Friday, May 18, 2018

Becoming An EDTech Fan

    Truth be told, I never thought I would be known as a "technology enthusiast" when it came to the classroom.  I thought I would be known more for my content knowledge.  However, as I began to interview for positions and received my first teaching job as a long-term sub for one semester, my department chair and principal said that my aptitude with technology was a significant factor.
     Then this past year, I have been spending more and more time finding new edtech tools.  Nights are spent scouring the web and learning how to use new pieces of technology to meet the needs of my students.  I moved beyond what was comfortable for me in exchange for what was best for students.  I am not perfect, but I am continually hopeful that I am growing.  Here is how I did it and how you can too!

1. I met with my ITRT/Tech Coach
My principal had our team connect with our Instructional Technology Resource Teacher (ITRT) on a monthly basis to teach us all more about technology.  The apps he showed were way more relevant than a simple slideshow.  It helped me find ways to have students create authentic products.

2. I watched and talked with other teachers
There are a lot of innovative teachers at my school.  They are consistently looking for cutting edge ways to develop our students as learners.  Conversations during my planning and after school with some of these teachers about how they were using some of their tech tools helped spark ideas for me.

3. I reached out to others in chats
Twitter really has changed the way I teach and that applies to edtech as well.  Seeing how other educators across the globe use technology to transform learning is inspiring.  They expose me with new tech tools and also some older ones that I had forgotten about.

4. I made it work for my students and me 
A fork will not transport birthday cake to my mouth, my brain has to tell my body to move the fork toward my mouth so I can enjoy its heavenly goodness.  You don't use a screwdriver for a nail.  One of the realizations I had with edtech is that there is not a single tool to solve all issues.  There are some who believe that technology will replace teachers.  I think they forget that tech is only a tool.  A powerful, transformative tool, but again just a tool.  It is the job of the teacher to apply that tool to promote student learning.  This means that if I saw how someone was using a tool, sometimes I would try to copy how they did it.  Most of the time, reflection helped me think of how to make it work for my students.

     I've been honored how people on Twitter have made me feel like edtech expert, but the reality is I am an edtech neophyte.  I am learning the ropes, but am incredibly excited along each step of the way.  As my division moves towards 1:1 next year, I am thrilled to utilize the tools of edtech more frequently.
   Our students will be using technology in their futures.  If you are not an edtech fan yet, consider  exploring this component of education.  It will be good not only for you, but for the long game of your students!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Considering Flex Seating

    I am sure many of you have read articles on the topic.  When I was in college, my understanding of flex seating was allowing some students to be able to stand in the back of the room.  Over the course of the past year, I have read more articles and seen more pictures online of flex seating.  Seeing educators bring in rugs, stools, yoga balls, and more intrigues me.

     The various options for seating reminds me of coffee houses and playgrounds around the nation.  For every student, there are options to sit.  In my classroom, students have desks with chairs connected to them.  About the only regular option I have for flex seating is letting a few students sit on my counter during class.

     In case it isn't obvious, I am looking for serious ideas behind flex seating.  Here are a few of my concerns, that I would love help in resolving:

1. How do you do whole group instruction?  I know how many in the Twitterverse feels about lecture, but I do not believe in throwing it out completely.  The twenty minutes or so that I tell stories and we have conversations I find invaluable.  It has allowed for me to help my students collectively weave deeper meaning in the past, and for students to engage in productive conversations that do not exist otherwise.  I am curious how my readers who have both flex seating and whole group instruction balance both?  Do you have all students move their chairs to the source of whole group instruction?  Do they stay sitting the same way?  I am excited to hear answers for this! :)

2. What furniture do you recommend?  I have a counter, the desks mentioned prior, and some stools from my wife's classroom currently.  Are there other kinds that you would recommend?  Any particular brands?

3. Are there any occasions where you assign seats?  What if one particular group is always taking a group of seating that others want to use?  I'd love to be able to buy 30 EZ-Boy chairs, but I've got a feeling that won't be happening anytime soon.

4.  How did you introduce Flex Seating into your class?  Do you start the year with it?  Did you gradually introduce more and more?

If any of you have answers -- especially if you have experience with Flex Seating -- I'd love to hear it!  Thanks in advance!


