Saturday, June 7, 2014

You Never Know

As another school year draws to a close I always like to look back and reflect on the year. For me this was an especially difficult and trying to school year. The students that I worked with although rewarding, were often challenging and testing me in many ways I had not been tested before. However, as I sit here I ask myself and wonder if I did enough. Did I do enough to help these kids be better then they were when they walked in my room in the fall?

Not so long ago I had a conversation with a good friend who said you can't help every kid so why do you try to help all of them. The reality is he is correct. If I look at the hundred or so students I teach every year, I can't help each and every single one. Some of the students I will not be able to connect with or help in any sort of significant way. Some of these kids come in with so much baggage and learned behavior from home environments or ingrained home cultures, that I don't stand a chance. If I'm being an optimist, I might say half of my kids are better off than they were when they walked in my room in the fall. But as I told my friend I don't know which half that's going to be or which have it is even after the school year is over.

I will never truly know the impact I have on a kid. That is why we as teachers can never give up on a kid. Or in this case, give up on a group of kids like a class that may be difficult or challenging. The time we invest is never wasted because we never know which kid it's going to help. In some cases we will never truly know our impact and it's because of that unknown that we have to do our best and try our hardest for every kid. If we give up on a kid or give up on a group, we don't know which ones we could have helped. As I told my friend, we have to try to help them all because we don't know which one it will click for.

As the school your draws to a close I made sure to reach out to each and every one of my students. I told them either verbally or in writing, in some cases, how much that meant to me. I thanked them for working and learning with me this year. I also set for some goals for them personally and academically and told them I will be checking up on them as they move into next year. While I may never know the impact I had the group of students I had this year, I feel like I gave everything I had and I hope it was enough for at least some of them.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Adults are the Problem

The other night I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine on twitter. Over the course of the conversation I made the comment “adults are always the problem”. I said it half jokingly and even made a side comment and promise to use it in my next presentation. However, as I think about the comment that was made somewhat in jest, I think there's a lot of truth to it. This is especially true when it comes to kids. Adults are definitely not always but very often the problem.

I reflect on some of the more difficult students I've taught over the course of my still relatively short career. I, and many of you, have worked with students that appear to have a complete lack of respect for authority. Students who do not value completing work either in or out of the classroom. We’ve all worked with those who treat their peers poorly and struggle to maintain a positive relationship.

In every single one of those situations I believe there is an adult to play. In most cases the adult is their own parent or guardian. Often they live in an environment were the adult has modeled behaviors they view as normal and that often clash within a school culture. The kid has no other choice because that's how they have had the world interpreted for them by the adults in their lives. We often blamed kids for the things they do at school. Yet, in a lot of cases behind the behavior is an adult and their actions and words.

The same could be said about teachers in some cases in school. Many student behaviors can be traced back to a comment an adult has made or the way in which an adult interacted with a student. A student not doing their work is often due to a poorly crafted assignment assigned by the adult. If there is a conflict in a class sometimes, that can often be traced back to the adult not creating and maintaining an environment or a culture of trust, honesty and most importantly safety.

To go a step further, when testing bombards students and the corporate reform movement frustrates the learning process, it is the adults who are screwing up kids’ natural desire to learn and be taught. Their curiosity knows no bounds. That is until an adult gets involved and complicates and burns that desire out. Adults are always the problem.

Yet having said all of that, adults are also almost always the solution. It is often the adults in a child's life such as a teacher that can help a child overcome a bad home life. It is often the adults in a child's life that can inspire and empower them to do great things beyond what they imagined for themselves. It is an adult that can help a child see past the bubble tests and standards to show them what is possible.

Yes, adults are always the problem. Nearly every single concern or issue or problem we have with a student can be very often if not always be traced back to an adult. However, in many cases when a child succeeds or goes on to do great things, it is often because of the actions or the words of an adult as well. As you look at your role as an adult and the work you do with kids, are you part of a child’s problem or are you part of their solution?

Monday, April 14, 2014


Recently, I was interviewed by a former student who is now studying to be a teacher. I have been interviewed by college students who are preparing to be teachers numerous times before. One of the questions I always get asked is what is my one piece of advice for a future teacher. In all of the times I've been asked that question my answer always comes back to the same thing.


As a teacher you're only going to be as good as your ability to adapt and evolve. This is largely done through the new, different and more innovative ideas and strategies you expose yourself to. I often share a short story from my own teaching experience. One day a few years ago during my study hall a student came up to my desk. This particular student was complaining about another teacher. In my years of teaching this has happened before and I typically will tell this student to sit down and instruct them that I will not have a conversation about any other teachers in the building. Personally, I think that's unprofessional and despite my feelings on a teacher I will not share those with a student.

However, this particular student was one I knew extremely well and I could tell he was frustrated. So, I simply asked the question of why he was frustrated with this teacher. He went on to tell me about why this particular teacher was a bad teacher and gave me some examples from the classroom of how they were not doing things to where he thought in his mind they should have been. I thought this over and I asked the young man a simple question. I asked, “Do you think [this teacher] is teaching the way they are because they don't know how to do it any other way.” Now this confused him and he wasn't sure what I was asking. I further elaborated to say, “Is it possible that [this teacher] is just teaching the way they have always taught. Or maybe they are teaching the way that they were taught and don't know any other way?”

