I Believe


I believe education is a triad of responsibility – teacher, student, and parent.

I believe the best teachers are those who feel called to the profession.

I believe the best education is a balanced one – a balance of subjects taught, a balance of instructional methods used, and a balance of assessments given.

I believe in best practices that are based on quantitative and qualitative data.

I believe the closer administrators are to the classroom the more effective they are as administrators.

I believe in the ideal education tethered to reality.

 I believe slow, steady, and methodical change in education helps everyone win the race.

I believe in “tradigital” teaching and learning – blending the best of the old and the new.

I believe the core skills needed for the future are reading and listening comprehension, oral and written communication, problem solving, and critical thinking.

I believe the tools used to teach, learn, and use the core skills have always changed and will always change.

I believe the best teachers are those who are constantly learning.

 I believe common sense goes a long way in education.


Let’s Talk About Student Engagement…Realistically.

The word “engagement” is all the rage right now in the education world.  Peruse a few education websites and you will find articles that cover every aspect of engagement, from engaging students in the classroom to engaging teachers in professional development to engaging all stakeholders  in the strategic plans of the school. Engagement is good, but it isn’t new.  Good as well as great educators have always been aware of the need for student engagement in the learning process.  Good as well as great teachers have always made valid attempts to engage as many students as possible in their classrooms by offering a variety of experiences so that all students can find something to like or interest them at some point in the course.  Sometimes, when the education world focuses on a new hot topic like student engagement, however, it seems like some people forget this.  I also think they sometimes find themselves with unrealistic expectations about what something like student engagement looks like in the real classroom.

Think about a time when you were required as part of your job to attend a workshop or seminar, perhaps with several different sessions and speakers.  Were you fully engaged throughout the entire day, or did some topics and speakers catch your attention more than others?  Did the topics and speakers that held your attention hold everyone else’s attention equally?  Did you find that the same speaker engaged you sometimes and not others?  I’m assuming the answer to these questions is yes.  Guess what?  It’s the same for students.  Students are required as part of their job (i.e. being a student) to attend classes that cover different subjects and are presented by different teachers.  Student engagement waxes and wanes throughout any given day, and no two students are exactly alike in terms of what they find engaging.  The same teacher can engage the same student some days and not others.  This is real life; this is how the brain really works.

The idea that teachers can engage all students all the time is simply unrealistic.  But for argument’s sake, let’s say we somehow could do this.  Let’s say we could somehow find a way to engage all students all the time.  Is this beneficial for our students?  You might be thinking, Of course!  How could one argue otherwise?  Well, I think I can.  If at least some part of high school education is preparing students for college and career, then we need to prepare them for how to proceed when they find themselves in an environment that is not personally engaging to them because it is bound to happen. Teaching students how to proceed when they find themselves in a situation that they don’t find personally interesting is teaching them a life skill that they need to succeed.  Teaching them that, while they do not have to find something to love in every situation in which they find themselves, they do have to work within a certain framework is important – finishing assignments even when they don’t like them, showing respect to their teachers and classmates even when they are bored, following rules even when they don’t agree.  These are important life skills.  No class and no career that I know of is engaging 100% of the time, but walking away from a class or career every time one’s brain isn’t fully firing on all cylinders won’t get anyone very far in this life.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  As I said at the beginning of this post, all good teachers want to engage their students, and they constantly try to find ways to reach as many students as possible.  This is a great and worthy goal.  My dispute is with those who argue that all students can be engaged all the time or that this is a proper goal to have anyway.  I would rather see engagement in education as a dual responsibility – the teacher has a responsibility to engage as many of her students as possible, but students also have a responsibility to attempt to engage themselves, especially as they reach high school and college. Furthermore, students have a responsibility to work within a framework even when they are not fully engaged.

I leave you with this quotation that I used to have posted in my classroom: “Very often, a change of self is needed more than a change of scene.”

Postscript:  This just came to me.  It’s also useful for students to learn when they can disengage and when they can’t.  Sometimes we humans need a little downtime, a little time to rejuvenate.  If we are constantly engaged, we can’t do this.  Do you ever disengage on purpose for awhile?  I know I do.  Knowing when and how to do this is a skill that students need to learn as well.  Disengaging and re-engaging is both useful and necessary.

To Model or Not To Model? That Is the Question.

