Friday, January 30, 2015

What if....?

What if doing one simple thing differently could change everything? Would you do it?

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Holla Achya Teach!

This will be a short post because it isn't my usual philosophic rambling. Instead, I'm giving a little advice to my students, not just for my class, for any class, and not just for high school; this information will also help in college and the workplace. This advice is simple: Communicate with your teacher (professor, boss, etc.) about anything concerning your ability to meet their requirements as soon as the situation arises. So far this year, I have had several students absent from my class for various reasons. In some cases, it is a planned trip or appointment, so they ask for assignments the day before they are absent. That is fantastic. In some cases, even when they know they will be gone, students do not take care of this necessary information beforehand. Other times, a student is absent because they are sick. In most cases, these students will wait until they get back to school to go to each teacher at the beginning of class to ask for what they missed, but I have had a couple of students this year take the time to send an email to all of their teachers (just one email with all of us CC'd) explaining that they were not feeling well and would not be in class and asking for any assignments they would be missing. This blew me away. What an amazingly responsible thing for a teenager to do. Instead of having your parents call and ask for a homework request to be sent around to your teachers or simply doing nothing at all until you get back to school, be proactive and take the few minutes it takes to send an email to your teachers to personally explain why you will not be in school and to request make-up work.

Another scenario that has popped up is concerning electronic assignment submissions. Many of my assignments are submitted electronically outside of school hours. It never fails, on every assignment, I have students who fail to submit anything. I usually send out an email reminding them that they need to get the assignment done within a week to comply with my late work policy, and I invariably receive emails with a range of excuses of why the assignment wasn't done. What I rarely get, however, is an email from the student when the excuse happens to let me know they will not have my assignment done and why. How refreshing would that be to have a student send me an email before deadline to explain what difficulties they have encountered and that they will not be able to meet my deadline? I would never dream of just silently missing one of my bosses' deadlines and then waiting for them to approach me, and I'm guessing most responsible working adults would say the same. In the event that I know I am not going to meet a deadline, I contact my boss to let him know that I will not meet the deadline, why I will not be able to meet it, and when I expect to have the task completed.

The point of all of this, dear students, is to say that it would go a long way toward endearing yourself to your teachers if you began proactively communicating on your own behalf, and it would build in you an important habit for success in the adult world.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Fresh Start

Another school year is underway at PCHS. This is my seventh year of teaching, and I am always excited for the first days of school, and I think you should all be excited too. For me, the beginning of the school year is more significant the start of a new calendar year. On January 1st, many people wake up looking at the new year as an opportunity to make changes, better themselves. We make resolutions for the changes we want to make in our lives. As a teacher, my life revolves around the school calendar more than it does the standard calendar; for me, New Year's Day is halfway through the year, not the beginning of it! By New Year's Day, we've already put in a full semester of work, so each August, I begin thinking about myself as a teacher. What I have I done in the past that I am happy about? What I have done in the past that I'm not so happy about? What worked in my classroom? What did not? I start every year by making resolutions about the kind of teacher I want to be this year. I set goals for my own improvement. Here are the goals I have for myself this year:

-I want to blog more often. As a teacher and father of three young children, I don't have much time for traditional hobbies like golfing or going fishing. Truth is, I haven't done those things enough to even know if I would enjoy doing them more often. I'm not very good at either one, and I don't really have the time or resources necessary to get better at this point in time. By most accounts, though, I am a pretty good writer, and I enjoy doing it. It doesn't require an incredible amount of time, and I have all that I need to accomplish it sitting right here at my fingertips, so I resolve to blog much more often than I have the last few years. I think that putting my thoughts out for students and parents to read gives them more insight into who I am as a person and what I am trying to accomplish in my classroom.

-I want to continue to get better at communicating with parents. As soon as I finish this blog, I am going to start the tedious task of creating email lists of students and parents for each of my classes (no small task with 7 classes and about 150 students). After that, I will be sending out mass emails to both students and parents with information about how to stay in contact with me and access course information. I know that not every parent uses email on a regular basis, but I have found that enough of them do to make the effort worthwhile. This is something that I have done will during some semesters but not so well in others. I resolve to do a good job of it both semesters this year.

-I want to do a better job of creating a culture in my classroom for students to not only feel comfortable getting extra help from me, but also to make sure that process is easier for kids. I think that I am going to try to create extra help sessions each week focusing on specific topics so that students can show up for help in those areas at those times. For example, I may have a time set up every Monday after school to focus on grammar for 30 minutes. There may be a 30 minute session on Thursday for organization and study skills. I plan to include students in coming up with times and topics, so feel free to leave me a comment with your suggestions.

