Monday, November 15, 2010

Up the Down Staircase

I had the pleasure of attending the PCHS Drama Club's production of "Up the Down Staircase" this past weekend. Even though I was involved in Drama Club in high school and whole-heartedly support our wonderful Drama Club, it has never worked out for me to come see one of their productions. While I know that all of the ones I missed were equally fantastic, I am glad I had the opportunity to see this one. Not only did the students do an amazing job, but the message of the play is so relevant for many of the teachers in this building, myself included. We work in a profession full of contradictions and interruptions and expectations that stand in the way of what we really want to be doing, something the play illustrates very well with the endless paperwork and announcements being heaped on the new teacher.

I know that most jobs are like this, but most jobs don't require the level of passion and belief in the cause that it takes to be a good teacher. I think about professions like those in the medical field, firefighters, police officers, and a few others that I am sure I am missing, and I know they are in the same boat as teachers. Ours is a job where if you don't believe in what you are doing, you will never stay afloat. As I said, this isn't true of all professions. Most jobs that I can think of don't require a passion and a belief to do them well. Sure, if you don't like your job, you are going to be pretty miserable, but it isn't an essential ingredient to doing the job.

The play shows how important this belief is in the world of the teacher. Miss Barrett is full of hope and optimism when she awaits the arrival of her students on the first day of the year, but soon she gets bogged down with the realities of paperwork, announcements, shifting schedules, students dropping out, students not doing homework, students seeming to care very little about what she is trying to teach them, and soon she finds herself wondering if what she is doing even matters. I can relate to this. I think most teachers can relate to this. It is difficult to put time and energy into something when you don't get much feedback to show it has even mattered. It always seems to come back to that question, "Does what I do even matter?"

Luckily for Miss Barrett, she has a great mentor point out to her that just because the students aren't jumping up and down to read the Odyssey, doesn't mean that she isn't making a difference for them. She instructs Miss Barrett to listen to what the students are really saying in their comments to her. It is then that Miss Barrett realizes that the measure of a teacher's work, the way we can tell that what we do really matters, is not in the homework or the quizzes or the test scores but in the personal connections we make and the impact that we can have on a young person's life.

I thank the cast and crew of the PCHS Drama Club for putting on this wonderful production. If nothing else, it was a great opportunity for me to be reminded of what is really important about my job.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Share the Good News

Most of the talk going on about education today is negative. Pundits, politicians, talk show hosts, and just about anyone else they put in front of a camera is more than willing to point out every problem that currently exists in education. This general atmosphere of pessimism has started to make it difficult for students and teachers to see the positive in what we do. Here is a wall I have created for students, teachers, parents, and community members to post good things that are happening at PCHS.

Teachers- Post about students who are achieving great things in your class or even non-academic things that make you proud of your students.

Students- Post about what you have learned here or about a teacher who has made an impact on your life.

Parents- Post about positive interactions you or your child have had with school personel.

Community Members- Post about ways you have seen our students contributing to the community.

These are just suggestions to get you started. Feel free to write about anything the world should know about what we are doing here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New School

From what I understand, there has been talk of building a new school in Paris for decades, but I've also been lead to believe that it has never been as serious as what is going on now. The school boards have selected an architecture firm to work with (actually, it is two firms who have teamed up for the job), students and faculty have been surveyed, and last night they had a community meeting to begin creating a community vision for the project. In light of these developments, I would like to outline the top three reasons I hope this project happens.

#1- One issue that I see in this school on a daily basis is that of students not motivated to do well in school. They simply do not see the value in education, and in many cases, who could blame them? Many of our students travel to other towns for sports, to visit family, or any one of countless other reasons and see communities that have shown the importance of education by investing in it. The physical school building as an obvious and unmistakable representation of the value a community places on education. I honestly believe that many of the issues plaguing our school- and by extension, the community- will be greatly alleviated by a new school.

