Do You Want to Join Our Group? #12MonthsBlogging

Much has been written about the efficacy of teachers reflecting on their practice through blogging.  

As teachers, we often ask students to reflect on their learning; since we are the lead learners in our classrooms, shouldn’t we be reflecting too?  Some people keep a journal. My daughter creates journal entries a couple times a week, and she tells me that she talks about what happened at school or with her friends (no, I haven’t read it – there hasn’t been a need).  Other people (like me) don’t want to write something that no one will ever read.  That’s when a real, authentic audience cinches the deal and makes blogging a win-win situation for me. If someone else is actually going to read what I write, then I’ll take the time to edit and make sure I’m writing exactly what I want to say.

 

The problem with blogging comes down to actually writing. Is it writer’s’ block? Is it fear that people will label my choice of topics as cliche? I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s because writing inevitably ends up at the bottom of my to-do list.  Perhaps there’s fear that my readers will find my topics boring or boorish.  But you know what?  It doesn’t really matter.  A reflective blog is about MY learning, and if others somehow receive drive-by benefits, then it’s a bonus for both of us.  

Writing and editing a post doesn’t really take that long, so what I need is a support group to keep me on task – you know THOSE people who nag you until you finish (start?) your workout or call your mom? I need a group of fellow educators intent on improving their craft to join with me as I work through my teaching.  Is doesn’t matter what your job title is.  You could be a superintendent or a custodian.  We are all in the business of ‘doing what’s best for kids’ and in our collective effort of furthering that cause, we can learn from each other.

Enter #12monthsblogging.

For each month, there will be an overarching topic with specific writing prompts.  You can write your own post about the topic, or if you need more focus, use one of the prompts.  OR (in an effort to be totally student-driven) disregard the prompt all together and write something of your own choosing.  It doesn’t really matter what you write about – just make sure you have a message to communicate.  Fully flesh out your idea, and post it on your blog.  Advertise it on Twitter using the hashtag #12monthsblogging.

#12monthsblogging monthly topics

Finally, while you’re on Twitter, check out #12monthsblogging yourself, read some posts by fellow bloggers, and leave a comment or two.  

In the end, I’m hoping that regular posting to my blog will help me solidify some of my opinions on education.  That way, when people ask my opinion on a topic, I will have already examined my own biases, explored the evidence, and come up with a reasoned take on the subject.

I’m hoping you’ll join us – there’s no need to sign up, just post and tag on Twitter!

3 Actions to Becoming a More Efficient Teacher

Yesterday, Teacher A walked into the school office with a bundle of Spring Pictures that were due back to the office the day before.  “Can I give these to you now?” she asks the secretary.

“No,” answers the secretary.  “Those have already been boxed up and shipped out.”

<Awkward pause>  “Well, I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time!” Teacher A replies defensively.

Later that night at a fundraising event for the school, Teacher B says to me, “Ugh.  5:00 was too early to be here.  I wasn’t ready to leave school by 5!”

photo: Drew Coffman (CC)

photo: Drew Coffman (CC)

I’m not sure if it’s a badge of honor, an excuse for being inefficient, or just their mantra, but “I don’t have time” has certainly won the title of Most Overused Phrase in education by now.  I get it.  Teaching is all about everything all up in your face at all times of the day, without much breathing room.  The number of decisions that have to be made in the course of an hour of teaching can be staggering.  The amount of paperwork never gets diminished – only increases with new mandates initiated by someone at a different pay grade.  I even formed the habit of not drinking anything between my coffee in the morning and my water during supper so that I wouldn’t have to visit the bathroom more than once.

But there comes a time when we have to realize that teaching is like that.  It’s fast.  It’s flexible.  It’s hard to plan more than two days in advance.  If you are a person who cannot move quickly, make confident decisions without worrying overly much, or realize that ‘perfection’ is just an intangible idea, then find a new job.

If, however, you love working with the kiddos and the ambiguity of humanity as your prime commodity, then you understand that time will always be at a premium, and that to complain about its lack of abundance is futile.  “Suck it up, buttercup!” is what I remind myself when I feel mired in ‘have-to’s’ and emails from parents.  As I reflect on my own routines, and watch those of my colleagues, there are three areas that can easily be fixed to reallocate more ‘time’ in your teaching day:

1.  SOCIALIZING – Teachers spend an inordinate amount of time talking to each other.  Last year, during the worst of our budget cuts, many of our teachers had their prep time at the beginning of the day – before kids even arrived.  Needless to say, planning time turned into an extended coffee klatch.  Try jotting down just how much time you actually spend talking to the teacher next door, or to your colleagues in the copy room.  I’ll bet you’ll be surprised at how much time could be taken back.