-I want to continue to get better at getting feedback to students in a timely manner. Last year was probably the best I've ever done at getting assignments graded, posted on MMS, and back to students quickly, but I want to continue to get better at that. For some assignments, this is very easy. For others, I'm going to have to really buckle down to make it happen. With 100 students enrolled in English II, grading 100 essays is going to take some time, but my goal is to get those essays graded within 10 days, which means grading an average of 10 essays each day. It will be hard, but resolutions are not meant to be easy. If it were easy, we wouldn't have to resolve to do it, right?

-I want to continue to be the change. With Challenge Day coming back this year, I'm excited to continue to see our school culture improve, and I know that I have a great responsibility as a teacher to be a big part of that change. I see you, I've got you, and I love you.

There you have it: my five resolutions for this school year. I know I will not accomplish all of these things all of the time. There will be weeks when I am worn out from the daily grind of school and raising a family. There will be weeks when I have meetings after school that get in the way of accomplishing some of these tasks. A little over a year ago, I began trying to live a healthier lifestyle. I started paying more attention to what I was putting in my body and resolved to exercise more. A year later, I can see the difference in my weight, body composition, and overall health. This process has taught me a lot. Have I met my goals every day for the last year? No. There are still days when I eat too much junk food or skip the trip to the gym, but if I continue to work on those goals and have more good days than bad, I will move forward. The resolutions I have for this school year are the same. There will be days or weeks when I don't accomplish some of these goals, but if I have more good weeks than bad, I will be a better teacher at the end of the year than I am right now.

For my students reading this, what are your resolutions for this school year? What kind of student do you want to be when we arrive at the end of the year? What will it take to accomplish that goal? I want you to try to come up with five goals for yourself. Instead of focusing on a grade you want to get, focus on the behavior it would take to earn that grade. For instance, instead of saying "I want to get all A's", resolve to turn every assignment in on-time to the best of your ability, to ask for help when you don't understand an assignment or concept, to participate fully in every class, etc.. Understand that there will be days that you don't feel like participating, and that is fine, but if you try to meet your goals every day, you will be far better off than if you aren't trying at all, even if you sometimes fall short. I look forward to accomplishing our goals together.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Why I'm a Jerk

I've tried to deny it for years, but I guess it is time for me to admit it: I can be a bit of a jerk. I do a lot of jerky things, and my face just naturally looks angry. I tell my students when they aren't doing what they need to be doing. I let them know when they are screwing up, and I let them know what they need to do to stop screwing up. When my students fail to put forth their full effort, I call them out on it, and I assess their work accordingly. To many, this seems like some real jerk behavior. Maybe they are right, but I am not going to change. I'm not going to change because my job is to prepare my students for the real world, and the real world is a jerk. The real world will let you know that you are screwing up in a far harsher way than a stern lecture and a low grade on an assignment.

My students need to be prepared to go to college, the military, or the workforce and bring their best effort every day, even if they are tired, even if they have big plans for the weekend, even if they broke up with their boyfriend/girlfriend, even if they just don't feel good or are having a bad day. The real world is going to expect my students to be responsible, driven, and dependable, so I expect the same thing. That is the only way I can feel like I am doing for them what I am called to do. Is it what they want me to do? In many cases, maybe even most cases, the answer is no. They do not want me to push them, to hold them accountable, to have high expectations, but I will say this: I have never had a former student tell me that I did not do enough to prepare them for life after graduation. My class is hard. It is supposed to be. If a student passes my class, they should know that they accomplished something meaningful. A passing grade in my class is not a participation ribbon; it is medal that was earned through hard work and determination. That is the way it is supposed to be. No one has ever learned anything they did not have to work for. Period. So, I make my students work.

A couple of days ago, I posed a simple question to my students: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? As often happens, one of my students turned the question on me. I will share the answer here for everyone who was not in that class on that day because it may give a little more insight into why I'm a jerk. I told the class that when it comes to my students, I am an optimist. I expect the best from them. I expect that every student in my class wants to be successful, wants to learn. I go into every class period with the expectation that my students are going to give me their best shot until the bell rings. I give every assignment with the expectation that my students are going to use it as an opportunity to push their performance level up one more notch. If I were a pessimist, any failure to meet those expectations wouldn't bother me because it would just confirm my low expectations, but that is not the case. When students sit in my class and do nothing, it bothers me. When students blow off my assignments, it really bothers me. These things bother me because they let me down. I have such high hopes for my students that when they let me down, I feel it. When they let me down, I let them know because wherever they end up after graduation, their boss, commander, professor, etc., will certainly let them know when they fail to meet expectations, and in the real world, the stakes are much higher than they are in high school.