#2- The location of our current building has many drawbacks.
a-Currently, school property consists of the building and the sidewalk around it. Students are able to simply cross the street and be outside the reach of the school's jurisdiction. This leads to a serious public relations issue. Anyone visiting the town (people looking to move to the area, perhaps) drives by and sees dozens of teens who are obviously students at the high school standing around smoking, swearing, and sometimes fighting in plain view of teachers and administrators who are unable to do anything about it. This does not present a very favorable picture of the school or the community.
b-Safety is another issue brought on by the location of our school. When students are entering or leaving the building, they must negotiate heavy traffic on one of the the busiest roads in town. It doesn't take an expert to realize that 600 hundred teenagers exiting a building into heavy traffic is a recipe for disaster.
c-This is one of the only schools I am aware of that doesn't provide parking for students and visitors to athletic events. Students have to park on side streets, sometimes blocks away, in order to attend school in this building. Others pay for parking. Fans visiting the school for sporting events in Eveland Gymnasium face the same parking problem and the same perils of crossing busy streets.

#3- Lastly, these facilities have simply become inadequate to house 21st century learners and educators. This building was designed and built over 100 years ago. How many other things in our life are still effective after a century of use? Don't get me wrong, there are a few things that are just as useful today as they were 100 years ago, but a school that needs to prepare its students for a dynamic and increasingly technologically-advanced workplace is not one of them.

Please respond by commenting on my reasons or add your own reasons to the list.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Time For You To Think

***Warning: This post asks for absolute honesty.***

Okay, many of my students have responded to my post about the frustration I am feeling this year by saying that they love my class and are really learning a lot. That is great to hear, but now I have some questions for them to answer:

1. What clues do you think teachers look for to see if students are working hard and learning in class?

2. What clues do you give a teacher to show that you are getting something out of their class?

3. What could we do differently in class to give you more of an opportunity to show what you've learned?

I am also open to any other thoughts you may have on this topic.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


***WARNING: The following post contains absolute honesty.***

I'm not going to lie. I'm having a tough time this year. I don't know what it is, but I sure wish I did. I don't like it. Almost ten years ago, I decided to change my major from business management to English. At the time, I had no intention of becoming a teacher. That lasted for about a year. I was taking classes towards my teacher certification as a "back up", and one of the requirements of the very first class was to go observe high school English classes. It was during one of these observations that the teacher I was watching had to teach a history class (she accidentally had enough college credits to be deemed a "highly qualified" history teacher), and a student asked a question that the teacher didn't really have an answer for. It just so happened that I was taking a history class that semester in which we had spent a majority of the time studying the period they were discussing in class that day, so I knew a ton of stuff about it. I tentatively raised my hand and said I knew the answer. The teacher happily yielded the floor to me (I must remember to do that if I ever have a teaching candidate in my room). I stood and gave an impromptu lesson for only about five minutes. I was terrified at first, but almost immediately felt at home at the front of the class. I walked out of the school that day without a doubt in my mind that I had found my calling.

The problem is that now I'm not so sure. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate my job. I enjoy going to work everyday (for the most part), but this year I feel like something is missing. I hear that many of my students enjoy my class, which is great, but I am getting to the point where I don't feel like that is enough. If I am unable to get students to learn-- I mean really learn, then maybe I should happily yield the floor to someone who can.

I have friends who are still working away in college right now, and they call me for help when they need to write a paper. They tell me that they don't know what they are doing. Now I know they sat through four years of English class, so I can't figure out how they didn't learn at least the basics of how to make connections and draw conclusions from what they are reading and how to write that information in an organized and at least somewhat grammatically correct fashion.

Then I think about my own students and some of the conversations I have with them. When they are being 100% candid with me, they admit that they don't approach school with the attitude that they are going to learn something. They tell me that they are just going through the motions to earn enough points to get the desired grade (for some of them, it is a D). This is where I am running into trouble this year. I went into this year feeling really great about all of the plans I developed over the summer to make my classes something special this year. I just knew that real learning was going to take place, but as we near the end of the first quarter, I'm not seeing it materialize. I still feel like a majority of my students are simply trying to find a way to complete my assignments with the least amount of effort while still meeting the minimum requirements, and I understand that to an extent, but I also know that they will not get what they need that way. It has become incredibly frustrating for me to conduct a class in which I don't feel my students are learning. I feel like a musician playing to a crowd that doesn't really care to hear the music.

So this post is for my students. I want you to tell me what you've learned in my class this quarter. Be completely honest. I want your feedback. I need to know if you feel like you are any more prepared for what lies ahead as a result of this class. If you aren't learning anything, we need to take some time in class to figure out what needs to change. I'm open to suggestions because I don't want my students to go off into the real world only to find out that they don't have what it takes to be successful.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Gearing Up!

