Saturday, October 17, 2015

Motivate Your Students

Is there a motivation problem is schools? I ask that question not because I am uncertain of how you might answer--I am assuming your initial answer is "Yes." I ask that question because I want you to consider whether or not there can be a "motivation problem."

Before I go any further, I would like for us to examine what motivation is. The root of the word motivate is the Latin term "motus," which means "to move." In essence, a motivation is "what moves you." Can we truly say that modern students are not moved by anything? Hmm...

Perhaps, then, what we are truly experiencing is a lack of direction in motivation. Our pupils are being moved, but they are taking on a velocity that we find contrary to the direction in which we want them to go. They are not ending up at the destination that we have identified as the "best place." With this in mind, we have to take responsibility for our part in this mismatch of interests.

I present to you this equation, which I was motivated (moved) to write when a LinkedIn colleague (Christian Karl) asked me the right question: motivation = exposure + interest + goal + confidence + resources. The rest of this article will assume that this equation is true. I am open to your counterarguments at the end. :)

Let's begin with exposure. Every person has a thing that makes him tick, an interest in some niche area of our world. However, it would be impossible for any one to find his rhythm in a niche that he has never experienced. As a result, it is our job as educators to expose our subjects to a plethora--a large, expansive room full--of topics in order to give each scholar the opportunity to feel his heart string vibrate. It is possible to intentionally plan for this kind of exposure in every classroom and at every level. If an educator, then, has not planned for variety, he or she cannot expect much motivation--movement--in a group of students with varied personalities.

Furthermore, with exposure comes developed and maturing interest. The moment when a learner makes a personal connection with new information is magical. Suddenly there is a kind of kinetic warmth that did not exist before: a new perspective, a new drive, a new curiosity. We do not all find our curiosities in the same places. This is why it is so important that we--the teachers--know that exposure and interest walk hand in hand. If we want pupils to be driven, we must accept that they can only be best driven by their curiosities about a given paradigm. It is no good to scratch the surface of thousands of concepts at warp speed. Warp speed does not allow time for consideration.

Interest--in both economics and education
--looks like this (hopefully).
With interest, students begin to set their own goals. Some of these goals may be tangible, but often
times they are not. Quite honestly, there have been times in teaching where I was in such a rush to "keep moving"--motivated by the breadth of content--that I did not give students opportunities to set or express their goals in relation to subject matter. Goal setting can happen almost instantaneously in response to a simple stimulus. A student may think, "God, I don't want to wind up in that individual's situation" or "This is a place I would like to visit," but he or she will need an outlet in which said goals can be expressed, acknowledged and nurtured without threat. In this kind of open environment where personal goals can be shared, motivation--an individual's willingness to move without being pushed--grows naturally.

Goals require confidence for completion. After all, we are not motivated (moved) to do things that we personally identify as impossible. I, personally, have no interest in walking in outer space. You may say, "Hey, that's possible. What's wrong with you?" But in response, I would say that I am not moved to study aeronautics. I am not moved to be trained in how to use the necessary equipment. I am not moved to go for a ride in a spaceship. As a result, walking in outer space--for me--is quite impossible. I am lacking the "confidere," the full trust in the procedures I would need to endure to go for a space walk. I cannot do it. If, however, I can communicate to a pupil that with certain resources a goal becomes more likely, I can stoke confidence where there is none.

If I can prove that the skill set that I am facilitating--the resource that I am offering--lends itself to a type of flexibility that makes room for the fulfillment of personal goals, I will be more likely to promote motivation--movement--in my listeners, even if they are a captive audience. Sometimes, we will have to demonstrate vested interest in our students' goals by helping them to find additional resources--be they financial, social, emotional, physical or other--in support of their desired ends. The more functional and appropriate the provided resources are, the more motivated (moved) the scholar will be to continue in pursuit of the said goal. So then, confidence and resources walk hand in hand. I cannot expect students to become more confident without the resources needed to operate successfully within a new paradigm.

What should we be doing with
our limited time?
I know what you're thinking right now. You're thinking, "Who has time for this? Are you really a
teacher? Have you even tried this for yourself?" And, I am prepared to answer that question. I contend that I was not a good teacher until I began to teach in this fashion. I did not know my students' motivators well, and so I spent a lot of time reinventing my methods of classroom management to make them pay attention. Quite frankly, I don't even pay attention in trainings unless I feel motivated, unless I have practical interest in the training topic, unless I can use the information to set a personal goal, unless I will have the resources I need to meet that goal accordingly. (You know you don't either.) As a learner, I expect that my position in the world will be respected and incorporated in the training I am required to undergo. Might our students feel the same way?

