Topics not Subjects

So Finland has figured out how to increase student achievement, again (read full article). Being at the top of PISA in math and reading wasn’t good enough so they decided that kids learn best by topics versus by subject area.

Hopefully you noticed where I messed up in the last sentence. Go ahead, read it again and analyze it. Finland didn’t decide how kids learn best, good teachers everywhere have known that students at all levels learn best by topics. The Finns have just had the fortitude to go ahead and implement what they know is best for their kids. We have called it “authentic learning.”

Anytime a teacher can make connections relevant and related across subject areas work for students. When I first started teaching in 95 it was called integrated thematic instruction or interdisciplinary thematic instruction. I remember that my best semester as an undergraduate was when the topics in biology course matched up with the topics in geography, cooperatives, and English. It was as if someone climbed inside my little closet of a brain and turned the light on. “I can see!” It made sense.

 

 Others have written about silo learning (subjects) before and I understand authentic learning, but for whatever reason it wasn’t until I read the article on the Finns new implementation that it has finally solidified in my brain. I have struggled for many years because I don’t see myself as an expert in a subject area. I have always been interested in many different things all at the same time (some might actually identity me as a generalist). I found myself envious of elementary teachers being able to make the connections rather easily due to their self contained classrooms but I don’t enjoy working with a younger age group.

I am not calling for an end to subject matter experts, but I do think that if we focus on the acts of teaching and learning we can gather the infromation we need when it’s needed. Good teachers can teach well, great teachers teach others how to learn what the want to learn and model learning in action, word, and deed making connections across many disciplines in the process.

Twitter High School Theology Education Chat

twitter-bird-callout  #RCTheoEdChat 

One of the groups who do not appear to have a voice in education are Catholic high school Theology teachers. There are many Catholic blogs and bloggers and some, in my opinion watered down, lesson plans for Theology teachers but no where have I seen open dialogue. There is a Theology teacher who has posted her lessons on iTunes U but resources are scarce.

In this day and time we must gather together to discuss issues related to technology use, pedagogy, best practices, engaging students, building relationships, sharing resources, and supporting each other. We can utilize technologies including social media spaces as forces for good.

I propose that we come together as high  school teachers of Theology on a weekly basis. I am willing to lead this new chat but word of the chat needs to spread across the globe in order to be most effective. I invite you to join me for the premiere of #RCTheoEdChat on Sunday, February 22nd at 7:00 pm CST. The topic for that evening will be Creating Reflective Learners. If you have ideas for future topics please Email, text, tweet, call, or leave a message. Expand your Personal/Professional Learning Network (PLN) and join us for this great adventure!

What Your School Says About Your Culture

Psychologists say that it takes less than a second for our mind to form a first impression. So someone walking into our buildings judges our school in the blink of an eye. The entire school building should maintain a warm and learner centered focus, but is learning the focus at the entrance to your school?
                          welcome
Many school entrances look like a trophy room. These “trophy schools” tend to highlight the achievements of their sports teams rather than any academic accomplishments. One of the most underutilized spaces in many schools is the lobby. Why do we not use this space for learning and welcoming?
A warm hand shake of welcoming in the morning and a warm inviting atmosphere can set the proper scene and mindset for learning. The entrance should scream YOU MATTER, we care about you. So many entrances say, yep, we’re a school. I think that there should be information about the school, places for conversation, bright lighting, warm color tones, and a large screen television that rotates through important information (updated on a regular basis) and pictures of students just enjoying learning. There could even be a slightly smaller television monitor that streams the social media feed from the school.
Of course, what would be wrong with having a coffee/cappuccino bar in the entrance? The sweet smells emanating in the morning can really have a psychological “wake up” effect. And, much of my pay check could then go directly into the coffee coffers. I think this could be a nice fundraiser for different school groups to rotate through and give some students the opportunity to do a work study in managing school stores like DECA provides.
Any way you look at it we want an inviting atmosphere where students, parents, and the community feel welcome and where everyone takes pride in their school.Print

Books, Worksheets, and Lecture O My!

