Good thing I have the whole summer off!
Good thing I have the whole summer off!
Did you see the new thank-you ticker crawling across the screen at this year’s Oscars? The long list of names reminded me that whether we are actors or teachers, directors or principals, we didn’t get where we are without the help of a lot of people. I was reminded of all the people who have contributed to my own, albeit less glamorous, career in education.
I was reminded that I have not become the teacher I am today without the help, encouragement, mentoring, and resources of others. And I was reminded that too many teachers don’t get what they need to support their growth as effective educators.
Teaching can be an isolating profession: we spend most of our time with students and have few opportunities to work with and learn from our peers. Social media has changed that in big ways, but when I started teaching, the internet was barely a blip on the paper in my typewriter. So who helped me develop my teaching skills? Who made a difference in my growth as an educator? Which names would run across my thank-you ticker?
Maybe a better question is: what do teachers need if they are to become great teachers? After 25 years in the classroom, I’ve got a longer-than-Oscar-speech ticker of gratitude, starting with:
Effective master teachers: prior to student teaching, I observed a couple master teachers in action: Joan Price and Mary Jackson welcomed me into their high school classrooms, allowed me to work with their students, and gave me valuable insights that got me started on my teacher training. When I was placed in two classrooms for my student teaching, I struck gold with junior high master teacher Carol Treu and high school master teacher Ana Byerly. Learning at the feet of these excellent teachers told me that I really had no excuse for not becoming a great teacher! But as outstanding as they were, I needed more help once I took charge of my very own classroom as a full time teacher. Then I needed:
Supportive administrators: once again, I struck gold when I landed my first job at Altimira Middle School under the leadership of Dr. Marilyn Kelly. Typical of most new teachers, I couldn’t even imagine all that I didn’t know. As enthusiastic and educated as I was, and even as successful I’d been in my student teaching, I was woefully unprepared for the demands of full time teaching in a middle school classroom.
Fortunately for me, my boss saw my panic as well as my potential, and she made time to meet with me, coach me, and further the training that all teachers need when they first enter a classroom. I shudder to think what would have become of me (and my students) without Marilyn’s support. But years later, after I developed some good strategies and felt pretty confident about my work, I wanted to keep growing and learning and strengthening my skills, so I needed:
Ongoing support and effective professional development: just because we become effective teachers doesn’t mean we no longer need our administrators’ support. In fact, that support can be the difference between a teacher stagnating or even declining in effectiveness vs. growing into a teacher who impacts not just his/her students but also other teachers and the profession. Even after I left Altimira and Marilyn retired, she continued to be a mentor to me, encouraging me to pursue powerful professional development, such as National Board Certification and a master’s degree. When I finally carved out the time to do both, I benefited from the support of principals Dave Rose and Emily Dunnagan, who assisted me in the process, excused me from meetings when I had classes, honored my commitment to my growth, and celebrated with me when I finished.
I can still see Dave, following me around my classroom with a video camera, taking time out of his busy schedule to film my students for my National Board portfolio. And Emily contributed to my video application for Google Teacher Academy, another example of the kind of paradigm-changing professional development that has greatly impacted my work. Dr. Jessica Parker, my advisor in my M.A. program, has been a significant mentor whose work has had a tremendous influence on my classroom.
Other valuable professional development I have had include the Bay Area Writing Project Summer Institute (thank you, Greta Vollmer!) and conferences such as CUE, ISTE and NCTE. I have been lucky to have administrators who support my need to choose the professional development that benefits my teaching the most. Quality professional development and support from administration is critical, but teachers also need:
Autonomy to choose, revise, and deliver curriculum: after just one year of teaching, I read Nancie Atwell‘s groundbreaking book In the Middle, which introduced me to the writing workshop model. I met with Marilyn (my principal at the time) to ask if I could try this approach in the fall. There I was, a brand-new-sometimes-still-struggling teacher, asking to experiment with a pretty radical method for writing instruction. And Marilyn said yes. But more than that, she asked about the details: how would I handle assessment? accountability? parent concerns? And then she checked in with me throughout the year to see how it was going. She let me take charge of my classroom, but she didn’t walk away.
I’ve been the lucky recipient of this kind of admin. support in recent years, too. I still remember that September day in 2011 when I sat down with my then-principal, Emily Dunnagan, to propose that my 8th graders participate in NaNoWriMo, which meant I would be challenging them to write a novel in a month. She didn’t even hesitate; I still remember her exact words: “I love it! They would be writing every day! This is great!” And then, when we dove into NaNoWriMo for the first time, Emily joined my students on the journey. She brought her laptop to my classroom and wrote with the students; she competed with them in word counts on the Young Writers Program website; and she threw a pizza celebration for all the winners when it was all over.