Coaches will often discuss players by breaking them down into two skill sets. One skill set is tangible. Does the player have solid fundamentals? Do they understand the game? The other skill set is intangible. You can't measure it. How does the player respond to being coached? Are they mentally tough? How do they handle adversity? The first set of skills are less important in many player evaluations than the second because the first set of skills can be taught if the second set of skills are solid. Life is the same way. Successful people have the second set of skills. They are able to take negative feedback and learn from it. They are mentally tough enough to see it as an opportunity to get better. When they get knocked down, they look at the damage, learn from it, and move on with a determination to not get knocked down again. If a person can do that, they can learn just about anything. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. It is the case in sports, as it is in life.

If I weren't a jerk, my students wouldn't learn. If I accepted sub par work, what would drive my students to try harder the next time? The answer is nothing. If I give a student an A for something that is a C at best, will they ever actually produce something worthy of an A? Why would they? I would be leading them to believe that what they are doing is already outstanding. As far as they would be concerned, they do not need to improve; they are already at the top. If I made a student feel like not doing an assignment for my class is acceptable, what motivation do they have to turn in the next assignment. We all want to believe that getting gold star stickers for everything we do is going to make us feel so good about ourselves that we will naturally get better, but that is only partially true. While we will feel good about ourselves, we will never get better. We get better by competing, especially against ourselves. We get better by constantly striving to outdo our last effort. Without honest feedback of our shortcomings, how can we grow?

So, yes, I'm a jerk, but I'm not a jerk out of malice. I'm a jerk because I care more about my students and their future than the vast majority of them will ever understand. I'm a jerk because I want to see them be successful in life, and I know that they are going to have to work hard to do that. I'm a jerk because I would rather them get a little scuffed up within the protection of our high school surrounded by people who are there to pick them up, dust them off, and help them learn to get better than out in the real world where they will be stepped on by the next person waiting to take their position. I'm hard on my students because I know that what comes next will be even harder, and I can't look myself in the mirror if I'm not doing everything in my power to make sure they are ready for it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

What Great Students Do Differently: Be Proactive, Not Reactive

As I sit here at my desk at home watching the snow falling and grading student essays, I am reminded of an idea I had for another entry in this series. It occurred to me on vacation (I think about how to be a better teacher while on vacation. How many students think about how to be a better student while sitting on a tropical beach? There may be something seriously wrong with me!). I am in the process of reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens by Sean Covey, and I was reading it periodically while basking in the Dominican sun in between longer intervals of reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I'm obviously not a teen, but I do work with teens, so I am very interested in what qualities make some teens effective while others never seem to find success. I can not recommend this book to high school students strongly enough. In fact, I tend to think we would benefit from every student at PCHS reading it as a requirement for some class somewhere. It is available in the library if you are interested in reading it yourself.
The book itself is very easy to read. It is written into short, manageable sections with a lot of real-life examples to illustrate the concepts being addressed, and each chapter ends with baby steps a teen could take toward cultivating these habits. Honestly, anyone could benefit from cultivating these habits. They are universal; the way in which they are presented is simply targeted toward teens, but I digress.

The first habit is being proactive, and as I was reading this chapter, I realized that this may  be one of the more important things that great students do. Instead of their classes happening to them, they take control over their learning and their education. This is easily apparent when I grade student essays. There are some students whose final essay of a semester is obviously better than their first essay. These students are proactive. When they get the feedback from the first essay, they begin trying to figure out how to improve. They come talk to me or another teacher to get clarification on what a good essay should be, and then they continue this process for the entire course. The understand that the grade they receive is based upon how well they can produce an essay that meets the guidelines of the assignment and the structure of an academic essay. They are proactive. Other students are reactive. They take no steps to improve and keep letting the poor grade happen to them. It is amazing to me the number of students whose feedback and grade on the final essay is exactly the same as the first essay. These students are reactive. Here is the difference in responses to a poor essay grade from proactive students and reactive students:

-I got marked down for not having a thesis statement. I need to go talk to the teacher to figure out what they are looking for in a thesis statement and why my thesis doesn't measure up.
-I thought I incorporated enough support, but the feedback says it is lacking. I need to figure out how to more effectively incorporate support.
-I received a failing grade. I need to figure out what I need to do to earn a passing grade.

-I got marked down for not having a thesis statement. Thesis statements are stupid. When will I ever need to write a thesis statement?
-I thought I incorporated enough support, but the feedback says it is lacking. The teacher is just mean and wants us all to fail. There is nothing I can do to improve.
-I received a failing grade. The teacher is unfair and out to get me.