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Trying New Things

     This year I have seen significant growth in me professionally.  I began to actively use Twitter, started a podcast, blog, Twitter Chat, and now have my own website.  If you would have asked me if I thought this would happen, I would have said, "I really doubt that."  However, as time progressed over the course of this year I have found an educational awakening emerge.  I wanted to do more for my students, and I wanted to learn from others about how to do that.
    Last year, I would definitely say I went through the challenges of a first year teacher.  Many days felt like they belonged squarely in the loss column.  The first half of the year my "projects" were at best well-designed worksheets, but definitely needed more to authentically create learning in my room.  As the second half the year began, I knew I wanted to be more and do more for my students.  I worked to design some more authentic assignments, but as I went into summer the goal was to make the next year even better.
    I am happy to report that things have improved.  Assignments like my Westward Expansion Twitter Project and Roaring Twenties Website Design Project have allowed for my students to authentically engage in the production of knowledge.  I still use the first part of my class to tell stories and for students to take notes, this time has created powerful conversations and has revealed to students the humanity behind the various historical figures we study.  The second part of class has students engaging in sources and designing products to allow student to utilize their critical thinking skills ingraining quality historical knowledge as well.  
     Sometimes, lessons did not work as well as I hoped.  There are days that go in the loss column.  Yet I do not feel defeated.  I feel emboldened.  I feel a hope and inspiration to come back the next day, the next lesson and help my students.  I feel a desire to redesign that lesson so that it can become one of my best lessons of the year.  
    We are all heading into the final quarter.  Preparing for an exciting summer (trip to Disney, yippee!) and a 1:1 tech initiative in school, I plan to make next year even better.  But for now, I still have one quarter left.  I am not counting down to summer with a mindset of "Thank goodness I only have 9 more weeks left with these kids," but with a mindset of "I have one quarter left to make a difference.  How can I be most effective?"  That means there is still time to try new things.  There is still time to make that difference.
      We are all in this homestretch.  What mindset are you following?  Are you just checking days off the calendar and just following business as usual.  Or... are you going into this last quarter willing to try new things and make sure that this final quarter is just as exciting and engaging as your first quarter excitement?  The choice is yours.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Five Things I Wish I Learned In Teacher School

     I am incredibly thankful for my time in college.  Studying education in college redirected my career path from law school to the classroom.  It helped me see a way to make a difference.  My professors were full of ideas for teaching.  Their practices were evidence-based and did a great job teaching me what school would be like in a perfect world.  I say in a perfect world because I think we all know that once we finally enter into the classroom all of our grandiose dreams and endless amount of pinterest board ideas change in exchange for what our students need.  College gave me a great vision for what my teaching career can become, but there are certain things I wish a professor would have taken the time to talk about with us.  Truthfully, I don't know where these things would fit into a curriculum, but they are tips and tricks of the trade that I have picked up with on the job experience.

1. Build A Personal Learning Network (PLN):  To be honest with you, when I first joined Twitter I did not do it with the intention of learning from others.  I just wanted to tweet out something here and there.  A PLN was never discussed with me in college classes.  However, I believe that I have never learned more about education and becoming a quality teacher than I have from Twitter.  Educators are incredibly supportive and being engaged in chats like #waledchat, #122edchat, #learnap, #tlap, and several more provide opportunities for teachers, coaches, principals, superintendents, and other ed leaders in schools to dialogue and grow.

2. Sometimes Students Need A Break:  We were always encouraged to do whatever we can to make sure students were working 100% of the time.  Certainly student engagement is 100% vital.  However, sometimes things change.  Sometimes a student had a rough evening the night before and they just need 10 minutes to put their head down.  Sometimes a student is acting out and they need to leave the classroom for a brief time to help them reset.  Sometimes students need a break.  I am a big believer in the power of rest.  I used to over-schedule myself and wonder why I felt so stressed.  I realized it was because I was not giving myself a break.  Don't you think our students who have our classes, chores, sports, extracurriculars, homework, and relationships to balance need a break?  When students asked for a break my first year of teaching, I was hesitant out of fear that them not doing their work for five minutes would lead to destructive chaos.  What I found was that it helps students refocus, it helps them relax, and it helps build relationships.

3. Times Are Going To Be Very Tough At Points But Those Times Will Pass:  My first months on the job were incredibly tough.  There were days where I would come home to my wife and I felt continually like I had just gotten punched in the gut.  I felt lost.  I had lost all my confidence, because college taught me how things would work in a perfect world.  As it turns out the world is not perfect [insert laughter here].  However, this time passes.  It passed for me.  I found mentors in my school who built me up.  I found more strategies and exciting things to help me create engaging lessons.  I found my new mojo.  Are there days that are tough?  Absolutely, but I know now that these times are a blip on screen.  I walk in feeling like I can truly make a difference for my students.