My last post was about the last day of school. I feel like I just wrote it a few days ago, and yet here I am contemplating the first day of school. I remember being a kid and summer vacations were a seemingly endless occasion for fun and adventure. Now, as an adult, it is just a matter of weeks. I guess that is what happens when we start seeing the world in terms of paydays, mortgage payments, appointments, etc. Everything seems to move faster. When we are kids, we have no real concept of time. It could go on forever or not exist at all, and we wouldn't know the difference. We are amazingly short-sighted as children. I see it in my own kids. If they take a thirty-minute nap, they wake up convinced it is the next day. They refer to something they did two months ago as if it just happened that very morning. I think the reason we feel like time is speeding up as we age is simply because we become more and more aware of it. Whatever the reason, this summer has flown.

Don't get me wrong, I've had a great summer. My wife had our third child only a few weeks into summer break, so her maternity leave has meant that we have spent a majority of the summer break as a complete family with no interruptions for work or other obligations. I've had countless fun times with my two older children going swimming and to ballgames. I'm not sulking about heading back to work in a few weeks or anything like that. If fact, the opposite is true. I stopped by the high school last week and spent a little time in my room. I left feeling excited about the new year. I am looking forward to August rolling around and getting to spend more time in my room getting prepared. I'm looking forward to seeing my students again, and I'm looking forward to the thrill I get when I see them learn and grow.

Sure, summer is almost over, but that doesn't mean the fun is over; it just means it is time for a different kind of fun to begin.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Last Day 2009-2010

"Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop." -Ovid

Being a teacher, I get the whole "It must be nice to have summers off" comment a lot this time of year. It is usually meant in kind of a flippant, your job is such a cake-walk sort of way, but I always look at that person and tell them that it is. I can honestly say that being a teacher is the most demanding and exhausting job I have ever had, and I have had some pretty rough jobs. It is not that it is physically demanding like my time as a factory worker or the time I got paid to tear a barn down by myself (in the hottest part of the summer), but it is absolutely the most mentally draining job I can imagine. I try to explain it to people, but they rarely understand. Unlike most other jobs, you don't get a fifteen minute break every now and again. Every forty-five minutes another group of about twenty students comes storming through the door, and you have to perform. From 8:10 am until 3:20 pm, I am completely at the service of roughly 150 teenagers. Let me be clear, I'm not saying this as a bad thing. I actually really enjoy it. I love the feeling I get when a student comes to me uncertain of something and leaves confident that they understand. It is the most rewarding occupation I have ever had. I also like to point out that most of these critiques come from people whose job only exists in the span of a workday and in the space of their workplace. This is not so for the teacher. I also like to explain that the time I spend at school is not the whole of my work; instead it is the product of my work. The hard work happens outside of that time planning, creating, learning, and evaluating everything I need to be a professional educator.

Now, I don't write all of this as a way of saying, "Woe is me the pitiful teacher who has to work so hard". Again, I wouldn't want to be doing much of anything else (syndicated columnist would be cool). The reason I write all of this is because all of the things I'm doing as a teacher line up pretty closely with all of the things my students go through over the course of a school year. When you think about it, our students spend roughly eight hours a day going from room to room trying to become experts in a handful of different disciplines only to go home and be required to spend another few hours doing homework so they can be prepared to show up the next day and do it again. When you throw in the extra-curricular activities that many of them are involved in and part-time jobs, there are a lot of students who are putting in sixty hour weeks nine months out of the year.

For teachers and students, summer is not some frivolous vacation that has been adopted by a group of people who simply don't want to work as hard as everyone else; it is a time to rest, reflect, and recharge so that we can show up in the heat of August and do it all over again.

So, to my students, I hope you have a restful and rejuvenating summer, because when you come back in August, I will be waiting, and I'm going to make you work.

Wordle: Last Day 2009-2010

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Change, Change, Change

Change has a considerable psychological impact on the human mind. To the fearful it is threatening because it means that things may get worse. To the hopeful it is encouraging because things may get better. To the confident it is inspiring because the challenge exists to make things better. ~King Whitney, Jr.

I read a lot of stuff on twitter and blogs about changing education. I talk to students about what they would like to see implemented at our high school. I talk to colleagues about what changes we think would make us more effective in the classroom. I listen to politicians and commentators talk about large-scale, mandated education reform. It would appear to any observer that change is coming for the education system. My belief is that the momentum for that change is building in all of the wrong places.