Which approach seems more likely to lead to success? The fact of the matter is that life is hard. Accomplishing any goal is going to take trial and error. I do not know of a single successful person who hasn't hit a brick wall or two along the way. Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture (another book I think everyone should read), describes brick walls in this way:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.

This perfectly sums up the difference between proactive and reactive people. Proactive people encounter a brick wall and immediately start trying to figure out how to get over it, through it, around it. Reactive people complain about the brick wall and keep letting it stand in their way. 

If you have managed to stick with this post up to this point, I would like you to take a few moments of honest reflection to think about how you react to brick walls. Think about the last time you didn't find success at something, whether it was failing a test, doing poorly on an assignment, or not making the team/getting the part. What was your first reaction? Did you start coming up with reasons it was unfair? Did you start figuring out who (besides you) was to blame? Or did you start figuring out what YOU could do to ensure greater success the next time? Your answer well tell you what kind of person you are right now, but the great thing about life is that a reactive person can make the choice to start being proactive. In fact, making that choice is the first, most-important proactive decision a reactive person can make. If you are brave enough, share in the comments what you came up with in your honest reflection.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What Great Students Do Differently: Resolve

For the second installment of this blog series, I have a guest blogger. Ms. Seaton has agreed to write about one of the things that she sees great students do differently. It is strange how the universe works that I would get around to posting this today considering I spent the entire period talking about this exact topic in all of my junior/senior level courses today. What Ms. Seaton has written here sums up very nicely the point I was trying to get across in class today. Enjoy.

What do great students do?
They resolve to succeed. Great students have well-thought-out plans for the future and enough self respect to consider themselves worth the work to achieve their goals - no matter what stands in their way. They realize that their education is not just for them but for their future family and life. Great students understand how their education becomes a building block and foundation for what they want in the future. What kind of lifestyle do you want in the future? Great students have contemplated 20 years down the road.
They have the resolve to not waver when life throws a curve ball - no matter how large or how fast. They get themselves back on track or adjust their goals as necessary. They have the patience to see their goals through no matter what might stand in their way. Great students will always turn all their assignments in because of how it makes them feel accomplishing yet another step towards their goals. Not turning in assigned work is never a thought - for they won't allow themselves to fail. They don't want to let themselves down.
When great students see others are messing around in class and not realizing the importance of the message, they are motivated even more to achieve and grow from the spot they are in. They are in tune with the teacher, to learn the material that is being presented to them and more importantly - how they can use it to excel in the future.

They are emerging as a leader of their own destiny and are starting to affect their own families' future…..however they won't realize this until a lot later. Great students know what resolve is. They are focused on their future and will fight for their dreams.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

What Great Students Do Differently: Utilize Resources

I am currently leading a small group of faculty members in a book study of Todd Whitaker's What Great Teachers Do Differently. The goal is for us to sit down and have a meaningful discussion of what great teachers do differently than those who are not so great. We are about halfway through the book, and I have to say that while the concepts aren't groundbreaking, the discussions have been a great reflective exercise for myself and my colleagues. I think that is usually the case with trying to become great at something, though. When we look at people who are really good at what they do, we generally find that they aren't doing anything overly complicated or beyond the reach of anyone else. They are just very good at doing the simple things, and they do them consistently. With that in mind, I would like to start a blog series on here outlining some things that great students do differently. Todd Whitaker started out with fourteen things that matter most for teachers, but over the years, that number has grown to seventeen as the book has come out with new editions. I don't know how many I will come up with for students, and I am going to try to bring in some of my colleagues as guest bloggers to share some of their insights into what makes great students so effective. I don't believe anything we have to share is going to be earth-shattering, but perhaps it will allow for a discussion in the comments section and some reflection on your part. As you read these, ask yourself how well you do these things, and if you do them well, how consistently are you doing it.

Utilize Resources
On a weekly basis, I deal with students who are struggling in a class. Often times, the class they are struggling with is mine, but since I supervise a study hall and help my homeroom students, I also see students struggling in other classes. In almost every case, the answer to these struggles is to utilize the resources available within the school. I'll give you an example. Suzy is really struggling in her English class. She pays attention during daily grammar instruction and she tries really hard to figure out the parts of speech and the sentence parts and even that maniacal diagram, but the concepts just aren't solidifying for her. As a result, she struggles on grammar quiz after grammar quiz. She is frustrated because she has always like English class because she loves to read and even writes stories in her spare time; she wants to be a writer someday. Now she is getting a D in English and worries that she has been wrong about her career aspirations. She is ready to give up. This scenario could apply to any number of students sitting in any classroom in the school, and on the surface, it would seem that Suzy is doing everything right. She is paying attention, doing all of her work, and trying really hard to learn, but Suzy is making a common mistake. Suzy is operating under the assumption that she is in this battle alone.

