Sunday, August 11, 2013

Teaching and Dragons

Confession time here, which will no doubt shock no one.  I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in Middle/High School and College.  At the very least, my nerd/geek cred should be boosted a lot by this fact.

To be honest, I was not only a player, but in my circle of nerds, I was generally the Dungeon Master, i.e., the nerd who runs the games.  For those of you uninitiated, the job of the Dungeon Master was to run the adventures, setting up scenarios for everyone else (the player characters).  As a DM, you controlled all of the NPCs (non-player characters), monsters, made the maps/dungeons, etc.  You were the director of the movie, as well as all of the bit parts, as well as possibly the antagonist.

As I prep for the new year I was drawing some serious parallels between DMing and being a teacher, particularly with regards to some methodology behind both things.

Monty Haul DMs were those that essentially just kept everyone happy by throwing tons of loot their way.  Everything was sort of set up to get to the treasure as quickly as possible.  And those treasure piles were typically full of massive amounts of gold and magic items.  Characters leveled quickly and were super powerful pretty fast.  The problem is that when you get that powerful that quick, it gets boring really quickly.
To relate this to teaching, think of the teacher who wants nothing more than to make students happy all the time.  Candy is doled out, assignments are easy as crud, everyone makes an A as long as they go along with the program.  Anyone who has been teaching for a few years knows a teacher or two like this.  The kids love them, but it is at the least highly questionable if any actual learning is going on in that room.

Another type of DM can be best described as an oppositional DM. See this Penny Arcade strip for details (note, there is some nsfw and offensive stuff on PA, though not this strip)This DM believes that their role in the game is actually oppose the players, to make life as miserable for them as possible.  No treasure is doled out, monsters are powerful and ubiquitous, every trip into town results in characters being driven out and hunted. It isn't boring, but it is painful as all get out.  After a while, the players wonder why they show up week after week to be humiliated and depressed.

Some of you may not see the parallels to education, but I see an awful lot of teachers who relish the oppositional roles.  They love to yell, their tests are brutal, HW loads are true unrelenting loads.  Generally this is done under the guise of "it's for their own good" or "I have to prepare them for college".  Students tend to respond in one of two ways.  The first is to suffer through it because they have to get the grade.  The second is to tune out and fail.

I'll be honest here and say that I've probably been a bit of both at times in the past (and possibly present).  But what I always shot for as a DM was sustainable enjoyment in my players.  I wasn't against them, we were playing D&D together.  And while I had the module and all the books in my hands (teachers, read the curriculum and the answers), without them, I was just a sad teenager reading rulebooks for no reason.  The game needed to be interesting and challenging or there was no point in us getting together to play.  But at the same time, the rewards needed to be obvious and frequent enough to keep them (and me) going.

Ultimately, in a good campaign, it wasn't about the treasure or rewards though, it was about the journey, the time we spent together, the destinations were many and rarely final.

I am not really a hippie teacher who believes it is all about the journey, that students don't actually have to learn the material in my class.  I know that there are EOCs to take and I think that most of my students would not really describe my class as a piece of cake.

What I do believe though is an analogous thing though is that I don't see my students as my enemies.  We often have these battle lines, teachers vs students, teachers vs admins, admins vs students.  I am not the Final Boss, a fire breathing dragon, and if they make it through the tricks and traps they get to slay me (or my material).  I prefer to think of myself as Gandalf (who wouldn't), there when most needed, advising, sometimes blowing stuff up in some cools ways.  But ultimately, I'm not the hero of the story...

And contrary to what some think, I'm not Sauron either...

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Core Thoughts

I spent 4 weeks this summer (and two looong) weekends in the spring as a Common Core coach for the state of Tennessee under their TNCore department, and I have some thoughts I need to get out there after a day of decompression.

As I make this post, I want to get out there the idea that I approached this with a bit of trepidation.  I am in general against heavy corporate manipulation of Education.  There is definitely some conflict here.  As one of my participants noted, of course the new standards with help with ACT, those folks were involved with Common Core.  That is an enormous point, and I could probably rant about it for a while, but I won't today.