Emily can take a great deal of credit for my students’ enthusiastic participation in NaNoWriMo and their resulting growth in writing skills. But my students would not have loved writing their novels if they didn’t have laptops, which means teachers need:
Resources: when I decided that my students needed laptops in our classroom (instead of trying to book our school’s one, shared computer lab), I turned to Petaluma Educational Foundation, a local non-profit that has been raising money for our schools since 1982. They awarded us with a $15,000 grant, which gave my students a half-set of laptops for classroom use. That was enough to get my students off and running with their novels, and the following year, PEF granted us another $15,000 to complete our classroom set. Those laptops brought about the single, most significant change in my curriculum and teaching, a change that only came about because of the resources available from PEF.
I’ve since received a grant for a weather system on our campus that allows our students to use real-time weather data from our site as well as sites across the country to learn about the science of weather (thank you, PEF); a smaller grant for a 3D printer for our Maker Space (thank you, Donors Choose); and two more grants for technology upgrades for our KTV broadcast media program (thank you, PEF and Educator Innovator). Grant writing is time-consuming and difficult, but well worth the efforts when one discovers the wealth of resources available to teachers. But we can still find ourselves alone in our classroom, facing the day-to-day demands of teaching on our own. How can we take advantage of the wisdom, expertise, and support of our colleagues? Teachers also need:
Collaboration time: a teacher’s day is jam-picked with in-my-face-need-it-now demands. There is never an opportunity to close my door, put my head down on my desk, and ask my non-existent secretary to cancel my afternoon appointments so I can meet with another teacher. The kids are there, every day, and I need to be with them. But sometimes our best resources are the teachers right next door to us, doing amazing things in their classrooms, yet the traditional school schedule doesn’t give us opportunities to collaborate with them. It wasn’t until I was asked to partner with colleague Isaac Raya on our school’s daily news show that I discovered the power of ongoing collaboration. Isaac and I didn’t teach together and we didn’t have much time to collaborate, but we started meeting each morning in our TV studio (along with five or six students) to broadcast our live news show. That 20 minute collaboration before school every day continued for three years, and we nurtured our little news show into a pretty professional student-run production. This year our KTV club has become an official class: two sections of broadcast media where students produce all the content and work every job of a professional news show, and we’ve added a third teacher to our digital media collaboration.
Isaac and I continue to collaborate on our KTV program, although without the daily face-to-face time. Much of our collaboration takes place via email, Twitter, and our class website. And our program is better because of our collaboration. How much better would all of our classes be if we had more opportunities to collaborate?
I’ve already broken the rule to keep-blog-posts-short-and-pithy, but maybe that makes my point: for teachers to be successful, we need a lot from the people in our schools, as well as from the greater community around us. It is a big and complex job to support teachers and give them resources to be successful. But if we want our students to succeed, shouldn’t we be investing all we can in their teachers?
What names would run across the screen during your Oscar speech? How did you become the teacher you are today?
So how could I possibly teach a class in which my students are learning these skills?
If we waited until we had coding teachers and animation teachers and architectural design teachers, our students would never encounter these potential careers until college. So rather than make them wait, I decided to let my 8th graders take advantage of the online tutorials and free programs that allow anyone to teach themselves coding, animation, architectural drawing, and more.
If a 3rd grader can code and sell apps in the Google Play store, and a 17-year-old can become a millionaire by selling his own app to Yahoo, then clearly our students don’t have to wait for teachers to impart knowledge. They can go out and find it on their own. Just listen to Sam, Luke and Dakota talk about the coding journey they’ve been on in my Digital Media class:
It was 1988, my first year of teaching, when I heard that teachers should be less a “sage on the stage” and more a “guide on the side.” And here we are, 26 years later, and teachers still need to be encouraged to let go of their role as the all-knowing sage and let students learn through hands-on projects and outside sources. With so much available to our students via the internet, why don’t we let them explore and learn through experience?
As Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org, says, the problem facing our future coders isn’t that coding isn’t cool. The problem is that coding isn’t available. Let’s give our kids a chance to discover coding — whether as a hobby or a future career — but let’s not wait until we have coding teachers and coding classes. It’s time to find ways to guide from the side. Time to get off the stage, sage.
Asking middle school students to write (and share) book recommendations isn’t new. It gives them the opportunity to write about literature they have enjoyed, be inspired to check out books that their peers have loved, and demonstrate their growing reading and writing skills for their teacher.
But move those book recommendations to the students’ own blogs, and suddenly they are learning a whole hard drive’s worth of new skills. As my students created their own blogs and crafted book reviews for their first blog posts, I wandered around the room, amazed at the myriad skills they were learning. Here’s a list, probably incomplete:
Next class we will talk about how to post appropriate, academic comments on a blog. And wouldn’t it be nice if all online users had the same lesson?