At the national level, people who rarely, if ever, step foot into a classroom are leveraging funding and political clout to enact change in the form of more nationalize standards and testing, but at the local level, teachers and administrators who actually do the work of educating on a daily basis realize that none of those things will really bring about the kind of improvements that need to be made. It would be like setting out to remodel a house and bringing a camera to document your progress as the only tool. Testing does not improve student learning; it only measures it.

Time and again, I hear smart people I work with and others I only know online put forth excellent plans for revamping the way in which education is offered to students. Most of it is almost completely budget neutral, so money is not the issue. It is not that we can't afford to try something new; the problem is gaining enough support to give it a shot, or even to settle on which direction to go. The second problem, I think, can be easily solved by taking the time to sit down with all stakeholders and have a long, detailed, and exhaustive discussion until everyone feels that the collaborative plan is the best possible. The disagreements I've had with people end up being matters of semantics rather than actual concrete differences of vision, so I'm sure time and effort could bring those in favor of changes together.

The problem that does not seem to go away is that of people feeling the current system works fine just the way it is. For these people, I don't know what to say. Nowhere else in our society does there exist a system that has remained as unchanged as education for as long as education has remained largely unchanged. We are using and education model developed during the Industrial Revolution to prepare students for jobs in the Technology Revolution. We are following a system designed to produce factory workers to educate students who will be entering a marketplace for people with skills we are unable to develop in our classrooms as they exist today. It is not surprising that a growing number of young people are failing out of college and ending up living with their parents well into adulthood.

In the back of my mind, I can't help but wonder if these people really believe the current system works, or if they are simply afraid of what a changed system would resemble. Would they be needed? Would they be as good at it as they are at the current way of doing things? Would they go from admired and respected to outdated and useless? I think the biggest hurdle for change in education today is taking those who are afraid and inspiring them to be confident that we can do better. We can be more innovative and effective than the teachers we had. We can be better than the generations that came before us. We can revolutionize education and improve the lives of our students by simply believing that our ideas are just as valid, or more valid, than the ideas of the men who implemented the current system, and by doing so, we are not saying that the old system was bad or flawed, but simply that we have outgrown it the way a child outgrows their clothes. The bottom line is that if we are afraid to venture forward into the unknown on our own terms, we will be forced into on someone else's.

Wordle: Change, Change, Change

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fatherhood in the Classroom

I have found that one of the most difficult things about being a high school teacher is being a high school teacher with two small children. It's not that having two small children makes it harder to get work done at home, which they do, or that my teaching and coaching keeps me away from them more than I would like, which it does. Those aren't really difficulties as much as they are inconveniences. No, the thing that makes this job difficult for me is seeing all of the possible outcomes for my children.

Every single day, I have about 150 students walk through my door. A majority of them are great kids. Sure, I would like many of them to try a little (or a lot) harder in school, but they are respectful and (mostly) well-behaved. I know that the time will come when they wake up and everything clicks. Once that happens, they will be successful in their endeavors. I have a smaller number of kids who are absolutely brilliant, work hard, volunteer, and pretty much impress the socks off of you on a daily basis. These kids have nothing but possibilities ahead of them. Lastly, I have an even smaller group of kids who have no ambition, no respect for anyone (including themselves), and walk around full of a strange mix of anger and apathy.

I look at the first two groups, and while I hope my children fall somewhere in the second group, I would be okay with the first group. For me, it isn't really about grades when I find myself daydreaming about who my kids will be as high school students. I want my kids to be hard workers. I want them to respect their teachers and peers. I want them to display a sense of pride in themselves and their school. I want to be able to walk into a parent/teacher conference and have the teacher say, "I really enjoy having your child in class," and have them mean it.

When I look at my children now, I can't help but believe that all of this will come true. They are sweet, caring kids with a natural curiosity about the world around them. They love to learn and interact. We've taught them to be "bucket-fillers", not "bucket-dippers", and they take it very seriously (If you don't know what any of that means, Google it). However, this reassuring feeling leaves me very quickly when I realize that the third group, the group I don't even want to think about having my kids be a part of, probably started out sweet and innocent also.