4. Relationships Matter Most:  I do not care how exciting your lesson on the modernization of Russia and enlightened despotism is.  If you do not have a relationship with your students they will not learn from you.  Engagement is important, sure.  However, I would argue that you cannot get authentic engagement without relationships.  My mentor teacher had me stand in the hall every day between every class.  He said that time is essential to build relationships with students.  He was right. I learned so much about students in those three transition minutes.  Even today, I am in the hall between every class because I have seen how that time has helped me build relationships with students and how that has translated to student success in class.

5. Not All Water Coolers Are Evil: I was told early on to avoid the teacher lounge like it was the plague.  I was told that negativity swelled around it and that it would be a better idea to just stay away from it.  What I found was that it set me up with a false reality that the climate of a school is inherently to go toward a cynical, negative culture.  However, at my school we have a positive climate.  One of my great mentors at the school I connect with in that lounge.  My principal, Evan Robb, says frequently, "Positive people attract positive people, negative people attract negative people."  I think that is the better way to phrase it, because the teacher lounge, the watercolor is not the root of all evil if you do not allow it to be.  If I had just stayed in my room and never wondered out of it, then I would not have been close to my mentor, nor would I have been able to build relationships with several other colleagues around the building.  If you enter the lounge with a positive outlook on education, if your school is full of positive people, then you will find that the lounge, the watercolor are places where innovation and collaboration can occur.

What are some things you wish you would have learned in teacher school?  How do my five things stack up to what you have experienced as a teacher?  

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Differentiation with Hotel del Strunk

This year my school has placed a strong emphasis on differentiation.  As a result, teachers have been brainstorming different ways to offer choice and voice for our kiddos.  Earlier in the year I did a "Progressive Era Football" assignment where different assignments were worth different amounts of yards.  Students needed to accumulate 75 yards to score a touchdown for knowledge [insert groans here].

That assignment was okay, but I left it knowing that there was room for improvement.

Leaving a professional development session earlier in 2018, we were challenged to develop a second major differentiation menu type of assignment for our students.  I sat and reflected on my Progressive Era Football assignment and "Hotel del Strunk" was born.

Let me explain how Hotel del Strunk works.

1. Students have three main course entrees.  These are assignments that all students must complete.  I am a believer that sometimes you just have to eat your veggies before dessert.  These assignments are structured to make sure my students not only hit every area of the standard, but they also engage in some more guided learning here.

2. Student choice comes into play with their side dishes.  These are assignments that really challenge students to innovate.  Tasks like creating an ad for businesses during World War II to convince women to come take the jobs of men, and having them use canva or piktochart.  I have students creating their own versions of Fireside Chats and developing podcasts reflecting on key battles from World War II are all examples of sample side dishes.

3. Used Screencastify to build a video to explain how the project works so students can watch it at their own pace and ask me any clarifying questions.

4. Provided recommended apps for various assignments.  I wanted more than just every assignment turned in on looseleaf.  I reserved the laptop cart to allow them to use technology to transform their products.  As an educator, I believe that I have a responsibility to help guide students to good resources for their products.

5.  I walk around and check in on students.  I remind them of expectations and help guide them to the next step.

I will be honest and say that I am running into some difficulties as I have some students who are rushing through the assignments.  Hopefully, through continuous reminders of the expectations I can minimize that and maximize on some of the amazing ones my students have been making.  I have one student who has asked for an extension so that she can do her battle reenactment on the beaches while on Spring Break.  That kind of work ethic and commitment is excellent and is something I intend to continue to foster with the remainder of the year.

I am very excited to see what this buffet of learning [insert more groaning] produces!  When we offer student voice and choice we have the opportunity to allow our students to express their knowledge through powerful mediums!  Building voice and choice into your classroom allows for new doors to open and new connections to be made. 


