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.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Be The Change

I have been thinking about this post for about a week and a half now. A little over a week ago, our school participated in a three day event called Challenge Day. Going into it, a majority of the student body (and some of the teachers) were very skeptical about this program. We had very little idea of what it entailed. We did know that it involved sharing, crying, and hugging. That was about it. Over the past couple of years, I've become increasingly concerned about the culture in our school. Students have become increasingly disengaged and disrespectful to their teachers and even more so toward each other. Challenge Day came at a time where it seemed like each day brought stories of more fights and more bullying. As far as I was concerned, Challenge Day was well worth a shot.

I'll be the first to admit that in spite of my full support of Challenge Day going in, I was more than a little apprehensive about participating myself. Over the past five years, I have cultivated a certain persona in the classroom. I had developed a reputation as being somewhat gruff. I am direct and do not show much emotion around anyone but my wife and children, and even then, I tend to be somewhat guarded. That has not always been the case. I remember being a very affectionate and tender-hearted child. Even in high school, I was regarded as a "nice guy". My military experience hardened me quite a bit, as is usually the case. I had a number of experiences in which it was a matter of survival to suppress my emotions and function in a rather cold, rational way. Once I entered the classroom, that part of me became rather cemented. I have always cared about my students, which may come as a surprise to some of them, and that is something I deeply regret. I hate the idea that anyone has sat in my classroom and thought I didn't care about them. The truth is that I don't understand how someone could do the job of a teacher without caring about students, but I know that some teachers don't. I like to think that we don't really have any of those in our building.

Aside from my military experience, the process of becoming a teacher also contributed to the persona I had adopted. Throughout my teacher training, we were repeatedly warned against becoming too close to students and especially against showing any affection or making physical contact with students. This was especially true for male teacher candidates and even more so for male teacher candidates looking to become high school teachers. There is such a fear of sexual misconduct that we had it hammered into our heads that it was best to just keep our distance from students. As a result, in my first five years as a teacher, I had only hugged a few students with whom I had a particularly strong connection. Those rare embraces tended to be with my homeroom students upon their graduation. As I had been trained, I showed, my students I cared by expecting much of them and offering to help them with their studies whenever possible.

Challenge Day showed me the error of my ways. Really it showed me the error of our ways as an educational system. For many of our students, simply wanting the best for them doesn't register as caring. These kids lack strong support systems, and our expectations just seem like another source of oppression for them. They need to really know that we really care. I feel like I was able to finally show that to my students during my day of participation in the gym. I lowered my waterline and let the students in my "family" group see the real me. I allowed them to see me cry. I shared with them my greatest fears as a father, and I listened to them share their struggles and heartaches. Over the course of several hours, we learned what it really means to show someone you care. You listen to them and you offer them a hug. It was a transformational experience for many of us. I had students come up and hug me, and I could tell they didn't want to let go. Words can't express what that felt like.

During the "cross the line" activity, my heart broke for students as they had to repeatedly cross the line indicating that whatever statement being made applied to them. Students who have lost loved ones to drugs, alcohol, violence, incarceration, divorce continued to cross the line, and I could see the physical toll it took on them as all of those experiences impacted them all over again. I saw students who never talk to each other holding each other up as they realized just how much they had in common, and I saw students who had not experienced that pain show their support by holding up the sign for "I love you". The whole scene was almost spiritual. I will never forget seeing two particular students that I have had in class for a couple of years crossing the line together time after time. Both of them were in tears, and I think that if not for the other, they wouldn't have been able to go on. I felt horrible for having known both of them for so long without actually knowing them. When I had the chance, I apologized to both of them for never taking the time to hear what they have been through. Then we hugged, and I felt like a teacher. Before that, I didn't realize that I was missing that part of my job.

Since Challenge Day, I have had several students say that I have changed. They have said that they can tell I care about them now. By putting up those barriers that we've been told we have to put up, we have deprived ourselves and our students of one of the only things we have to offer in a world that is becoming more and more virtual: human contact. There are people out there making the case that school can all be done online, and that teachers are becoming obsolete. Kahn Academy has provided a breakthrough in online delivery of content, but Kahn Academy cannot see a kid in the hallway who has been crying and offer them a hug and an opportunity to talk about what is going on their life. If we don't start doing more of that, we will lose the reason most of us became teachers to begin with.

I know that things will not change overnight. My students know me for who I have been, and it will take time for them to see the man I want to be going forward, but I hope that they do see it, and I hope that I will never again have a student sit in my class thinking that I do not care about them.

I see you.
I got you.
I love you.
Be the change.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not cool, Robert Frost!

I have had a couple of people post this on Facebook. Some of you may have already seen it, but I thought I'd share it on here. Post your response in the comment section. I'd love to hear what you all think about what this kid has to say.