Don't our students have the right to have their leanings, their drives, their passions discovered and nurtured within the context of our instruction? Isn't that what teaching is about? If not, what are we all doing here?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Support the Common Core

We love brands, don't we? Our entire social world is based on assessing the quality or value of various brands: whether or not a pair of jeans is as good as Levi's; whether or not Pizza Hut or Domino's has the best sauce; whether Coke or Pepsi is better; whether certain private, ivy league schools are worth it when one can attend a local, lesser branded technical schools.

Personally, I've got a thing for Starbucks. The short mocha latte and I became closely acquainted in graduate school. These days, it's minus the latte. I like Starbucks because I know that when I walk into a Starbucks and order a short mocha, there are some basic characteristics that I can expect to arrive with my purchase: a certain amount of coffee, a certain amount of chocolate, a certain amount of sweetener should I request it, and a least a few options for additives like cinnamon, cream, whipped cream, etc. Sure, the customer service may differ from place to place, but my coffee's preparation is regulated by the company's training structure. I like that. Other Starbuck's coffee drinkers love that. That's why we pay what we pay for our morning joe.

What does all of this have to do with the Common Core? Well, branding has a lot to do with it. For almost everything else in our lives we are willing to apply a common standard: how to dress a wound, how to construct a building, how to boil an egg, how to pick a husband or wife, how to create a certain hairstyle, how to change the oil in a car, how to make a Big Mac, and etc. And with these common standards we have chosen for ourselves--by popular demand--certain brands that we trust and best like. We have made the manufacturers of those brands FILTHY RICH because we know that when we buy their products, we can expect a certain minimum quality.

You would think we'd readily apply the same law to education, not supply and demand but branding. We apply less variance in how we manufacture polo shirts than we do in how we educate children, a profession that SHOULD lend itself to producing end products (children) that have certain minimum skill levels in common: the ability to read for bias, the ability to knowledgeably discern w
hether or not to sign a contract, the ability to balance a checkbook and understand interest in lending, the ability to--gasp--use technology for personal and professional improvement, not just social entertainment.

Some say, "Well, not all children can do the same things anyway." But certainly, there are some things
that all children can be expected to do, aren't there? There are some performances, some skills, some concepts, some understandings that all human beings--provided the right instructional methods and resources--can commonly manipulate to some level of proficiency. The Common Core Standards writers synthesized hundreds of years of research on milestones, college expectations and changes in industry to draw for us a flowchart (so to speak) of the things we can all do if provided with the right inputs and stimuli. In other words, all fifth graders--regardless of where they live in the United States of America--should be able to perform the skills in the fifth grade list by the end of fifth grade IF those fifth graders hope to be competitive in our current economic environment.

You would think people would be excited that education has finally reached the level of supervision that Honda and Mercedes and Ford have enjoyed for quite some time, a requirement for minimal standards of quality in the end product (the children). However, people are increasingly angry and hesitant to even ATTEMPT the implementation of minimal common standards. Children are unlike products in that they don't all come with the exact same social raw materials (prior experiences, vocabulary, home support, financial stability, etc.), but do we really need those particular raw materials in common?

What if all we really need to help children reach their maximum potential is some level of attention and a brain, the physical raw materials? What if it's true that as long as a child can perceive or sense a stimulus, he can use experiences to achieve new levels of understanding and performance? Because, after all, the science says that's true. That's why you can bring a child out of total depravity in an African village, supplant him in an environment with the right supports and produce a medical doctor. Common ability is not so much about circumstances as much as it is about providing each child with the necessary stimuli to maximize cognitive growth.

The Common Core Standards are simply suggesting that stimuli MUST BE PROVIDED for children to perform certain skills at certain levels. The instructional methods will and should vary according to to the prior knowledge and cognitive processing speeds of each set of children; that's just good teaching and good cognitive science. And, as educators we are responsible for providing our society with quality citizens. Don't we play a key role in producing a viable populace, one that will not be enslaved to television advertisements and totally ignorant of why gas prices are rising?

Why are people so afraid of there being a common standard for what an American graduate brings to the table? When I hear religious fanatics complaining of the "antichrist leanings" of the standards, I feel strangely trapped in a time warp against basic scientific understanding. No where in the standards is there any suggestion toward or against one religion or another; the standards are a unit of measurement like an inch or a centimeter. I've never heard anyone complain of the antichrist leanings of a ruler. (Perhaps someone did.)