Let's instead focus on the actual experiences and just briefly hit some bullet points (the core one might say):

  • This training was enormous, and I give the state DOE enormous props for pulling it off so smoothly and I think very effectively. Large bureaucratic agencies usually rank with corporations for me, but even when things hit a snag they were resolved swiftly and efficiently.
  • Many participants approached it as though it were going to be indoctrination, and that definitely was not the case.  It was a sell no doubt, but a soft sell, no gimmicks, threats, mandates, etc thrown down by the state (or the feds for that matter).
  • Several folks over the three weeks of my presenting noted that most of what we were talking about was "just good teaching", which can be nebulous and encompass a lot of things, but I would agree, the Common Core lessons and tactics we talked about were all "good teaching", I think specifically under the umbrella of "student-centered" teaching that is going to continue to be my focus.
  • Testing, be it the PARCC that is upcoming or just our usual suspect End of Course exams occupy way too darn much of our teachers' braintime. As expected, perhaps 50% of worries were how to find time to do this stuff when the All Seeing Eye of EOC was bearing down on them. If teachers are afraid to spend time doing the stuff we discussed because they have to "cover content" then our students aren't getting all they should. (I totally get why, just saddens me)
  • Teachers are jaded as all get out. Anyone with 10 or more years of experience (me included) has to restrain the eye rolls as new things like this get rolled out, because we want to know if it will last beyond 4-5 years before the "next new thing" comes along (and we suspect it won't).  That may very well be the case, but see bullet 3...if this stuff is just good teaching it doesn't matter what we call it.
  • Overall, for me, the best part of the training was just seeing teachers really engage in material that will help their students, to see them see the value in it.  I, like many of them was skeptical at first, but warmed as we went through it.
Finally, I still have some concerns about the text selections, about continued training and development (RTTT money was used for this), and as with my fellow teachers the expectations and wondering when anything will be removed from an overloaded plate to make room for all the new stuff.

At the same time though, I love the idea that so many people across the state are making a focused effort on raising literacy in a variety of subjects.  Not in a lockstep manner that I would immediately reject out of hand, but in many ways specific to their students, but within a common framework of ideas that I think is more about successful "good teaching" than the specific idea of Common Core.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Peering Ahead

So in my last post I talked a lot about some failures from last year, which I think is pretty important.  I will probably mention one or tow more here, but I really want to get around to thinking about next year.  I have a level of excitement about next year that I haven't had in a decade, and that includes how excited I was to come to STEM.

  1. Ramped up expectations-  this applies to myself and the kids.  I won't say that I had low expectations last year, I never do, but it was the first time in a long, long time that my expectations were exceeded.  I had classes that I thought would do okay just knock it out of the park.  Since I was new to every kid having the technology I threw some crazy stuff at them and they for the most part ran with it and did well.  A highlight for me was when I had my APES class do biome projects.  A pretty standard Biology level assignment honestly.  So to make it a little higher level, they had to do it like a travel guide for the area.  One group actually camped out in the forest over a weekend and made a 15 minute long video that was simply amazing, great in its content, its humor and the quality of production.  That was one of the a-ha moments for me that said I could push these students to even higher heights.
  2. New classes- Last year I had new classes too, but ones that while I may have been qualified to teach, were a little out of my wheelhouse (though I'd love to teach APES again).  Next year I go back to teaching AP Chemistry, which is such a fun challenge, and to go along with #1, I'm really looking forward to see what can happen at STEM with a group of 10 kids who are taking it not because I'm a cool teacher as happened in the past, but because they are going to use it and are interested in chemistry.
  3. Really new class- I am excited and nervous to be teaching a new class called Intro to Organic and Biochemistry (IOB).  We are a STEM school, and so a lot of our kids are going into STEM professions.  Organic chemistry is often a sort of weed out class for those professions and I think a large part of that is because they get no exposure to it prior to getting in the class.  I'm not planning on teaching this at a college level (since I'm not at that level in any case), but am so excited for the labs and just the complete newness of it.  I think there will be some great crossover with the biology classes at our school as well.
  4. Teaching partner- One of the most exciting things this year is that we are not only doubling the size of the science department staff, but that one of those new teachers is a great friend of mine who is an even better teacher than myself.  He and I are already planning on some things to do together and are hoping that the vibe there spills over to others and really forms our department into a really cohesive place full of individually amazing teachers (which they are already).
  5. Getting more involved- I will freely confess that I've held back on doing any extracurricular stuff for the past 6 or so years of teaching.  A big part of that is that I have young children and feel very strongly about taking time away from them.  But next year I think we are going to do a competitve gaming club, which just fits so well in our student body that I can't even describe it.  I really think it will be something that helps to bond our kids together as a student body, which is something a bit lacking since we are an area magnet.  I can't wait!
  6. More- Since we are only in our 3rd year at STEM and started with just 9th and 10th graders, this is the year that we are really going to be big.  We'll have seniors for the first time ever and therefore graduation!  Our staff size is almost doubling as we go from the 180-something kids the first year to over 500 (I think) next year.  I don't know where we will fit them all, but I really think it is going to be amazing.  I'm looking forward to interacting with new staff members and being pushed forward as a teacher as well.
I could probably go on forever, but I'm logging off of here to go work on that IOB class for next year that I am so excited about that I haven't stopped thinking about and working on since February!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Looking back