Well as soon as I posted my thoughts last week, I came across a couple posts from colleagues I respect that challenged my thinking. I need to try and flesh those thoughts out here.
     1. There are times where lecture (or direct instruction) is necessary or even expected by the students. We can add technology into the mix like a flipped lesson, but it is still someone talking about a concept, definition, or way of doing something to others gathered around to learn.
As a matter of fact, when I reflect further, I enjoy listening to someone who can take a lecture and create an experience for learners (thanks Dave Burgess, Arrrgh).
     2. Even though I haven’t written about it in the past, sometimes a worksheet or a digital worksheet fits the bill. Our students come in all shapes, sizes, cultures, and with different life experiences. George Couros points out in his blog that good teaching is good teaching and that if a worksheet helps a learner grasp a concept better than another means, then use the worksheet.
Picture of a book.

Photo by Dave Huets *

3. If you read my blog regularly, then you might remember that my oldest daughter doesn’t like to read books from a computer screen or E-book reader. Does this mean that she is anti-technology? Does this mean that she should be forced to read text material online? Does this mean she has become a reading snob? Of course not. She is yet another reminder that some of the students we serve need accommodation.
I knew a man from Michigan who described how some students can’t wait to get their new textbooks in the Fall. They savor the smell of the newness and enjoy the pictures and the feel of flipping through the pages. These students are awaiting their learning journey and are pleased that they have that book as their guide.
Let’s not forget that many of our students will be going to college, many of our students will be taking standardized tests including the ACT. If we just turn full control of their learning over to them will we truly be helping them reach their dreams?
* Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dheuts/3811537169/in/photolist-6NP8d6-aT9to6-9K3BPW-2PgAx-97oiDM-aRxNm-fo562E-HdurS-aibaen-7Nbvbk-afoNiM-KLWAb-maAU6-amWKZg-6buevW-6GjMcy-amWKYM-amWKX6-7acJMF-8DFBf3-MLnGM-9TvtEQ-abK4Bq-dGa2xi-2U9nA-bF4Yf7-6Knypk-hss2M-61kymQ-f4HeM7-9ZVvhF-z8GaE-7p6YV5-88og6h-r7w3U-2qKgwi-9uv3gC-mcp7h-5AkV94-4vaZnL-4eXcGM-73sutS-6ae621-9qjvX5-7XKTn8-dtroJc-59THhy-7BAEiV-5RzRtp-7JKRHh

More doing, Less lecture

 2015 - 2After sitting through a day of being lectured to about not lecturing (do as I say), I found it quite fitting that I picked up a book this morning from my shelf and happened to open to a chapter titled No More Lectures. I was also paging through my Evernote files today and my eyes were drawn to this quote from the book,
From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning Environments by David Thornburg “As long as teaching is dominated by the presentation of material (including that in textbook form), we risk perpetuating wrong approaches to open-ended challenges.” And I don’t believe in coincedences.
I believe that classrooms need to be learner focused places where students can’t wait to get to, but I hear too many of the following phrases;
     “We’ve always done it this way.”
     “I’ve covered it but they didn’t listen.”
     “There’s no way my kids can do that.”
I also see too many people keeping what they do inside their classrooms, using prescribed curricula, and working with little support and no evidence of networking with others. The teachers who fail to meet students where they’re at using the tools that kids use are becoming fewer in education but they still carry weight in their buildings.
My vision for education hinges upon a student centered classroom. One where students have voice and choice. Many of my colleagues would not even think of taking a class period every now and then to just talk with their students. Informal chats in class and online can lead to deeper learning for teachers and a more supportive student body.
I want my kids to be curious problem solvers, critical thinkers and creators not just consumers of factual information and in order to do this they need to have time to reflect, but it takes time to reflect on learning. Why is it that we always come up against time as a constraint to education? Many teachers run out of time in class, so they assign more work to fill up any free time students might have after school (I’m not a fan of homework)! Of course, these are probably the same teachers who lament the fact that our teens don’t get enough sleep on one hand and on the other hand will not be willing to start school a couple hours later in the day.
I’m a fanboy of using portfolios (I need to work this into my own repertoire), blogging, and social media as ways for students to connect with experts, reflect on learning, and sharing with the world their successes and struggles.
Just the other day, Dr. Justin Tarte tweeted the following, You wouldn’t go to a hospital that looked the same as it did 50 years ago, so why do we allow this with our schools? What does this quote from Dr. Tarte have to do with less lecture? Well, I swear that I have desks in my classroom that are at least that old. I’ll admit that I’m overweight, but there are kids bigger than me and I get pinched in some of the furniture I have. But even more than seating and lecture as a primary mode of instruction is the question, why are we teaching the content that we teach? Who decided that the subjects we teach our students are necessary for their future success as learners, leaders, and adults in our society? Personally, I think we need to re-think education.
 2015 - 1
What are your thoughts?