Is it so hard to believe that a child raised on the farms of middle America could be as smart or smarter than a child raised in Silicon Valley? Is it terribly impossible for a kid raised in the deserts of Arizona to equal or outperform a child raised in Manhattan when they are asked a set of basic, skills-based questions? Or, is the real problem the concern that they might all--really--be quite close in the end if they are provided with the right inputs at effective levels of instruction?

Economic theorists teach us that people don't really like equality; they like the feelings of superiority they get when they drive better brands of car, wear better brands of clothes, eat at better restaurants. Have we unknowingly contributed the same need for feelings of superiority in our educational systems?  Are we willing to sacrifice whole regions of children so that other regions of children--and their parents--can feel superior? Has a good education become like a Rolex watch, a symbol of privilege?

If good education has become an expensive name brand, and it may be so, we have a real problem in this country. Some people's children are being undereducated for the entertainment and encouragement of others' children. Communities are left in intellectual squalor for what reason? Why do children in some states perform consistently behind children in others? Why can't the states, all of them, agree; we are going to produce quality minds to (at least) this minimum standard?

What's the worst that could happen? Really?

Before you yell at me, have a read of those standards. Read the standards for yourself; do not consult an opinion column. Read them. Then, come back and let's have a talk about whether or not common teaching standards are good for our children.

If you're worried about whether your child can meet the expectations, I say to you that little Johnny might surprise you. There's a very good chance that he will.

For Pupils Sans the Politics,

Ms. Moss  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Demonstrate Reciprocity

Adam Yasneski, a LinkedIn associate and fellow educator, reminded me of a classroom/school management strategy that could quickly lower stakeholder resistance and build admin-teacher, teacher-student and student-student comradeship in your building. I've used it, and you may be employing it in your building already, but let's  make sure that we've said it out loud and recommended it to someone else who just needs to hear it.

Students--and all stakeholders--need to believe and see proof that there is reciprocity.

Let's look at some of the CLASSIC "Why do I have to do this..." questions that students ask us every year:

A) Why do you have to assign so much homework?

B) Why do we have to take pop quizzes?

C) Why do you assign so much reading?

D) Why do I have to write a rough draft first?

E) Why do I have to work out the WHOLE problem?

F) Why do I have to cite the source in this paper?


And let me tell you, "Because I said so" is not going to work in the professional environment. There are logical, science-supported answers to all of these questions, and you should provide your students with those very logical answers. You should also, however, make a direct connection between how hard they work for you and how hard YOU are going to work for THEM in response. For example:

A) I'm giving you a few questions each night so I can tell which concepts you don't understand. Then, when you come in tomorrow, if you misunderstood something, I'm going to explain it again a different way so you'll get it right on the test. (You do this, right?)

B) I give pop quizzes to help you set a study schedule. I know if you study a little each night, you'll be able to do better on exams. Also, I'm sure to write you quiz questions that will help you perform better on later test questions. (You do this, right?)

C) I'm assigning you the reading as a way of providing you with at-home reading experience related to my subject. When I'm getting ready to talk about something in class, I read through it first to pick out what I THINK you might need me to explain, but sometimes I may not find your question without your help. When you read the text and bring me questions, I can clear up your specific misunderstandings for you. (You do this, right?)

D) When you write a rough draft, I can give you valuable feedback about your organization, content, grammar and voice before you turn in your final paper for grading. That way, your paper grades will be higher, and your paper quality will be better. (You do this, right?)

E) You have to work the whole problem because I need to see that you've mastered the steps. I know that at this level, you feel like you can do the one or two steps in your head and get the right answer. However, at the next level of Math, you will have to do four, or five, or six steps one after the other. If I can find and fix errors in your working early, your later math will be easier for you. (You do this, right?)

F) You have to cite the source so I can make sure that you've used a reliable one, not a source created by a ten-year-old. That's important because misinformation is very hard to unteach, and it will take me a long time to get the right information into your head after you've filled it with the wrong stuff. Also, we want to be sure that you know how dangerous plagiarism is for your future professional life.

These are just some justifications for instructional choices that show reciprocity (I will work for you as you work for me), and you should always be ready to justify--before students and administrators--your reasons for employing certain strategies and task types in your classroom.