Since one of my principals is doing such a great job of reflecting on his past year, I think I should take a few minutes and do the same.

If I look back 14 months ago, before I got hired at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville, I was in a bad state as a teacher.  I think I've noted before on the blog that while I know my calling is to be a teacher, it was not always my life goal and I feel free to leave if it is necessary for any reason.  So suffice it to say that while I have fond memories of my last school and know that being there made me grow immensely, it was time to go. (as an aside, teachers really need to recognize when it is time to leave their current circumstances and seek out a change, too many stay too long)

So when I got hired at my dream school, I was on cloud nine.  To be honest, I couldn't figure out why more science teachers weren't clamoring to get to STEM, teaching science at a school with a science focus, who would not want to be there?

What I didn't realize is that apparently people around the county thought our school was going to be a flash in the pan, gone in a few years.  I suppose that could still happen, but improbable in the extreme.  This is easily the most dynamic, innovative, unafraid to take risks, fail, iterate again place I've ever worked.  I have an amazing leader and work with a lot of teachers who are phenomenal and make me strive harder to excel every day.

Okay...all of that was about the school, not me, I should refocus...

I'll break this in a few pieces (and posts probably).  The year started with immense pressure. I had 4 preps, one of which I hadn't taught in 9 years and in far different setting, and another brand new and an AP class to boot. We are a 1:1 school and I personally committed to using that tech everyday and be as paperless as possible.  I swore I would be much more inquiry and lab focused and way less concerned with plug and chug problems.  I wanted to try out new stuff and have my students show off their knowledge in creative, non-test ways.

So how did I do in these areas: (in mastery grading!)

  1. With the two new classes, I struggled mightily.  I loved my APES class at the beginning of the year, but we had no texts, no equipment and a teacher who was behind the curve despite my APSI training. It took me way too long to get my feet under me in that class.  The other new class, Biology, I will confess I never focused on enough.  I had 9 kids and we could have and should have done amazing things, but I definitely failed those kids.  With 4 preps I just couldn't find enough time to do justice to all of them, and that was the one that fell by the wayside.  That sounds awful, and I feel awful about it.  The odd thing is that they actually did really well, scoring so well I don't want to brag about it on the state test.  I'm going to attribute that fully to them and not myself and use it in the future as an argument against using test scores to evaluate. (Developing)
  2. Technology wise I feel I did a pretty solid job.  We tried a lot of new things and I used very little paper in the course of the year, and most of what I did use is reusable still.  Students used Edmodo to grab all assignments, Notability to do all of their written work and lots of other things on a day to day basis.(Mastery)
  3. Inquiry and lab focus---very hit and miss.  We definitely did more activities of all kinds than I've ever done before.  Actual labs though, I feel like I missed the mark there (as I do every year).  I'd like to blame it on the equipment shortages (I didn't get basically anything until December), but really, it comes down to me having those old notions of....must get material covered....I'm past that now, and I really think next year will be much different. (Beginning)
  4. Kids showing off knowledge in different ways.  Had some of that no doubt. Outside of tests in AP style to prepare them, my APES kids pretty much had every assignment as a video or a short impromptu presentation.  We made stop motion videos in Biology, and my chem classes did videos ranging from explaining kinetic theory to creating hot air balloons.  (developing)

For those areas, I definitely have work to do, but I feel I have a strong foundation for to build off of.  In fact, that's what I've been doing for two weeks since school has let out, but more on that in the next post.

