared on his blog. His passion for the social studies has inspired me to begin blogging and sharing any resources that I came across. His practical tips for teaching social studies can be applied to rookies and veterans alike. Chances are, whether you know of Glenn or not, you have used a strategy or two (or ten) of his at some point in your career. Once again, the purpose of the Social Studies Superstar Spotlight (other than highlighting my incredible alliterative skills) is to share the strategies and teaching philosophy of master social studies teachers with others in the field. Enjoy!

The man, the myth, the legend
The Bio

After 15 years in middle school, high school and college classrooms, Glenn Wiebe now spends his time as an education and technology consultant excited about the learning process and the power teachers have in shaping that process. He enjoys facilitating conversations on the intersection of social studies historical thinking and technology integration.

Glenn began his teaching career at Derby Middle School, finding ways to help thirteen year olds enjoy American History. He earned a Master’s in American History in 1995 and continued developing innovative practices and sharing them with his students. That was followed by five years working in higher education, designing effective instruction and integrating video games into social science classrooms at Tabor College. He now travels across the country as an ESSDACK education specialist providing keynotes, presentations, and curriculum development.

Glenn's passion for social studies was kindled in elementary school when h fell in love with his first National Geographic map. Even at a young age, Glenn was beginning to understand what Robert Louis Stevenson meant when he described his treasure map as having the “power of infinite, eloquent suggestion.” Mr. Wiebe's passion for history and the social studies continued to grow and is now expressed in sharing that passion with others.

Today, Glenn writes almost daily at History Tech, a 2014 Edublog finalist, and maintains Social Studies Central, a repository of resources targeted at K-12 educators cited in national professional journals. You can find those at:

Starting in 2013, Glenn acted as co-chair for the Kansas State Department of Education social standards writing and assessment committee and is currently serving as president of the Kansas Council for the Social Studies. As director of two US Department of Education Teaching American History grants, Mr. Wiebe introduced the use of mobile learning technology to middle and high school teachers while supporting research-based instructional strategies. Glenn also travels frequently to assist schools as they integrate Apple and Google products.

The Interview

1. What made you decide to become a social studies educator?


I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a history nerd. Growing up I would read old National Geographic magazines and collect the maps. I spent time writing national parks and asking them to send back materials. And have always read historical non-fiction books - with special memories of Shelby Foote.

But teaching social studies wasn’t my first choice. I started out hoping to be a print journalist and only later in my college career did I add a secondary ed major. There wasn’t any one event that changed my mind. But I had some phenomenal history and social studies teachers - Mrs. Kotter in 5th grade, Mr. Evans in middle school, and Mr. Tomayko in high school - and some that were . . . well, not as good. I begin to realize that I wanted to find ways to help others love history as much as I did.And the more I taught, the more I began realize how incredibly important that educated, competent, reasonable citizens are to a successful democracy. So I hung around.

2. In what ways have you used academic choice for students in the classroom?

I don’t think kids should have a choice about what skills they leave our classrooms with - they all need to be able to solve problems, to weigh evidence, be open minded and open to compromise, be able to communicate solutions, and work for change. But within reason, we should allow students the flexibility to study the content of their choice as they develop those skills. We can provide choice in how they demonstrate competency in those skills. And I think we should allow students to select the kinds of tools they use while collecting evidence, collaborating with others, and creating / communicating solutions.

3. What is your process for reflecting on a lesson as a teacher? 

Early in my teaching, I rarely if ever reflected intentionally on best practice. It was never something discussed during my pre-service training. Only later did Michael Ortmann, one of my early unofficial mentors, gently suggest that effective teachers - like any craftsman - must always be thinking about ways to hone their craft. A now forgotten article encouraged me to ask students to reflect on their projects after they were finished. This was a huge aha moment for me. Good for kids? Probably good for me.

So I began to be more intentional about asking questions that focused on lesson and unit design. I would ask students what they liked or didn’t like and why, through informal conversations and more formal evaluations. I asked other teachers to review my lesson plans. I set up a video camera and recorded lessons, looking for ways to improve. Even today, I ask others to watch what I do.
And with tools such as #sschat, Google Hangout, and the TPS Network, asking others to help us and to provide advice has never been more powerful.

4. In what ways do you get students to reflect on their work?

The biggest challenge is often convincing students that self-reflection is a good thing! We just need to make it something that we always ask kids to do, either formally or informally. But this should always include these sorts of basic questions:

  • What is the most important thing you learned?
  • What do you wish you'd spent more time doing?
  • What was your best work?
  • How could your teacher change this project to make it better next time?

I ran across a handy student reflection piece aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy several years ago from Peter Pappas that I like and share with teachers. 

And the PBL movement is big on the integration of self-reflection so stuff like this from the Buck Institute is also really good:

5. What are some of the social studies specific skills that you want your students to have after taking your class?

This truly is the question we should be asking! I always start with my C4 Framework - Collect, Collaborate, Create, Communicate. I want teachers to train kids to be able to gather and organize information needed to solve a problem, work effectively with others, create a solution to the problem, and share that solution appropriately. 

More specifics?

Reading a variety of primary and secondary sources so that it is possible to:
  • find relationships and supporting details. 
  • evaluate an argument or claim citing evidence in support of, or against, the argument or claim.
  • analyze two or more texts on the same topic drawing conclusions about the similarities and differences. 
  • evaluate information from various formats.
Writing clearly:
  • to support a claim, or make an argument using evidence, logic, and reasoning. 
  • to inform or explain an event, relationship, position, or opinion. 
  • by applying the appropriate technologies for the purpose and audience. 
  • by gathering multiple sources of information and integrating them into short and long term projects. 
Communicating effectively by: 
  • collaborating with diverse partners. 
  • presenting information in textual and contextual formats. 
  • using multiple modes of communication and adjusting presentations to meet the requirements of the task or audience. 
6. What are some ways that you include primary sources in your lessons?