Last week, I had the chance to sit down with my school’s upper school art teacher to discuss a variety of issues.  Somehow we got on the topic of modeling for students.  When I was taking some graduate courses in history education, one of my professors was  a strong advocate for giving students a model to follow, showing them a version of a finished product so they knew what the end goal was for a given project or unit of study.  So if you wanted students to create an iMovie about a topic from American history, you would show them such a movie ahead of time, perhaps a student’s work from a previous year or one you made yourself.  I’ve sometimes used such models, but more and more I don’t.  Let me parse out why.

I understand why some people advocate giving students models. They believe that by showing students models they have a better understanding of what you are asking them to produce and thus produce better results.  They ask, “How can a student produce what you want them to produce if you aren’t explicit?”  A model helps a teacher be as explicit as possible, according to this perspective.

But, and I think the art teacher agreed with me, there is a definite downside to modeling so explicitly.  It can kill creativity, and by giving students models, they may simply parrot the teacher rather than truly understand something.  Simply copying something accurately doesn’t mean the student learned anything in the process.

More and more I favor moving towards modeling my thinking about an assignment rather than the actual assignment itself.  I’m still helping my students, but the help is coming in the form of helping them think about their thinking, think about the assignment.  I may ask questions like, “What do you have to know in order to do this well?  What might be a way to organize this information?  What are you having a difficult time understanding?”  And I let students ask questions of me about assignments, as many as they want, although I don’t always answer.  Sometimes I want them to struggle through on their own.

If I let them struggle through rather than give them a model, I have to be willing to accept less than perfect results, and I have to be willing to spend the time giving them lots of formative feedback and time to edit their work.  That’s the tradeoff.  But I think it’s a good one because I truly think they are learning more in the process.

Having said this, I do sometimes give models, but I try to do this only when something is so completely new to my students that they really have no idea what I’m asking.  For instance, I asked students to create an infographic last week, and most had no idea what an infographic was so I showed some examples.  But when I think my students do have an inkling of what I’m asking, then I think I will let them work through it on their own.

What do you think?

Instahistory* #odetotheearlyrepublic

Instahistory 14

I know I have blogged a lot this week, so forgive me for one more post.  I wanted to share with you something that I think could be used in a variety of subject areas and in many different ways.

Facebook and Twitter are losing out big time among middle and high school students to Instagram, tumblr, and Snapchat.  While creating a “Fakebook” page used to be a “cool” activity, this isn’t the case anymore.  As I was told by one of my junior students on Friday, most students don’t even have Facebook accounts anymore.  So what’s a teacher who wants to stay “with it” to do?

I ran across a blog post recently in which an Honors English teacher created an Instagram scavenger hunt for a field trip to Chinatown after having her students read The Joy Luck Club.  I immediately began to think about how I could harness the popularity of Instagram in history class.  The result: “Instahistory: #odetotheearlyrepublic.”

Students in my AP U.S. history course took on the roles of famous historical people from the early American Republic and created a free Instagram account.  They followed one another and tagged all their photos with #odetotheearlyrepublic so we could all keep track of one another’s work.  Their task was to post a series of photos and caption them accordingly from the perspective of their historical person.  So they needed to know something about their person in order to do this effectively.  They also had to comment on one another’s photos, again from the perspective of their role.  It turned out to be a joyful, engaging activity with which both my students and myself had a great deal of fun.  Although you can’t see all the comments in the photos below, I hope you can get the gist of the activity.

Instagram could be used in many different classes.  In math class, students could take photos of the world around them and make up word problems based on their photographs.  In science class, students could take photos of labs or natural phenomena.  In English, students could take on the role of a character from a book or use Instagram photos as prompts for writing assignments.  These ideas are only the tip of the iceberg.  Try it out for yourself.

Instahistory 1Instahistory 3Instahistory 4 Instahistory 13 Instahistory 12 Instahistory 11 Instahistory 10 Instahistory 9Instahistory 7

*Thanks to Lucy for giving me the name “Instahistory.”

Deja Vu – Do Just One New Thing

Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about how overwhelming it can be to move to a 1:1 environment. My advice then was to commit to learning and using at least 1 new thing a month.  If you could focus on this specific goal, by the end of the year, you would have learned at least 9 new things and probably many more.  One new thing a month is a fairly modest goal, but it can generate some amazing results in your classroom.