Friday, March 2, 2018

Respect > Like But They Aren't Mutually Exclusive

     I wanted to be the cool teacher.  I wanted to be the hip teacher.  I wanted to be the teacher that all my students thought was their favorite.  And I'm going to tell you now... It is exhausting.  It is so tiring because there are about a thousand fires you need to put out during the day.  And when you put out those fires you try to end it in a way that students will still like you.
     I like to think I have learned a lot since my first year at the middle school I work at (though still lots left to learn).
    One of the most important things I have learned is that it is better to be respected than liked.  I am a pretty relaxed person most of the time.  Last year I think I was too relaxed, and not consistent enough.  I was putting out fires all day.  I kept racking my brain trying to figure out what silver bullet I needed to improve in classroom management.
    I knew this year that would be my focus area for improving on a daily basis.  It started by spending significant time over summer reflecting and developing plans to implement my high expectations early and often.  I developed a sheet that had "Ten Simple Ways To Keep Mr. Strunk Happy" which would be me starting the year very openly giving them my expectations on behavior that way they were already stated and I could get to the part of education that I love - building relationships.
       As I discussed expectations, I taught them procedures that would allow for us to have a really smooth, fun, positive learning environment.  We would then practice them.  The one I am thinking of in particular are my quiet signs.  My first year teaching, I would let my students get away with not being 100% quiet for my quiet signs, which then led to them not being nearly as effective.  This year, I waited and if I was not satisfied with the amount of time it took to be silent, we practiced again.  Some of you may read this and say, "Wow Phil that's pretty strict" but I would rather practice this procedure now then have to waste a lot more time during the school year when I want to be teaching and building connections with my students.
      The truth is... it is better to be respected than it is to be liked.  But let me also say, the two terms are not mutually exclusive.  I have clear expectations with my students.  In fact, they police each other in making sure they are following my expectations.  Notice I said I am not mean to my students.  As a student teacher I thought that being firm was being strict and mean.  I have learned since then that not having clear expectations is meaner than having clear expectations.  I say that because when you do not have clear guidelines to how students should act in class you are denying them of the safe, positive learning environment they deserve.  So this year... I've been trying to be incredibly clear with my expectations.  And guess what... we also have a ton of fun throughout the year.  We make trenches and throw paper balls at each other.  We throw around Q-Ball which is a dodgeball with a microphone in it.  We have deep conversations.  They teach me how to dental floss (new dance move).  I dab and call things "lit."  We talk about our weekend plans and good movies in theaters.  And we learn a lot from each other.  I would not be able to do all of this if I did not have clear expectations and procedures.  I also could not do this if the students did not like me.
     As many continue to Tweet, "Students will not learn from a teacher they do not like."  There seems to be teachers who think you can either be respected or you can be liked but you can't be both. I'd like to respectfully disagree with that.  If I think back to the strictest teachers I had, who I did not care for as well, I cannot think of a thing I learned in their classes.  However, when I think of teachers like my AP Lang teacher who had clear expectations but also made learning exciting and fun, I go back to moments where she praised a homework analysis of Rosie the Riveter I did or when we gave her a poster of all her famous quotes from the year.  Teachers like my AP Lang teacher and other teachers that I work with on a regular basis help affirm my belief that you can be both respected and liked.
    Let's be honest with ourselves.  We went into this profession to make a difference.  We want to be able to create a future society that is better than what we live in today.  How is being mean and strict going to accomplish that?  I'll tell you right now that I do not believe it will accomplish that.  If you are firm, kind, compassionate, and empathetic you have the chance to bring light to the darkness. You get to choose what kind of teacher you want to be moving forward.  What do you choose?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

So You Don't Have A Chromecart

Or a mac cart, or 1:1, or anything like that.

   If your classroom situation is similar to mine, your school is not yet at 1:1 technology yet and so you are still trying to plan ahead to figure out what days you would like to use the lab and hoping that there are no benchmarks or standardized tests going on at the same time.

    I love being on Twitter and having interactions with educators from all over the world.  However, I will say that at times I allow my envy for schools with 1:1 computer access to takeover my definition for innovation.

    I am super fortunate to have administrators who see the need for tech in the classroom and are doing everything in their power to bring us closer to 1:1.  I know that we will get there soon (as a matter of fact we will be there NEXT year!), but until then that does not give me an excuse to deny my students innovative learning.

    On Twitter, I have said before that if you need continuous access to Twitter for your teaching to be innovative, then let me challenge your definition of innovation.  Innovation is not hitting the power button a chromebook, it's not opening GoogleDocs to type an essay, it's not making a collage with photos on various image searches.  Innovation is looking at a situation and having students react and create solutions based on the situation.

   Technology is one tool in the shed.  It can be a powerful tool, and I would argue that it will be a great tool in the future.  However, if our students use a rake to dig a hole then what that tells society is that we did not teach our students to use all the tools at their disposal.

    I am currently in the process of trying to find some different ways to innovate without technology.  A project that I am developing that would be helpful with technology, but can be done without is a trading card where I can print out templates and have students fill in the corresponding information based on how they apply what we have learned in class.  Now, I will do what I can to gain access to the computers, but if I can't I know that I can still inspire and engage my students.  Another project I have is based on our section of our Cold War Unit, students will have to develop a children's book.  Again, technology could certainly make it look flashy and pretty, but the innovation is not in the flash it is in the application and developing an authentic product.

    I know that I myself need to make sure that I am developing this mindset toward innovation.  There has been times where I have stopped myself short and said, "Well how can I innovate if I don't have access."  However, we don't need access to technology to be innovative.  We need access to students to encourage them to be innovative.  It is vital that we keep this mindset in perspective.