Are your students blogging? What benefits do you see?
2018 update: if you are interested in the details of this class, check out my latest article about it here.
I’ve been teaching English language arts for over 20 years, and as much as I love it, I have always wanted to add some variety to my work load by teaching an elective class. I envisioned this class as a break from the deluge of papers and a respite from the pressure of test scores, a place where I could have more fun with my students and let them explore interests outside of the traditional academic subjects. And I was right.
Last year my principal asked me to design an elective class around digital media, and she put her money where her mouth was by sending me to the CUE conference in Palm Springs, the ISTE conference in San Diego and a Google Apps for Education Summit in Santa Clara; and when I got accepted to the Google Teacher Academy, she paid my way there, too. I spent last summer building a Moodle page for this new class, offering my students choices and tutorials in a wide range of digital media opportunities.
Our digital media class changes as often as we find more websites, programs and tutorials to add to our list of choices. Take a look at what we have done so far:
Our junior high semester ends with three days of finals: two classes per day, two hours for each class. I could easily create a semester final exam that would take my students two hours to complete, but I’m not sure that would be the best use of our time (nor am I convinced that junior high students should be taking two-hour finals). So each year I look for effective ways to fill that two-hour block of time, allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways, providing time for breaks and collaboration.
This year’s two-hour block of time? Best. Final. Ever.
When my students walked into the classroom, they found the desks arranged in groups of four, with a laptop on each desk. They located their seats by checking a list of teams that I had projected onto the whiteboard. Once they were settled, I distributed a page of directions, and they were off and running.
The designated team leaders were given directions to create a new presentation in their Google Drive, and then share it with their teammates (via gmail) and with me. Then each team worked together to create a presentation about themes in literature. Using lines from a poem as a prompt, they identified one theme that was expressed in a novel and two movies we had studied. They were directed to create slides to present the information, and to include a symbolic image on each slide.
A sign of success, right off the bat, was that all the groups got to work right away. If they had questions, they asked each other. Most had never used Google Presentations before, but they are familiar with PowerPoint, so they could figure it out. And while they were demonstrating their knowledge of theme, they were also learning how to create effective visual presentations: carefully choosing the words for each slide, finding compelling symbolic images, inserting and citing the images, and creating a unified appearance from one slide to the next.
They worked for a little over an hour, and then each group shared their presentation with the class. Although many groups were working from the same lines of the poem, their interpretations of the themes varied, as did their examples from the literature and movies. One student asked if she could play a song from her phone during their presentation. I asked her why and she said the song expressed the same theme and would add “mood” to their project. Beautiful.
Three days before winter break, junior high students actively engaged in academic work for over an hour, and then attentively watching their classmates’ presentations?
Best. Final. Ever.
Bonus for me? I could grade them as they presented and have my semester grades done before winter break starts. Awesome.
One more reason to love project-based learning: as the weather gets warmer and the kids’ minds wander to summer, my students stay focused, working hard to complete projects that are due at the end of the semester. Of course one reason they continue to work so hard in spite of rampant spring fever is that their semester grade depends on their performance on these projects. But I know they are also working hard because they are engaged in meaningful work of which they are very proud.
This is how we stay focused and learning at the end of the school year in my 8th grade English language arts classroom:
The Magazine Project: my students have been writing, editing, designing, formatting, and printing their own magazines since February. Along with learning to write academic essays, they are also building their word-processing, graphic design, and new technology skills. Each student’s magazine centers on a topic of his/her choice, which helps them stay engaged in this semester-long project. The final product is a glossy, multi-page publication that looks like a professional magazine. The students glow with pride when they turn them in, and very few fail to complete the project.
Online Portfolios: rather than assigning a paper portfolio of my students’ best work, this year I taught them to build online portfolios using Weebly. Not only does this digital project capture their interest, but it teaches them to create an academic portfolio that they can keep, add to, revise, and improve until their senior year of high school, giving them an application-ready portfolio worthy of sending to colleges. The 8th grade work they post on their portfolios this year probably won’t make the cut four years from now, but the process engages them in an activity that builds their digital media skills while giving them real-world experience they can use throughout their academic careers.
Children’s Books: we ran out of time this year, but in past years my students have ended the spring semester by writing children’s books for schools in Uganda. In addition to the writing and publishing skills gained from the project, my young teens are exposed to the poverty and lack of educational opportunities faced by children in another country. I see their eyes opened and hearts broken by these innocent victims, and the book project gives them a very real way to make a difference in their lives.
Once the projects are complete, we spend our last couple class days of the school year sharing each other’s work. It’s so much fun to thumb through the magazines and children’s books, and check out portfolios on the LCD. And I’m pretty sure they enjoy that a lot more than wading through worksheets and gagging over grammar. Uh, yeah.