Let's not leave out teacher-administrator questions!

A) Why do I have to write lesson plans?
When I read your lesson plans, I can recommend to you remedial and accelerated options to use when students perform outside of your expectations. I know that you must plan for the majority; I want to support you by noting strategies that will help you to include all.

B) Why do we have Professional Learning Community meetings every week?
I always want to know your concerns and what you need me to do to support your instruction. If there is a particular management issue, I want us to address that during the school day and in a way that will allow you to immediately try the solution and see if it works. Also, if there is a new initiative for us to try, I don't want you to attempt it without resources--including key conversations--that could lead to more immediate success.

C) Why do I need to write out a whole unit plan?
I need to see your thinking in the process of planning toward an end-product. I may be able to reveal an area of concern that you missed. In addition, I want to be able to provide you with community contacts or ideas that might lead to more authentic products for students to share with others.

D) Why am I being observed AGAIN?
I want to applaud you for what you've continued to do well, observe that the changes you've made are leading to success and suggest things to make your workday and interaction with students easier.

E) Why are you checking my data notebook?
I want to make sure you have all the data you need to make the best instructional decisions. Also, I want to make sure that you realize who your remedial and accelerated performers are so we can have tasks ready to keep them engaged and improving at the appropriate pace.

All of these answers demonstrate that as a result of YOUR work, I am working for YOU.

And parent-teacher/administrator questions:

A) Why is my child failing?
Your child is failing because he has not been able to show me in his written and spoken work that he is
able to apply what I'm teaching. However, I am preparing some alternative assignments that will allow your child to review the information in a different format and complete some related tasks (not the same tasks). He can try again and make some major improvements with your help.

B) Why are you calling me at work?
I have an urgent matter that I know we can discuss and settle quickly. I'll then make a plan that we agree can help your child to reach success.

C) Why is my child being suspended?
Your child needs some time away to consider how his actions might lead to major danger among his peers and his future colleagues in the professional setting. While he's away, we are going to plan some ways to help your child achieve balance and success in the school setting.

D) Why do I have to come in to sign a learning plan document?
We want to make sure that you understand the steps being taken to support your child's learning. If you have any questions, you'll know specifically what to ask about so we can make necessary changes.

E) Why is your dress code like that?
Our dress code is designed to allow all students to work in an environment without distractions. We don't want any one's child to be more focused on the dress of another student than he is on the instruction being delivered in the classroom. We want your child to get the knowledge you send him to school to get.

The community has its own list of ever-evolving questions, and there should be some reciprocity demonstrated in all those answers as well! I'm not talking about lip service; I'm talking about actions that can be supported with documentation and witness testimony. That's why it's important to ask yourself if you're actually doing the things that show reciprocation of effort.

If you want hard work and understanding from others, you have to show that you are a hard worker who takes time to understand others' vantage points. That's the law of reciprocity. It applies in all aspects of our world.

If you don't think that the law of reciprocity applies in schools, just give it a try. If you're a teacher, assign a 5-7 minute task where students are working and getting immediate feedback from you as a result. Call a parent and present them with a list of good things his child has done this week before sharing your concerns. If you're an administrator, visit a teacher's classroom with the data in-hand before you start the conversation about performance. Call the child's parent in for a meeting after you've already prepared a list of options for that child. Show, through your actions, that reciprocity is alive in your organization.

I bet that your office, your classroom, your school, will be more often lit by stakeholder smiles that smoldering with stakeholder anger.

Happy Hard Work and School Management,

-Ms. Moss

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Address the Prior Knowledge Problem

If you are a teacher who works with students at any level of remedial instruction, you are familiar with this thought: “Oh my God. Where do I start?” Am I talking only to SPED teachers? No. Am I talking only to Credit Recovery teachers? No. I am talking to any teacher working in a classroom where the majority performs significantly below grade level. The “Oh my God” not only relates to the initial shock you get after the first pre and posttests; it also covers the feeling you have when you sit down to plan your instruction.

After all, what words can you use that they already know to explain convergence in plate tectonics? How many different layman’s terms can you conjure up to produce just the right image in the minds of your pupils?

When you find yourself at this crossroads and in the middle of the “Oh my God” struggle, you are presented with the opportunity to make a choice, to pick the response that would lead to a win-win for all stakeholders. You’ve probably heard some instructors respond in one of these five ways:

A) “The kids come to me three years behind. I can’t get them on grade level this year anyway. I’ll just mention it and keep moving.”