Gifts, Resolutions, and Wishes*

Picture of students learning.

My students learning

This year has been the best year for me both personally and professionally. Now don’t get me wrong, there were some very challenging obstacles along the way but those will always serve as a reminder that in the end perseverance and faith in God will win the day, er I mean year.

I started 2014 by making the decision to quit a teaching position in North Carolina. I could no longer live a 20 hour drive away from my family nor could I work in a school system where the idea of putting students first was a foreign concept. The administrative support was inconsistent and at times down right missing. For example, testing results were of the utmost importance but on the days of testing there was no one around to distribute supplies or tests or even directions!

GIFTS

Needless to say, I thankfully moved back to the Midwest. In February I was tickled pink to finally meet the person who restored my faith and vision in education, my friend and mentor Mr. Jimmy Casas, Principal at Bettendorf High School. Jimmy showed me what education, teaching, learning, and leading in the 21st Century could become. He also introduced me to a vast network of forward thinking and innovative teachers and leaders. I attended my first EdCamp and my first tweet up! I knew from the moment I met Jimmy and his crew face to face that I was in the right place working with the right people to lead educational change.

I attended the Illinois Computing Educators (ICE) convention even paying extra to sit in on sessions lead by Steve Dembo, Dave Burgess, and Molly Schroeder. At that same convention I got to meet and spend time with Paul Solarz, Joy Kirr, Josh Stumpenhorst, Garnet Hillman and George Couros. I was so inspired by all these people that I knew I had to become an active participant in the educational change conversation by creating presentations for other teachers.

RESOLUTIONS

In March I dove deeper into my studies in educational technology and assessing for deep understanding. I also began substitute teaching and vigorously searching for teaching jobs focused in the Midwest but more specifically the state of Iowa. I needed to be near the core groups of leaders and teachers that had so touched my life.

I indeed began presenting at the Iowa 1:1 Institute, then at EdCampTC, I also had a proposal to present accepted for the International Society for Technology Education (ISTE) conference but due to financial concerns I had to withdraw my presentation. However, I was fortunate enough to attend the Technology Integration Conference (TIC) in Dubuque, IA where I met keynote speakers Richard Byrne (Free Tech 4 Teachers) and Lisa Johnson (Tech Chef 4 U). I also attended one day of the Games Learning Society Conference at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

WISHES

I wanted to teach and learn in an educational community in a face to face setting (I wanted a teaching job badly). In May I got the call from the big leagues. I had my best interview ever at Iowa City Regina Jr/Sr High School. The day following the interview I received two phone calls. The first call came from a principal in Minnesota with news that they selected another candidate I was both disappointed yet also relieved. It was a very strange mixture of feelings. Within two hours of that call I was again on the phone with principal Glenn Plummer from IC Regina who offered me a teaching job which I readily accepted.