I’m excited that more teachers are integrating primary sources into their instructional designs. The more we have kids use all sorts of evidence as part of what they do, the better. This could be primary sources but might also be things such as secondary sources, textbooks, Wikipedia, fiction, maps, charts, graphs, or even video and board games. 

So I think the question can be altered just a bit: “What are ways to include the effective use of evidence in our lessons?” And there are so many ways that teachers do this. But if we focus just on primary sources, here is a list of a few ideas that have worked for lots of teachers:

Some specifics. Use primary sources:
Be sure to scaffold understanding by using graphic organizers:



7. Do you use PBL? If so, what types of projects do you assign your students?

Having kids solve problems or create projects / products is at the core of historical thinking skills. One example we’re going to try this fall is to create a 1/3 scale model of the CSA submarine Hunley. Groups of students in different schools will research and build different parts of the submarine and ship them to another school. This school will attempt to construct the final model live on Google Hangout using all of the pieces. Fingers crossed!

8. What were some strategies that you use to make social studies come alive in the classroom?

My new favorite tool is the idea of virtual reality. Using Google Cardboard or other VR tools can put kids right in the places they’re learning about and can be very effective in hooking kids in wanting to learn more.

9. What is the place of technology in the social studies classroom? What are some tools and programs “doing it right?”

Kids need to be using the types of tools and technology that people in the real world are using. And they need to be using those tools in context. Too often, I hear and see of computer science teachers who are drilling kids in how to create a Microsoft Word document. The STEAM movement has been great for helping schools and teachers use a variety of tech tools as part of the discipline specific learning.

Some of my favorites:

10. What are some strategies you use to reach struggling learners? What are some strategies you use to extend the learning of advanced learners?

Graphic organizers work for all types of learners. Visuals, such as graphic novels and infographics, are also effective tools. Scaffolding and incremental instruction can be powerful strategies. Timelines are great for showing cause and effect. 

A couple of things for advanced learners: Work to find opportunities outside the classroom and advanced learners need to the opportunity to work with other learners. These two ideas can often be combined.

But I was told once that what works for advanced learners works for all. A good strategy is a good strategy. 

11. What role to textbooks have, if any, in social studies education?

I think textbooks are one part of the evidence piece. Textbooks aren’t the most exciting thing to read but they can provide some basic, foundational knowledge. We should also be using Wikipedia as a basic info source BTW. But we shouldn't be using textbooks as our only, or our best, information source. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. 

12. How do you make your curriculum culturally responsive to diverse classrooms?

The first step for many educators is to realize that they, intentionally or otherwise, teach from positions of privilege. And then be willing to view their jobs different. Some good resources to help with both of those things:

Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates

by Christopher Emdin 

Teaching Tolerance
Southern Poverty Law Center

13. Where do you go for the best social studies methods, practices and lessons?

Library of Congress
National Archives
Stanford History Education Group
Teaching History
Smithsonian

14. What final words of advice do you have for new and veteran social studies educators out there?

  1. I often talk about creating a sense of “academic discomfort” in the minds of students. Teachers should work to create questions and problems for students to solve that don’t have obvious or easy answers. 
  2. Be learners. Read history. Read fiction. Follow current events. Learn about the brain and how it works. Join a PLC. Ask about best practice.
  3. Great teachers work to filter out the negatives that don’t matter and project a passionate and positive attitude.
Well there you have it folks. I don't know about you but I know I discovered so many great resources and tips for being a master social studies teacher during the course of this interview. Glenn is certainly leaving his mark on the education world and my only hope is that the up and coming teachers such as myself, and many of you out there, live up to the incredibly legacy that Glenn is leaving in his wake.  That's all we have for this week. Until next month's Social Studies Superstar Spotlight, keep getting better!

01 July 2016

Standards-based Grading: Making the Switch

Standards-based Grading: Making the Switch

Who needs a summer break right? I have been spending the early part of my summer break researching new methods and strategies to use in the classroom next year before I start summer school next week. One of the major modifications that I am making to my teaching practice will be the transition to a Standards-based Grading model. Each learning assessment will be based on a standard (or mastery objective) for that period (usually a day but it could be longer). Standards-based Grading allows for more regular and detailed feedback. It also fits in perfectly with both the Understanding by Design and Universal Design for Learning models of having a clear master objective to aim for rather than just the completion of an assessment. SBG also allows for a much flexible assessment process. Students will be allowed, and expected, to fix mistakes on their work to improve their mastery of the standard or skill. Time in class will be devoted to having the students re-do assignments until they reach the proficient level while students already at the proficient level can extend learning.

I still have a lot of research to do over the summer before I'm ready to really introduce Standards-based Grading into my curriculum but I have already created a super neat SBG grading scale that I will be using (In case you were wondering why the scale doesn't go down to 0, it's because I work in a district that has a 50% rule). I'm so excited to learn more about Standards-based Grading over the summer and believe in the efficacy of this practice. This might just change the education paradigm from that of grades-based compliant students into standards-based, intrinsically motivated and curious learners. If you have any experience with Standards-based Grading, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Standards-based Grading: Star Wars Style
If you haven't seen the video series by Rick Wormelli, I would HIGHLY recommend it for any teacher who is considering making the switch to Standards-based Grading. He explains SBG in an authentic, precise and easy to understand way. See the YouTube Playlist below for the videos.


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