This caused this young 11 year old boy to think for a second. His simple answer was, “Well [they] should come in and watch you teach.” Now I knew that was a loaded comment and I wasn't going to set my colleague up for failure like that or put myself in an uncomfortable position. However, the student and I had a great conversation about what makes a good teacher and a bad one. I even shared some of my early teaching experiences where I definitely was not a good teacher. I went on to explain to him the reason I got any better at teaching was because I found people that shared their ideas and what they were doing with me. It all came back to exposing myself to new ideas and new ways to do what I do in my classroom.

Going back to this advice for new teachers, the simple answer is exposure to as many ideas and different ways to teach. This includes not only the instruction but all of the nuances and dynamics that comprise the art, craft, and science of teaching. This can take the form of observing your fellow teachers in your building. It can be attending conferences and workshops to learn about new ideas and ways of thinking about teaching. It can be connecting with other teachers via social media or using technology to connect with other classrooms. There are so many resources available that connecting with other teachers can be done with a simple click of the mouse. There is no longer an excuse to be teaching in a silo and not exposing yourself to new ideas. New and old teachers alike, who are concerned with how to be a better teacher, simply need to be exposing themselves to better teaching.

On the other side of that coin, exposure to some bad teaching can be beneficial. It will help you discover what you believe is good and bad about teaching and the larger sample you have the more grounded your perception will be. The only way to truly get better is to be around and experience “better” and also to be constantly evolving what it means to be “good”.  My definition of what good teaching looks like is always changing as I learn more about teaching, learning, myself, my students and the people and experiences I have been exposed to.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Stop Preparing Students

Are my students being adequately prepared?

This seems to be one of those questions and conversations that always come up in school. How are you preparing your students? When they are in elementary school we are trying to prepare them for junior high. When they are in junior high we are preparing them for high school. Then in high school we are preparing them for college. All along the way, we are trying to prepare our students for the real world. The funny thing is are we preparing them for something that actually matters or even exists?

We tell our elementary children as they slave away over worksheets they better get use to it because it is preparing them for junior high. When we sit in junior high and tell kids they need to do their homework because it will prepare them for the rigor of high school homework. Are we actually preparing kids for things that matter? Too often this “preparing them for the next level” logic is used to justify poor teaching practice and even worse systematic decision-making.

I have to admit that I am doing a poor job or preparing my students for the rigors of high school. I do not assign homework because I value their family time and the little time they get to actually be children. I do not prepare my students for standardized test through test preparation because I don't value the test beyond a simple measure rather than an end game of learning. I also don’t prepare my students for an existence based completely on fact consumption and recitation.

Funny thing is we often hear in schools from the level above us that our students are not prepared enough. They don’t sit nicely in their desks and do the busy work assigned to them. Rather than do what they’re told, they question and advocate for more autonomy and choice. They become difficult to manage and control because they want to have their voice heard and their individual learning needs addressed.

I am not preparing my students for the real world or some future system they may or may not be a part of. Instead I am helping them navigate the real world they already live in. Maybe we need to do a little less preparing in schools and more learning and living in the precious moments we have together.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Innovation Day 4

It is that time of year again. The time where we set aside a day and allow students complete control over their learning at our annual Innovation Day. Year one, two and three were great but this year might have been one of our most successful ones yet. As with Rocky, the 4th installment is the best. For those that are not familiar with Innovation Day, feel free to click the links above to see how it has evolved in our school and with our students.

This year we took a different focus and shifted from learning for the sake of learning and put more emphasis on creation. Our goal for the students was to make or create something. To get them fired up we showed them two videos. The first was Caine’s Arcade, which by now is a legitimate viral video that has been seen by millions. The other video was created by a friend of mine and focused on a school in his district where they held an Invention Convention. Both served as a great jumping off point for our students to get them thinking creatively about creating something.

As in previous years the learning throughout the day was great with students all over the learning map. I am always amazed at how certain students will surprise me with what they come up with. One of my favorites was the young man who created a working telegram. Throughout the day he was beyond frustrated with the progress and how he could not seem to get the contraption to work. Finally, late in the afternoon he “got it” and you could see the pride on his face over his accomplishment.

Another new element to this year’s day was we tied it with our grade level Open House. In year’s past that night was a dog and pony show where elaborate projects were created in an effort to convince parents we actually do stuff at school. Apparently the lack of a trifold board and glitter is an indication of the downfall of public education. The parents loved the projects and seeing what kids had worked on during the day. It was also great for the students to have that audience of the community and family members during the night. Many students showed up early and stayed late to show off their work.

Like I do every year after Innovation Day, I reflect on the process and how I can infuse more autonomy and choice into my every day work with students. It clearly motivates and empowers students and is a powerful approach to learning.

Here are some other projects that caught my eye during the day:
Student painting

Engineered vehicle

Garbage truck with functioning "crusher"

Functional pinball machine

Model of the ice at the United Center

Stop-Motion film

Minecraft model of our school