Today I find myself in a similar but slightly different position.  My school recently underwent major changes in its administration.  Three new administrators came on board or changed positions in a single year, one (myself!) with no previous administrative experience.  I imagine that’s been pretty overwhelming for all involved, perhaps especially for the teachers.  And so I find myself repeating that same old but good advice – one new thing a month.

In my new position, I can easily become overwhelmed and have done so.  I can see the big picture; I can see where I want my school to be a year from now, two years from now, five years from now.  But, and this is very important for all to remember, sustainable change can’t happen overnight. The key for me is to step back and ask myself two questions while keeping that future goal in mind: what is most important right now, and what can I reasonably commit to doing in the next few weeks to deal with the most pressing matters?  Essentially, I am asking what one thing can I do right now that will (slowly but surely) further my long-term goals.

This is good advice to teachers dealing with lots of change as well, whether that change is moving to a 1:1 environment or dealing with a new administrative team.  Make a goal of doing just one new thing a month and commit to it with a laser-like focus.  At the same time, keep what works, keep what you know to be true and good.  Otherwise, you are likely to become overwhelmed.

One last tip: share that one new thing, that one particular goal with your colleagues and administrative team so that they know what you are working on and so that they can help you along the way.

So do you want to know what I’m working on?  Feel free to ask.


Release the Secret Weapon – Control!

UnknownIn Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom (2013), Mark Barnes writes, “letting go of control may be the single most important part of creating a successful classroom, ” (p. 11).   And guess what?  For so many teachers, this is also the single most difficult act you can ask them to do.

Barnes states, “it’s time for educators to move toward doing less.  I don’t mean to suggest that teachers should put less effort into planning and executing their lessons.”  Rather, Barnes argues teachers should do less traditional teaching during the actual class time and instead put their students to work.  In his short pamphlet, The 5-Minute Teacher, Barnes writes about crafting daily lessons that revolve around short 5 to 15 minute segments rather than doing one or two long activities per class period.  Thus, “a five-minute teacher works much harder than an ‘old-school,’ stand-and-deliver teacher who lectures for 15-25 minutes before relegating students to some mundane, rote-memory practice activity.”  This is the case because the 5-minute teacher must craft more brief lessons that are student-centered, inquiry-based activities and projects.  This takes more, not less, work.  However, the bulk of this work takes place before class.  During class, a 5-minute teacher may find herself relegated to the sidelines more often than not, acting as a coach and adviser.

Here’s a short case study.  I recently started a unit on the early American Republic.  This unit covers such things as the drafting of the Constitution, Hamilton’s Plan, and the rise of the first party system.  As much as I love this era of history, in the past I have not been able to dig as deep into the material as I would like because so much of my time was getting “the facts” out to my students that there was less time to actually discuss what was going on at this critical point in American history.  So I decided to change this for this year.

The facts are the easy part, and my AP students could gather those themselves.  However, simply looking up the facts in a book and taking notes isn’t the most interesting activity.  I wanted my students up and moving.  I created my first-ever QR Code Scavenger Hunt using classtools.net.  It was so easy I couldn’t believe it.  I posted the QR codes around the school, and using an app on their iPhone, the students decoded each QR code to receive a question.  Once they got the question, they were free to use whatever sources they could find to answer the questions.  The person with the most accurately answered questions at the end of the period won a prize – their choice between a candy bar and 2 points on their unit test (not enough to make any difference, but sometimes they don’t get that).

Now, it’s true that I didn’t chunk my class period up into short segments; this activity took all period.  I do think, however, Barnes would approve since I was putting the bulk of the work on the shoulders of my students.  Today, we will spend the first 5 to 10 minutes of class reviewing what they learned, but then we will move on to meatier discussions.  Today, I will be the 5-minute teacher by moving through various segments and attempting to make those segments as student-centered as possible.

And here’s my final thought.  My first-ever QR Code Scavenger Hunt was not a complete success.  If I had it to do all over again, I would include fewer codes or allow my students to partner together.  I think this would have allowed my students to gather more complete and thoughtful information.  But that’s the point.  The 5-minute teacher has to be a reflective teacher.  You have to constantly diagnose your lessons for what is working and what is not and make adjustments.