The irony in this tale is that Regina was the only Catholic school I had applied to and I was enjoying the time I was spending as a substitute teacher at a Catholic high school in La Crosse, WI. I truly believe that God had/has a plan for me. I was hired to be a religion teacher and I had been searching decades for ways that I could become more involved in the church that I loved and called home. I am absolutely certain that God has planted me in Iowa City, near my core professional learning network, in a school looking for ways to serve the needs of its students better so that I may grow to my full potential as a teacher, learner, and change agent.

The future is potential filled as are the communities I serve. Have a happy new year friends. May you live long . . . . and grow where you’re planted 8-)

*P.S. I “borrowed” the title for this post from Barb Gilman @BarbInNebraska

Student Voice and Choice: The Future is Now

Just out of curiosity, how do we move to prepare for the future in education while leaving many schools behind where those who are preparing for the future are at?
Dr_Who_(316350537)
Ever since I personally tried to catch up with where the movers and shakers of the edtech community are at I have oftentimes felt that I have been riding on the shirt tails of educational reform. I have tried to keep up to date with the research and trends in education by reading blog posts, attending conferences, creating a stellar PLN and engaging with colleagues via Twitter, Voxer, Flipboard, and other social media sources, but I always feel like I am behind everyone else.
Now, I’m not talking about “keeping up with the Jones’s” by having the newest technology, I am talking about knowing what is right for my students and being able to put what is right into action. Things such as getting rid of desks and putting in comfortable seating, making my classroom more inviting and collaborative, and getting my students connected with a global audience. A student first mindset is essential in moving education forward.
What about all the things students need to know so that they can move on to upper level courses? Should student voice and choice lead education or do we as teachers know that there are certain things that kids need to know, just because?
I would like to know how you plan for the future while trying to catch up with the now? How do you plan your professional development? Should students really have choice and voice or do we as teachers know them well enough to decide for them?
Flying Tardis

“Dr Who (316350537)” by aussiegall from sydney, Australia – Dr WhoUploaded by russavia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dr_Who_(316350537).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Dr_Who_(316350537).jpg

Sticks and Stones. . .

Do words matter? When I was a bit younger, someone said to me that my children were precocious. My first thought was, gosh that sounds harsh. Seeing the expression on my face, the person must have known what I was thinking because they then proceeded to define the term to me. From that day forward I vowed to make it a habit to either ask what a word means that I am not familiar with or to look it up in a dictionary.
F576A172-5721-45B1-A081-F04B243227E5
So, what is it with the education world trying to co-opt the word rigor? Rigor, by definition, is not something that I want my kids to experience in education. Why do we not use the term vigor when it comes to education? Vigor means full of life, healthy physical and mental power. Rigor has a negative connotation whereas vigor is positive.
I do not want my kids learning that people are strict, unyielding, or harsh. I want my kids to be active learners. I want my kids to be creative communicators who know how to learn and can communicate and collaborate with a global audience. Now this kind of agility and adaptability lends itself better to the term vigor rather than rigor.
Do you think words matter? Would you prefer your kids to be vigorous or rigorous learners? Let me know in the comments.

Why Do I Blog?