Somehow, those kids started out as happy, curious little children and have ended up angry and rebellious. I find myself wondering how it happened. What went wrong for these kids? Was it a single moment or event? If so, will I recognize that moment in the lives of my own children? Will I know that I am dealing with a make-or-break situation and bust out my Daddy A-Game? I would love to be able to help my students who have lost their way find the joy I know they must have had as children in something more productive than the things that I'm sure make them happy now, but I worry that the only thing I can do is not make it worse and dedicate myself to making sure any kid who walks into my room knows that I have the same dreams for them as I do for my own kids while making sure that I don't forget to take the time to let my own kids know how much I believe in them too.

Wordle: Fatherhood in the Classroom

Friday, March 5, 2010

Am I An Optimist?

Sir Winston Churchill once said, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." I always figured myself as a pessimist. I don't know why, but I tend have a somewhat grumpy demeanor, and since grumpy and pessimist seem to go hand-in-hand, I just figured I was a negative guy. Upon further review, I am not. I am a closet optimist.

I was not able to understand this until I found myself spending more time with someone who I truly believe is a pessimist to their very core. It was in this situation that I realized the difference between mood and outlook. Since I am often in a grumpy mood, I assumed I had a grumpy outlook, but I really have a positive outlook.

Basically, where I am right now is where most teachers are. We struggle every single day to figure out what is best for our students. How do we make sure they are prepared for what lies ahead? It was during one of these conversations that I realized I am not only an optimist, but a fierce and passionate optimist when it comes to my students. The discussion was over what students "need" to learn in high school. I was stating my belief that we should treat every student as though they are going to attend college and make sure they get the information and skills they would need to pursue that course. On the other side of the discussion were those who believe a majority of our students will not attend college and therefore do not need much more than basic academic skills with a heavy dose of life skills.

Do not get me wrong, I think kids need to learn to address envelopes, pay bills, change a tire, cook without burning their house down, etc., but I simply cannot exist in a world where I accept from the word go that my students CAN'T achieve higher education. The system as proposed by my colleague would basically allow students to be split into two groups (either by student/parent choice or some kind of test, I guess) and those who are deemed "college bound" would get the education that we are basically offering all students now, while the ones who are decided to be only fit for unskilled labor will take classes on basic life skills.

How does this define me as an optimist? I honestly, to the core of me, believe that nearly every single student currently enrolled at PCHS has the ability to achieve not only a high school diploma but also education after high school. That education may not be at a university, but certainly they can all attend a community college, trade school, apprenticeship program, or any of the other opportunities out there for someone who has graduated high school. I don't believe that some students are incapable of grasping complex material for any of the reasons being given (poverty, parents who lack education, etc.). I am an optimist because I believe every student who walks into my class can meet my expectations for them if they choose to do so.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Voice Your Opinion

Students, click the link below to let us know what you want to get from PCHS. How can we help you be more prepared for the future you envision for yourself? Parents, we want to hear from you, too. You entrust us with your most valuable possession under the understanding that we will do what is best for them. Tell us what you want.

I look forward to hearing from you. With your help, we can make PCHS successful beyond our wildest dreams.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What do I have to do?

We discussed a story in my English 10L class yesterday that really started me thinking about the mistakes that I see so many students make in regards to how they view their goals in life. In the story, a young boy wishes to win a game of hide-and-seek with a group of older kids so that he would be accepted as one of them. He knew that he was always regarded as being "lesser" by the older children because he was not able to compete and win the way they did. In order to accomplish his goal, he showed great determination and personal courage (two traits I admire greatly) by hiding in a extremely hot, uncomfortable shed in spite of his fear of the dark and anything that could be lurking nearby. The mistake this character made, however, is that he was so focused on his greater goal of "winning" that he never took the time to formulate a step-by-step plan of what he needed to do to win. He hid in the shed so long that the game ended, and his playmates moved on to other activities. In fact, he hid in there for so long that they completely forgot about him. It wasn't until he emerged from the shed that he realized he had missed his opportunity to win by being too far-sighted. I was happy to get the chance to have this discussion with my students because I know they all have great dreams for what life will be like when they are adults (nice house, nice car, fun vacations, etc.), but many of them fail to see all of the steps they need to take to get there.

I would like to hear what some of you have planned for yourself in the future and what steps do you see yourself needing to take to get there.