B) “Well, there are a few bright kids in the class. I can do groups and let the bright kids explain the concept again to the other children.”

C) “I’ll put some notes/explanations in the PowerPoint and let the kids take notes. If they study it, they’ll get it eventually. “

D) “I’ll assign the reading for homework, and either they can enrich themselves or not; it’s their problem.”

E) “They have the Internet. They use their cell phones for everything else. If they can Facebook, they can get the background on the concept if they need it.”

I present to you this: ALL of these, A-E, are wrong attitudes for instructors. Don’t get upset just yet; consider these truths:

A) As a teacher, your job is to improve pupils’ social and academic lives. You are expected to move students, to guide them into and through levels of personal success for improvement. That’s sort of the calling card of the profession. If you don’t like doing that, you might—possibly—be in the wrong career.

B) Who moves the “bright kids” while they are reteaching content to the remediating students? By placing instruction in their hands, you are requiring children to use their personal power to translate instruction to the others. Don’t the “bright kids” have a right to keep growing as the majority does? Aren’t we supposed to provide all children with enriching educational experiences? Should the “bright kids” be forced to mull about in a unit they have obviously mastered while the others catch up?

C) If the children do not possess the language or the understanding required to imagine, discuss, analyze and evaluate the conditions of your concept in the classroom, will notes on a PowerPoint slide help? If notes can help, doesn’t the kind of notes provided matter? Isn’t this akin to giving an average ten-year-old a collegiate dictionary and asking him to look up the word “gentry?” After he gets the “notes,” he probably will still have no applicable understanding of the concept “gentrification.”

D) Expecting remedial students to independently choose passages to read for enrichment is almost like asking them if they want a root canal for breakfast. The explanation here is similar to the one in C. If language and understanding are the problem, the average student does not possess the resilience required to choose, decode, study and fully process the grade-level support literature on his own.

E) The Internet is not a teacher; it’s a huge electronic library. You and I use it to learn because we are familiar with library rules (in the brick and mortar and online environments).  We know where to go to get the information we need. Most children are as Net literate as they are library literate; they are using the Internet for social interactions. Expecting children to gain mastery by using supporting Internet sources, then, is like asking them to use their lunchtime to discuss quantum physics.

I propose that we not think in any of these ways because in all of these attitudes, students lose. As the teachers, the coaches, we’re supposed to help kids win.

Let’s go back to the “Oh my God” moment, and let’s take a different turn. Before you let any other question crop up in your mind, ask yourself: What building blocks/avenues do my students need to get to my desired academic destination?

You’ve seen pictures of the neural pathways of the brain. (If you haven’t, use the Internet.) Our thoughts and understandings build on each other in a beautiful web of electric connectivity. Small concepts branch into larger, more complex ones in all sorts of directions. Here’s an example of one such direction: food to fruit to apple to Granny Smith to apple pie, etc. If one part of the thinking web, say the word “apple,” is somehow distorted in the mind—or if that part of the connection for some reason NEVER EXISTED in the mind—the whole understanding (and its resulting communication) is affected.

Imagine a two-year-old jumping up and down, pointing to an apple and screaming, “I want that; I want that!” You cannot say, “Use your words” if the word “apple” has never been spoken in a situation where the word and the object were demonstrated as inextricably linked.

As a remediating teacher, you have to repair the cognitive pathways by backtracking the connections and filling in the holes. So, ask yourself again, “What building blocks/avenues do my students need to get to my desired academic destination?” What MIGHT they be missing that MIGHT prevent them from getting it?

Some building blocks are repeat offenders on the NEVER EXISTED list. I want to talk about three that could change your teaching and your students forever: vocabulary, convention and function.

If you’ve been around the block a bit, you already know that there are levels of vocabulary. (If you don’t, use the Internet.) Some kinds of vocabulary—the academic words like describe, analyze, compare and contrast—apply in all subjects; but some kinds of vocabulary—like antebellum, figurative language, Pythagorean theorem and buoyancy—are subject specific. You might be mortified to know that BOTH of these types of vocabulary MIGHT be FAR ABOVE what your students are currently able to handle! Before students are able to express ideas at either of these vocabulary levels, you will have to model a number of discussions on a number of topics while demonstrating the connections between these words and the desired thinking process.

The thinking process (the way new words/terms transform, how they are normally used and the understandings those terms communicate within a subject) is conventional. For a remedial student, these three heavy-hitting connections are likely missing. That means that in your planning, you must anticipate a need to start at the vocabulary level and actually walk through, with the children, the conventions, applications and understandings linked to those words.