2.  EMAIL – Ah, the buggaboo of modern business – ease of access to everyone can be both a blessing and a curse.  I love being able to email questions and ideas to teachers all over the district with just a couple key taps.  My wife is an administrator in public education and consistently receives more than 100 emails requiring some sort of action each day.  Teachers typically don’t receive that many, but it’s still enough to take up a chunk of a day that we just don’t have, since we are…well…teaching students.  My solution?  A) only look at your emails at set times of the day, perhaps before school, lunch, and after school.  Any parent or colleague who gets upset that you don’t respond within minutes can just stuff it.   A twenty-four hour response time is sufficient.  B) Don’t overdo the responses.  Yes, proofread them, but make them as short as possible.  The added details we so often feel are necessary to bolster our campaign can actually detract from the intended message.  You may even want to keep a document with canned responses that can be copied/pasted into the body of an email to save typing time.  C)  Time spent on proactive communication such as weekly emails or newsletters, social media postings, etc. will reap great benefits in fewer parent emails asking the same old questions.  Letting families understand your teaching and classroom will also prevent emails questioning your methods or motives.  Trust me on this; I learned the hard way.

3.  GRADING – When I started teaching, I spent an unbelievable amount of time grading student work and entering it into the gradebook.  After all, if students took the time to complete my assignments, wasn’t it only fair that I should carefully grade them and provide individual feedback?  No. Let me see if I can change your view on this one.  First, you don’t have to grade everything they do.  Talk with your administrator on how many grades per week he/she thinks is appropriate, and then stick with the minimum.  Let’s say it’s two grades per week per period (for those of us who do junior high/high school).  You can either assign only two assignments per week, or you can collect only two per week.  Second, let the student decide what the second grade will be.  Student Choice is a big buzzword in education these days.  Here’s a great opportunity to incorporate some of that, too!  And most likely, it will be some of their best work, so it shouldn’t be so hard to analyze.  Also, see if you can use technology to do the grading for you, such as Scantrons, Lightning Grader, Google Forms, Socrative or Nearpod App, etc. The new math curriculum for the elementary schools even has e-assessments you can build in the web app, and then it grades them for you. Finally, make your constructive comments in person.  Talking goes so much faster than writing.

While there are many more techniques teachers can use to increase efficiency, try these for now and let me know what works for you.  Any by all means, please don’t let me hear you say “I don’t have time!’ ever again.  It’s counterproductive, and, quite frankly, annoying.

Teacher Challenge: No Worksheet Week

After all the hubbub of the Midwest Educational Technology Conference in St. Louis a couple weeks ago, I finally sat down – I think I was actually in my car, it’s where I do some of my best thinking – and reflected.  Besides winning the lottery and bringing my whole District to METC15, how can I work to move my teachers forward in their thinking?

The result of my drive/thinking time/epiphany was to challenge the teachers to a Worksheet-Free Week.  One day is too easy.  Two weeks is too long.  A full week after the State Testing period would do perfectly in my quest to move instructional pedagogy forward.  It’s quite simiple, really, with just two rules:

  1. No pre-copied sheets of paper where kids fill in answers on the sheet of paper.
  2. Take the same number of grades in each subject(s) during that week that you normally would.

After running the idea past our two curriculum councils (comprised of teacher leaders in the district), I figured I would have to water it down a bit – give some options.  Hence, the Olympic-themed Gold, Silver, and Bronze levels:

  • GOLD – 5 days of no worksheets
  • SILVER – 5 days of no worksheets, except in math
  • BRONZE – 5 days of no worksheets in one subject

The reflection/culmination activity will be a luncheon provided by the district the following week on an early release/school improvement day.  During that time, we will reflect on challenges, successes, and how this might be carried out in everyday instruction.

It would be great if other districts would join in.  We could set up a collaborative buddy system, and really start something new!  Let me know if you’d like to join in.Image

UPDATE 3/1/14:

Rae Fearing (@RaeFearing) of Crescent City, CA took the idea and added another dimension: badges!

Ms. Fearing also expanded the idea to incorporate Junior High and High School teachers:  The GOLD level is still a full week of no worksheets in any class.  SILVER is 5 days of no worksheets in all subjects but math (elementary) or in at least 2 periods (junior high/high school), while the BRONZE is 5 days of no worksheets in one subject (elementary) or in one class period (junior high/high school).

Brilliant!  Just another example of the power of collaboration and my PLN!  I’m so glad I joined Twitter and am a Connected Educator.  Thanks, Rae!

If you would like to join us, leave your name (individual, school, or district) in the Comments, below.  Let’s get this going worldwide!