Friday, April 12, 2013

High School Fears

After my post yesterday on the way that I've made a lot of changes in the past few years after being a pretty good teacher for a decade or so, I had some really awesome comments.

The ones that hit me the most were by Jasper Fox (@jsprfox) and Rick Wormeli (@RickWormeli).  (Side note, really geeked out a little to see that Rick Wormeli even noticed something I did, is book Fair Isn't Always Equal was one of the shoves that changed my thinking)

Their comments were that they were most excited to see a high school teacher doing retakes.  At first I thought that was a little odd, because both myself and the teacher in the attached room to me both give retakes.  But then I thought about how that is just not the case at all.  Most high school teachers I think are of the opinion that you have to be hard on the students to "prepare them for college".  I know I was that way for a long time, hard deadlines, no makeups, you just get a zero for whatever you missed.  What I realized though is that I ended up giving a lot of extra credit for kids to "patch up" their grades.

What eventually made more sense to me, and certainly SBG helps with this, is to just say, no, you get graded on how well you know things, regardless of when you know them.  The only real deadline, the only actual summative time is at the end of the year.  That's when final grades go in.  That sounds crazy, and it sort of is...I do have deadlines and due dates.  But they are never the end of the story.

My goal as a Chemistry teacher is to help them learn Chemistry....

Do I try to teach other life skills and study habits?  Sure, but that is a side business, and I'm not qualified to teach them really as I have always been a notoriously bad studier and really never studied for anything in high school.  I think sometimes we forget that these are still kids we are talking about, even if they are in high school, driving cars and working part time jobs.  They are kids, still figuring it out. Heck, I'm 40 and don't have it all figured out and I've had plenty of second chances (and third, and fourth).  How many teachers have had an admin in for a drop in evaluation and begged for a different day for whatever reason.

Ironically, those same teachers are hardcases about deadlines for their students.  Goose, gander....etc.

Anyway, back to the title, why don't more high school teachers do this:

1.  Time
Seriously, allowing retakes takes a lot of time and effort, as most things in teaching do.  You have to make multiple versions to really do it right, make different keys. I have some ways to deal with that to minimize some of it, but I'd be lying to say it was easy, its not.

2.  Aggravation
Holy crap, is it aggravating to allow retakes, even if you have  system in place.  You have to have sign ups, you have to have separate folders (digital or otherwise), you have to have special policies, do you grade different, how late is too late, can they take the stuff all year or in a certain timeframe, do they have to do special work before hand or just come in, when do they come in, before school, after, during lunch....????!!!!

Seriously, that is just a few of the crazy things that makes it just too much trouble for most folks. It is not easy...if I had hair, I'd probably pull it out some days.

3.  Grades matter in high school
I'm probably going to get some flack for this, so don't misunderstand me, I'm not saying that elementary and middle school don't matter, I'm saying that grades aren't as big of a deal there.

This is not true in high school.  Systems and teachers get sued over who is valedictorian, arguments are had over the weighting of regular vs honors vs AP.  GPA is calculated over and over again.  And no matter what colleges say publicly, GPA matters a lot when applying for admissions and scholarships.  Someone might not graduate because of one assignment in one class.

What this means for the teachers that want to do something out of the box is that you better have your ducks in a row and make sure you have administrative support, because if student A ends up as valedictorian over student B because you allowed 15 retakes, it is going to come up.  You might get some sweet letters from a lawyer or calls downtown calling for your head.

All of which is somewhat hilarious when you see how subjective and sometimes arbitrary grades are anyway. And yes, I know that is why folks want to standardize, but that just means that some committee or company makes the questions instead.  That may be less arbitrary (may) but doesn't deal with the needs of my students, so I don't like that idea.

4.  Philosophy
This is probably where I would have fell a few years ago really.  Deadlines matter, and if I allow retakes, then they won't take the first test seriously, right.