IMG_0492Some people may wonder why do I blog? My simple reply is, I blog because it helps bring order to my mind. The longer answer is that I blog to reflect upon my craft of teaching, to share what has worked for me and what has not worked for me. I blog about my challenges and successes. I also blog about things I am thinking about and I blog about current trends and research in education.
My blogging does not have the same impact on the education world as someone like George Couros who posts about three times a week at The Principal of Change. Nor does my blogging have the same impact as Alice Keeler’s blog Teacher Tech. My blogging impacts me the most. Do I hope that my blogging helps others? Absolutely! Could I work at trying to blog on a more regular basis? Yep. Could I even create a blog that thousands of readers would flock to? I don’t know (shoulder shrug).
Many of the other Iowa teachers that I know use blogging in the same way as I do, although some of them do reach thousands of people on a regular basis. Blogging and reading blogs is sharing and we need more sharing/vulnerablility in education (read more about this at Aaron Maurer’s (@coffeechugbooks) blog here. I think that blogging will help me be a better teacher and a better person. I once said to a colleague (Coach DeMarco) that I don’t just want to be a teacher, I want to be a great teacher for my students. Coach D told me that I have to quit striving for perfection and just be me!
I have built relationships with my students and they are not perfect people, nor would I expect them to be. I love them just as they are. As long as I love them and challenge their thinking, I will be a great teacher in their minds. Coach D and I also talked about real learning and real learning doesn’t necessarily come from a book and definitely not from a worksheet assigned as home work. Real learning comes from asking meaningful questions and creating a classroom where we can talk about those questions, research those questions, write about those questions, reflect upon those questions. But how does one grade true learning? How does a teacher or sherpa distill that thinking, those discussions, those reflections into a single letter? Comments will be greatly appreciated, as I would like to know what you are thinking.
Why do you blog?
Hour glass with wings

A Crazy Kind of Teacher

It has been almost one month since my last blog post. Wow, time flies when you’re…….swamped!

I have had the busiest, the most hectic, the most chaotic month than I can remember since I began teaching in 1995!! And I am loving every minute of it 8-) I began my first full-time teaching job since 2009 this August and it seems as though I have been caught in a whirlwind ever since. The year got started as any school year does, and I am at the top of my game in the classroom. It seems to be that all the other pieces of being a veteran teacher have gone out the window. No, the technology pieces are just fine although there have been days….. I have been keeping up with current trends, issues, and research in education like I never have before. Thanks to my Twitter PLN, news aggregators like Feedly (blogs), Flipboard (I have about a dozen magazines that I curate to including technology news, blogs, video games, social media). I also use sparingly Reddit, Tumblr, News 360, Pearl Trees, Pinterest, Zite, and Scoop.It, Rebel Mouse,Nuzzle, Instagram, and Google+.

Google Classroom is a very nice addition that could make my classroom paperless just as soon as all my high school students have a computer of some sort. It seems that Classroom just isn’t ready for the world of mobile learning. I have enjoyed gamifying my 9th grade religion class and using Cel.ly for class communication is awesome. Implementing so many technology pieces, which will include student blogging, flipped learning, and a possible digital textbook makes for a pretty busy first year at a new school. You might be wondering why does this sound so challenging to a veteran teacher? School culture and WADITW (we’ve always done it this way) as a common, sometimes never even stated, response.
I want to be a teacher leader and I have that role firmly established in the classroom by intentionally building relationships with my students. This alone takes a lot of time and planning. I figure that I should just be able to pick up where I left off teaching and dive right in. Whoa there, back the bus up! Some say that I am setting expectations too high for myself, that all I can be is me, and that I will never achieve perfection. I understand this on one level, but on another level, I want to put the best me possible in front of my students every day. Yes, I daresay, my goal is to be a national award winning teacher of the year. I don’t say this because I want an actual award, I say it because it is what my students deserve. If I don’t challenge myself to be the best and set the bar high, what am I really accomplishing for my students?
I was asked by students to be their coach for robotics, and so it is, I am now a robotics coach. Do I know anything about robots? Not a thing. This is where I put myself on the line and get out of my comfort zone (I’m a certified secondary social sciences teacher). Yes, my kids know more than I do and I am learning by leaps and bounds every day! I also want to start a one day a week club where students get together and play good old fashioned board games (we could sneak in some video games too). I see how important it is for even high school students to enjoy time at school by playing. Play involves most of Dr. Tony Wagner’s @DrTonyWagner 7 Survival Skills and we get to have fun learning.
Okay, so my reading of books has taken a hit, but like this video about Snap Chat explains, I am living in the moment and I am definitely living the dream! 8-)