Asking for help is hard. We worry that the people we are asking are annoyed or inconvenienced by our requests for support, but if we really think about it, the people we are afraid to ask have purposely put themselves in a position to help. Helping us is their job. School is set up in such a way that each progressing year builds on concepts from the year before. It stands to reason, then, that even a good student is eventually going to reach a level where the work becomes more difficult than they can manage on their own. This does not mean they are dumb or lazy. It does mean that they are going to have to change their approach. Every teacher in the building went through a difficult road to be standing at the front of that classroom, and they all did it because they wanted to. None of us are here against our will. One of the most frustrating things I encounter as a teacher is having a student fail knowing that they could've been successful if they had asked for help from me or anyone else.

Let's go back to Suzy. Suzy's mother is also concerned about Suzy's grade and the fact that Suzy is no longer as excited about school as she used to be. Suzy's mother contacts her English teacher to find out why Suzy is doing so poorly. The teacher reports that Suzy is paying attention in class, doing all of her work, and appears to be really trying to master the concepts, but she just isn't making much progress. The teacher also reports that Suzy never asks questions in class when the concepts are being covered. This is not uncommon. A majority of students are afraid to ask questions in class because they all feel like they are the only person who doesn't understand. As the guy who keeps the gradebook, let me put that to rest right now. In just about any class, there are a number of students who are struggling. Again, that is part of the process. If everyone has mastered the concepts being covered, what would be the point of the class. Suzy's mother tells the teacher that Suzy is shy, and getting her to ask questions in class is going to be more painful than pulling wisdom teeth with no anesthetic. For many students, this is where the throw in the towel, but great students realize that there are resources at their disposal. In Suzy's case, it is that English teacher. The teacher tells Suzy's mother that she is available to help Suzy one-on-one before school, after school, at lunch, or even during her prep period if necessary. Suzy's mother lets the teacher know that Suzy will be there after school the next day for tutoring. The teacher is excited to see Suzy's mother helping Suzy get the help she needs. The next day, Suzy shows up, and instead of being angry at the imposition, the teacher is happy to see Suzy taking the initiative to show up and get help. They work together for about twenty minutes after school and are able to identify the concepts that are causing confusion for Suzy. After a couple of these short, after-school sessions, Suzy is feeling much more confident in her grasp of the concepts. On the upcoming grammar quiz, Suzy goes from getting a failing grade to getting one of the highest grades in the course.

This scenario outlines two resources that students have at their disposal, but that only the really effective students use consistently: their parents and their teachers. Suzy did a great job of communicating with her mother about her frustrations in English class. Because of that communication, Suzy's mother was able to take action and contact the teacher for some insight into Suzy's problem. This communication led to Suzy finding out that the teacher is another great resource for her use. She learned that the teacher is there to help her learn; that is what teachers do.

This seems like such a simple concept, but so few students use these resources. When I have conversations with students and parents, I find that many students try to hide their learning problems from their parents and avoid asking their teachers for help. This is madness. Parents want what is best for their children, and teachers want their students to learn. I've never met a teacher who entered the profession to hinder student learning or because they like to see people fail. Great students understand this, and use these resources as a first instinct when they encounter problems.

Another human resource that is available to students but rarely used is the the tutoring program offered through the National Honor Society. Every day at lunch, there are two or three NHS students sitting in the library just waiting to help students with the subjects in which they are highly proficient. These students are almost never utilized. It isn't a sign of weakness to take a draft of an essay to a peer who is highly proficient in English class in order to have it proofread and get feedback for improvements or to seek help from someone in an advanced math class in order to prepare for an upcoming exam in Algebra I. It is a sign of maturity and resourcefulness: two skills that make for successful adults.

Not all resources are human resources. This year, we became a Google Apps school. I have been really stunned by how little students are utilizing this resource. Google Apps allows students to have more access to their teachers than ever before. Our email addresses are pre-loaded into your address book. You can add us to your Google Hangouts (instant messenger) contact list using that same email address. Google Drive allows you to share drafts with your teachers and peers for feedback before submission. Drive also allows you to save your assignments to the cloud, which means you never have to worry about losing your work to a crashed computer or saving it in the wrong drive on the school network never to be found again. Since many teachers also use, it alleviates compatibility issues since now has the ability to instantly upload a Google Drive document.

Thomas Edison once said, "When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this- You haven't." I can't think of any better way to sum up what great students do differently. When they run into problems in a class, instead of giving up, they start looking to all of the resources they have available to them.