Happens occasionally, I will grant you, but not often.  I'd say my overall retake percentage is around 10%.  The kids who do retakes are a.  learning material they didn't know or b.  shoring up their grade.
Obviously I prefer a, but b is ok too, and I'd rather they did that than just took a zero or a low grade (I don't enter zeros for anything that was completed honestly, but that is a different post).

Don't get me wrong, I get it, I don't want kids to think they can just put my work off.  It annoys me to no end when they work their butt off every night for notes for someone else's much easier class than mine because they are graded on it, and then bomb my assessment and have to retake it.  I'm aggravated when a student has to retake something because they were more worried about restoring a guitar they were working on (true story from this year).

But ultimately what matters is that the students learned Chemistry.  If it takes them all year to learn how to do mole conversions (I have one just doing it now, we taught it in September) I can be disgusted with what a slacker they are or I can celebrate with them and keep encouraging.  At the end of the day (year), that student learned something, whereas that kid with a perma zero or perma F did not.  That's he lessons I want to teach.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Changes

So I sent out a tweet to my #flipclass folks last night asking if doing flipclass has caused some major changes in the way they teach.  I sort of meant it especially for folks who have been teaching longer than 5 or so years, not because I think the opinions of those with less experience is not valid, but I was sort of thinking of the contrast in my own teaching.

I've mentioned a bit about my teaching career in other posts, so I won't belabor that, but as I consider some big changes for next year, I was comparing to my old style of teaching.  Much like John Tague noted in a response to my tweet , I considered myself a successful teacher, loved by students, inspiring some to go into teaching, some to attempt to major in Chemistry or other subjects I taught, so I like to think I played a role.  I was a lecture teacher, but I don't think traditional entirely....I'm a storyteller at heart, so there was a lot of that, and I was very actively involved for most of that time (before I had my own kids).

Then I flipped...

Here is a brief run-down of the dramatic changes:

1.  Grades
As I briefly twitter ranted today, and probably to the despair of my #flipclass cohorts, I don't believe that grades should be banned, that they hurt the soul, etc.  What I do believe though now is that a final grade should be a representation of the whole year of learning.  If a student bombed stuff early in the year, but figured it out, that should be taken into account.

I've switched to SBG, which I still have some issues with, but I like the idea of being responsible for knowing the material, not for doing work.  More on that in a minute...  But what has really changed is that I do accept latework and I allow retakes.  In fact, I'm a little shocked now when I'm in a meeting and a teacher doesn't.  Not that I think they are wrong or bad for doing that, it just seems odd to me in my present frame of mind.  Here is how my grades work now:

  • Assessment on a specific standard (or two), usually 2-8 problems/questions long, sometimes MC, but typically problems or free response.  If a student isn't ready when I give these out to the class, they can take it the next day or two.  No point in them taking something they don't know yet.  That's just painful for me and not helpful for them,=.
  • They can retake any assessment twice.  It isn't the same assessment of course, but over the same standards.  If my goal is for them to learn the material, what is wrong with retakes?

2.  Tutoring
I hate tutoring. Not because of one on one time with students, that's the best.  But I hate it because it tends to be a student throwing up their hands and saying "I don't get any of this!"  I still do a lot of tutoring, but it tends to be a lot more focused now and students have notes or at least screenshots of my videos saying "this is what I don't understand".  That leads to a much more productive conversation.  Plus, I'm not talking terminology now with them, we're solving problems, talking concepts.

3.  Teaching (class time)
This the the most dramatic change of course because I do very little full class lecture of any kind.  In fact, I don't do a massive amount of full class discussion, usually it is in a group of 2-4 students at a time, or 1:1.  Where I might have helped 5-6 students before, and those were usually the ones with their hands up, now I help them all, or at least get to speak to them all, everyday.

I'll additionally say that the flavor of the discussions tends to be much better, not always about how we solve a problem, but a lot more in depth talk about the implications of the things we are doing.