GoldBadgeNWW14

SilverBadgeNWW14

BronzeBadgeNWW14

UPDATE 3/23/14:  Seems that it’s now a ‘movement’ according to +Dan Gibson in his blog post #noworksheetweek.  Check out his slideshow summarizing the concept.

Changing Teachers’ Expectations of Teaching

If we are going to rethink/re-imagine/reform schools, we need to start by changing what teachers expect out of education.  And by ‘education’ I mean teaching: its impacts, its pedagogy, and itself as a career choice.  The public has new expectations, the students have the ability to develop expectations, lawmakers have new expectations, lead-learners in schools have a new vision, but the vast majority of teachers need to re-examine what they expect out of their chosen career.  Education as a commodity and as a profession is evolving, but the practitioners themselves are holding it back.

  • teacher tenure is out of date and should never be an expectation.
  • teachers should expect a fair salary, but not a guaranteed raise every year.
  • teachers should always want to improve and learn.  Ask questions.  “I haven’t received training on {insert variable}” or “I’m too old” is NEVER an excuse for not doing.
  • Schools should be on the frontier of innovation.  People who do not like change should choose another profession.
  • Teaching is a difficult profession that should prepare people for such.  Teacher training should be longer and more intense/immersive, should only happen at the beginning of the school year, and only with cooperating teachers who are good role models.

If we can develop a strong cadre of teaching professionals who will constantly work to better the profession as a whole, high-stakes testing will not hold schools captive for a month because real, authentic learning will happen every day.  Ineffective teachers will not be allowed to stay in the classroom.  And most importantly, American Public Education will once again have a leadership position in advancing global citizenship.

 

If I Were to Start Teaching Again….

It’s been three years since I left the classroom.  Three years since I joined the ‘dark side’ and became an Assistant Principal in a junior high.  Sometimes I love administration, and some days I don’t.  Those are the days when I think about going back in the classroom.

But so much has changed in those three years!  Education has changed, teaching has changed, and society’s expectations have also changed.  And, yes, so have I.

My mantra used to be that all teachers should be parents, and that all parents should be teachers.  Then my view widened.  Now all teachers should be administrators, too.  After having gone through the proverbial foot-wetting in the administration of public education, there are three main changes I would make to my teaching.

1.  Keep the big picture in mind.  Too often, lesson plans, classroom management, and incessant interactions with students tunneled my view as a teacher.  While I was the first in my building to use lit circles, and the first to experiment with inquiry-based learning and backward design, the drive to persevere past the initial excitement dwindled in the daily minutae.  Understanding where education has come from and the current forces acting upon it, forcing change is vital to surviving.  One cannot teach effectively with blinders on and their classroom door closed.

2.  Infuse technology into my classroom Use technology as my teaching platform.  Three years ago, I was one of the first in the building to experiment with a mobile SMART board, and 10 years ago, I can remember having to pirate a copy of an electronic gradebook…  Now we’re on our third student management software program, and SMART boards are in almost every classroom.  I mainly used an overhead projector and collected worksheets printed on paper.  In short, I taught the way I had been taught back in the 70s.   Now, my class would be ‘flipped’ to have the lecture delivered electronically at home, allowing me to double the amount of one-on-one writing conferencing in English, and tripling the amount of lab time in science.  Students would submit assignments electronically, there would be quick, electronic formative assessments, collected quickly and often, creating a large database on which I could make real, effective decisions.  The Common Core would be easy to implement because I already teach reading and writing in my science classes.  Students would progress on their own, finding aspects of our topics they find fascinating.  They could blog about it, commenting on their peers’ education as well, creating an academic comaraderie as well as a social network.  They would learn through Open Source and Crowd-Sourced information/websites.  Technology wouldn’t be something to try and introduce – it’s an all-or-nothing deal.

3.  Create a PLN (Professional Learning Network).  I admit it.  I was guilty of the biggest sin most teachers commit:  stagnation.  But now there is Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and blogging (just to name a few!) which allow an individucal to reach out other like-minded people and make connections.  I can (and do!) give my staff professional development articles to read, and I solicit comments and feedback on an individual level, usually in the form of real, live conversations.  But in the few months since joining a network of other administrators and exciting teachers through technology and social media, my world has exponentially expanded.  I have read more educational books, and have surfed more educational websites since school started four months ago than I did in my entire ten years as a teacher.

One of the main reasons I left the classroom and joined administration was so that I could have a more far-reaching impact on a larger number of students.  While I truly believe that I could return to the classroom as a much better teacher, I am staying in administration.  But I will always have an eye on the bigger picture, technology is now a way of life, and giving up my PLN would give me the shakes and make me break into a cold sweat.  As we segue into 2012, I hope you’ll join my PLN, and we can continue to learn and grow together.

~Matt