4.  Questioning
I've always been a little bit of a hardcase when it comes to questioning, just because I'm a contrary, argue the other side sort of guy.  But what has opened up in the past couple of years is that as my students say "you never answer any question straight", meaning of course that I never just give an answer, I guide them to it through their own brain.  It is painful for both of us sometimes, it takes a looooot longer this way, but it pays off in a couple of ways:
  • They have to think about what they already know and tie it into the new topic.
  • It sticks in their brain better when they think it through than when I just give the answer.
5.  Creativity (by the students)
By far the biggest change is in the type of assignments I give.  Yes, I still give some practice problem worksheets, so to the pure constructivists I am still the enemy of the students.  But my students this year have created hot air balloons, rockets, spinny can contraptions, skits enacting kinetic theory and that was all just in our gases unit.  They've made stop motion videos, biome travelogues, infographic posters, videos working problems, minecraft explanations for topics, etc. We've thrown flour darts at targets, done cat's cradle type activities and basically had a lot of fun.  And to be honest, very little of it has been me doing demos as a traditional chem teacher would do.  It has been them, which of course takes the burden off of me to be the master of creativity all of the time.  

6.  Students first
Hopefully I've always been a teacher with students at the forefront, but I'm not afraid to admit that I have an ego and a chip on my shoulder.  I want to be the best teacher and to get accolades for it.  That was especially true for me 5 or 10 years ago.  Now, I want my students to learn, to enjoy my class and not dread it, either for me or the material.  I teach Chemistry for the most part and had a parent earlier this year tell me that their daughter loved my class and was amazed at her friends at another school that hated Chemistry.  And this isn't a typically science loving kid. A big part of that is the ability to be flexible, allowing students to learn at their own pace.

My classes stay mostly on the same topic, but I have kids who are a couple of weeks behind and some that are a week or two ahead.  They don't all have to be working on the same thing at the same time.  What matters is that they learn the material.  I don't make every kid work every single problem I assign, and I don't think I've handed out problems with more than 10 on a sheet at any point this year.  It is very clear in our classroom that what matters isn't getting enough work in to impress me with their dedication, but simply understanding the things they should understand, and often being able to use that knowledge to do something creative.

My classroom is not the best, it isn't the most creative and free flowing place ever.  But we are headed there, week by week, year by year, and the #flipclass has been the underlying impetus behind these changes.  I suspect in a year or two I won't even be calling my classroom flipped, but I'll always have a debt of gratitude to it for the shove it gave me to being a more student centered teacher.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Thinking too far ahead

Having a real problem over the past month or so keeping my head in this year.  This is a pretty common failing at this point of the year, especially when doing year long classes.  You are at the 3/4 mark and probably through 7/8 of the curriculum because of leaving time to review before EOCs.  So I guess it is natural to do so, and I definitely have started to think a lot about next year.

Part of it is that I teach at an amazing school with ridiculously supportive administration.  We were shortly after Christmas break to list a few wishes for next year, and everyone was encouraged to come up with a "dream" course or as the internet might have it now, a stretch goal.

I listed two, figuring there was no way that they would really get considered.

I was wrong though and so next year I will likely be teaching a high school level Intro to Organic and Biochemistry course.  First off, I think this fits in well with our school, we have a lot of kids who have the desire to go into medicine, biology and chemical engineering.  That being the case, since Organic is a classic weedout course, this will only help our students.

Plus, it will be a heck of a lot of fun to teach, I'm looking forward to a lot of labs and some cool discussions about molecules that affect their daily lives.  But then I started looking around for some others teaching such a class and there aren't a ton.  I saw Adrian Dingle's page for his Organic class and it was pretty intimidating (in a good way, as most of his stuff is) and it really hit me how much work I have to do to pull this off.

Oh, and I'm teaching AP Chemistry next year after a year without it and brand new standards next year....

I honestly just want to start prepping videos and planning for next year right now, but I only have 12 or so more class sessions with my APES class before their AP test, about the same for Biology before their EOC....

Good thing I don't have hair to begin with.

Don't get me wrong, it is a good anxiousness, the feeling of wanting to do your best, to be the best, for some of the best kids ever.  But it is still daunting.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Facts matter too...

This is going to go against the normal grain of my flipped class, multiple retake, critical thinking teacher persona, but I make no real apology for it.

Facts do matter....

As with anything else in education, politics, religion, whatever, we set ourselves up for failure when we make false dichotomies.  The one that irks me every time I see it in education circles is the idea that facts don't matter because people can just look them up.  That all that matters is critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking skills don't happen in a vacuum, your ability to think critically is often predicated on knowledge that you have already, facts one might say.

My ability to critically consider complex issues and do things like analyze the social norms of 19th Century America and relate those to modern political trends depends a lot on what I already know.  Yes, I could look things up and do research about them, but my ability to do research and even to "just use Google" as a lot of educators tout now depends a lot on what I already know about those things.

I'm not talking about memorization of trivia, or a bunch of random facts, but we dilute critical thinking skills when we minimize knowing things.  I think that each of us knows this intuitively, but it doesn't seem to fit our paradigm of higher order thinking skills and quadrant 4 and the upper part of Bloom's taxonomy above all.

I have a 2nd grader at home who is interested in science and as with a lot of 2nd graders has a lot of very intriguing and interesting questions.  These questions don't come out of the blue, they come as he learns things, and sometimes that comes from repetition and remembering things.  He knows a ridiculous amount of things about say, the human body, from watching a ton of BrainPop videos over and over and over.  Some would argue that he just knows facts and trivia, but it is the knowledge of those facts that leads him into the more complex thought that we are shooting for.

Knowing facts isn't the enemy of critical thinking, it has the ability to make critical thinking that much deeper, to make the connections faster and to have more ways to make those connections.

Daniel Willingham talks about this very coherently in his book Why Kids Don't Like School, which is a great read by the way.

Thinking critically is about making connections.  If there are few points of reference, only a few connections can be made.  If there are a lot of points of reference, there are a lot more nodes to connect together.

I will grant you that I am biased as a science teacher.  I get that we want data analysis to be a big part of things, but if we think that is it, we are foolish.  I suffered a lot in my research group in college because as an undergraduate, I didn't know as much about organics as my graduate peers.  That meant that my contributions in meetings and to the overall team effort was lacking.

Please don't misconstrue what I'm saying, I agree, critical thinking is tops.  I never count a student wrong for not doing things my way and I encourage them to analyze every situation.  But there are facts that need to be known as well, models that need to be there in order to understand the deeper stage of models.  If we continue to belittle content, then reading a chart for a multiple choice answer becomes the extent of what we can do.  A researcher doesn't just critically analyze her data, she analyzes it and holds it up to paradigms and models that she already knows to see if it fits or breaks those.

But if you don't know any paradigms or models in the first place, chart reading will only get you so far...

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Feedback Failure

I am in one of those funks where I feel like I'm not a very good teacher this year, particularly in one of my 4 preps.

Before I get to the reason why and reveal my dirty secret, let me say that I know I'm doing a lot right this year, and I know that my school supports me and wants me to bring innovation to the school.  I really try to do that every day.

I plan a lot, even if it isn't all formal.  I can't stand to walk in class and not have a plan, in fact, I generally have stuff posted 3-4 days in advance in the classes I'm teaching well.  That allows for the students who finish early to keep pushing and maybe earn themselves some flex time that they might need later.

My day is also planned out to help the students.  If that means I have to miss an occasional lunch while a student finishes a retake of an assessment, I'm down with that.  I'm not there late for personal reasons, but I try to always be there very early.  I make it a point to answer student emails as rapidly as I possibly can.

I'm tooting my own horn in all of that because I feel awful about the area that I have been terrible about this year, which is one that is near and dear to my heart.

That area is feedback.  Two years ago when I had a position of influence, I remember teaching a PLC group about Feedback and how vital it was in the educational process, how things like "good job" etc are not really good feedback. I've always prided myself on being that teacher who had grades turned around no more than 2 days after any assignment was in, and if I could use something like google forms for immediate feedback, I'd always shoot for that.

I really want that to be the focus of my class every day. In some ways it is, as I probably spend 80% of my class periods in my chemistry class going around and helping students and giving quick feedback on their work.

But the depth of my feedback is lacking sorely.  I feel like I know a thousand technological ways to offer amazing personalized feedback. I've given out those ideas to others.  But personally, the time issue gets in the way.

This aggravates me even more because I know that we find time for the things that matter, and I don't feel like I'm doing that right now and that makes me really mad at myself as a teacher.  I spend so much time making videos, prepping activities, and tutoring, that my feedback just gets shorted.

I have a plethora of goals for the remainder of the year and for next year, but I really think I need to bump up feedback to be #1.  I don't think anything else is going to affect my students as much in a positive way, and so I really have to devote myself to that, even if my planning and other things have to suffer somewhat.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Artisanal Teaching

Was joking a few weeks ago with @guster4lovers about maybe we should call the variety of methods of which the "flip" just seems to be the glomming on word artisanal teaching.  Since that day, the thought has really stuck in my mind very strongly.

There is hardly a person in education, whether a pro-charter reformer, or a staunch public school supporter who doesn't feel that something is broken.  There are disagreements at the fundamental level as to what that is, money, teachers, etc.  But one thing that a lot of folks would agree on is that the way schools currently run is based on an old model.  (Yes, there are folks that advocate a return to 19th century methods as well, I will ignore that!)

Particularly in public schools, but having taught in private, it isn't a whole lot different there, the de facto set up is the factory model.  I.e., we can dispense the most learning to the most students by working in the same efficient ways in every school, in every place, for all students.  Everyone starts at the same time, goes for the same amount of hours, takes mostly the same classes, entirely dependent on age level (which, wow, is a post for another day).

This model considers students to be replaceable parts in a well oiled machine.  This is another reason that we have this weird obsession with using business models in education, as though there were a product to produce.

Students are not commodities, they are not products.  When you commoditize them, you dehumanize them.

This sent me back to the word that I almost hate to use because the word artisan has a "hipster" sort of flair that I pretty assiduously avoid.  Plus, my use of it makes it sound like there is still a product to be created, which is probably a fair argument.

I think the difference though is that in the artisan mindset, each product is theoretically created, not produced.  There is art and craft involved.  If you've ever worked in a factory, which I have, there is no art and craft, there is deadline, there is amount produced, there is workflow.  At one point I could cap 12 gallon bottles, box them, tape the boxes and stack them in 28 seconds.  And then do it again, and again, and again.

I have days like that teaching too, where I feel like I'm doing the same lessons, that each class is another class, but those are bad days.

On most days, I think about the personality of each class, (yes, whole classes have personalities!), and especially of the students within it.  Some students barely need me to stop, check in with them, check their work, pat them on the back and move on.  Some want to ask me a hundred questions.  Some want to talk to me about a video game or a movie before I can refocus them.  When I am an artist, I don't try to force them to all act the same, to all learn the same.  Last semester I had 3 classes, all of the exact same subject, at wildly different points, and within the classes, individual students are groups were at different points.

I love it...

This is an odd secret to reveal on a blog, especially since I teach science, and not just any science, but one governed by rules, Chemistry.  But I still consider myself as someone who teaches more by art than by science.  Oh, I have data out the wazoo, spreadsheets, item analysis, average # of students that missed whatever question.  Generating numbers isn't difficult.  Even using the numbers isn't that hard.

But to get a student to visualize a VSEPR model, not to memorize it, but actually visualize it, that takes art, not science.  It takes continued attention to the ingredients that go into the art, solid content, enthusiasm, some high tech methods, and a sprinkle of benevolent sarcasm.  I have literally read books on how you should teach science and other subjects, and they generally want me to buy into their method, as though dough in San Francisco is the same as dough in New York.  That's not true for bread and it is exponentially more not true for people!

A naysayer (say, myself 10 years ago) would say, that's nice hippie, but we have thousands of kids to educate, or a teacher might say, yeah, but I have 30 kids in each class.

I do too.  The fact that I have 3 children doesn't mean that I can't love them as much as if I had only one. Yes, it is tough to give the same one on one attention, but it is doable.  Don't get me wrong, I love class sizes of 20, but that's not the world we live in in public ed.  Leverage your resources to make it work, investigate, try new things out.  See what works for others and adapt, or try it out and feel free to discard it.

Try a new palette, use some new ingredients, be an artisanal teacher this semester, not another worker on the line.