Lastly, students need a connection to the real-world functions of our concepts. The question “How am I going to use this” should always be answered before it is asked. As adults, we don’t waste our time studying things we don’t think will benefit us in the long run. After a certain age, children feel the same way; and quite frankly, children need to know the practical function of concepts in their everyday world in order to truly understand them.

Here’s what you do after the “Oh my God:”

A) Breathe. Remember that you are working with young minds that need your tutelage, and keep in mind that they can tell when you’re afraid to teach them.

B) Establish your end product. Ask yourself, “What can a child DO or what can they CREATE to show me that they’ve really gotten this concept?” That ending performance task will be the first thing you talk about; not the last. This gives the children a focus and moves them toward functional understanding.

C) Pre-plan conversations and brief, timed activities that will allow you to drop each cognitive block into place. When you first begin to do this, it will take you HOURS to figure out the baby steps to the big ideas. With some practice, you’ll be able to get from “authoritarianism” to “isms” to “ideologies/ideas” to “human practices” to “things people sometimes do” to “make a judgment” in no time. Note: the vocabulary, the convention and the function are important and all three MUST be a part of delivery. Plan to deliver and discuss INTERACTIVELY all of those three in the classroom setting.

D) Ask the children lots of questions, and call every child, every day. Class time may seem to interfere with this practice, but structure your lessons to allow for a bit of teacher to pupil to group time for every student. Encourage children to just answer from their thoughts; that is how you will find the missing information you must teach. That is also how you will find misinformation that you will need to reteach.

E) Have students read, write and speak in your class every day. Chunk the reading; or in other words, go for quality paragraphs instead of skimmed chapters. Expect them to read CLOSELY for specific information. Remedial students need to be guided through the process of investigating texts for particulars.

F) Assign home tasks that allow students to use their class writings and remnants of class conversations to review the concepts. Yes, I’m saying assign homework. Quality is better than quantity. One excellent reflection question is better than assigning twenty questions that will come back incorrect.

G) Assess regularly in various ways. Conversations, pop quizzes, regular quizzes, homework questions, quickwrites, post-it answers, assess, assess, assess. You are looking to make sure that cognition will not be interrupted because of missing cognitive blocks. It’s just like checking a new train track; you must be looking for breaks in the track.

H) Expect growth as a group. Always let your children know where they should be at the end of a set time. This practice is not cruel; it is necessary. Children must learn to set personal goals and work hard until they meet them. Then, once they meet those goals, your students will feel a real sense of achievement.

Again I say, you don’t have to believe me right away. Just TRY these method for one unit. Come back and tell me what happened.

I bet you’ll be surprised at what your children can do when you’ve repaired the breaches and allowed new concepts to assume their natural connective places in children’s neural networks.

Big Brains and Bobbleheads to You,

Ms. Moss

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I Want to Convince You to... Keep Teaching

You're probably reading this article because you've already started applying for jobs at retail locations and telecommunications companies. You got your undergraduate degree or you completed your alternative route program and you believed that you were going to change the world.

Then, some twelve-year-old called you every foul name in the Modern English language on your second day of school... or the fifteenth... or the fiftieth, and it's been all downhill from there.

You're upset, and you feel like nobody is doing what they're supposed to do. The discipline is too relaxed. The paperwork is too consuming. The testing is nerve-wracking. The kids are ungrateful. The parents are sometimes degrading. The hours are just grueling, and the pay is barely enough for you to take care of your students and enjoy your summer vacation, which is overtaken by training, summer school district initiatives and unit planning.

Yet, I'm going to present you with a paradox. Education is a great, necessary evil. I share in your pains and frustrations, but teachers have been plagued with the problems of humanity since humanity began. Humans do not come out of the womb preprogrammed to function independently. A man's first teachers, his parents, are attached to a sort of whipping post where they must sacrifice all the niceties of life--private space, girls' nights out, weekend trips, nest eggs, even full nights of sleep--to nurture the otherwise wild nature of the said child. Some children refuse to follow sleep schedules until they're way past their toddler years. Some never get "on schedule" well into young adulthood.

Parents, as teachers, can never escape the imperfections of their pupils. They teach and teach until they die, and they hope to God that their children apply half of what was taught during the full span of their parenting lives.

You should NEVER expect to lay down your life on the classroom floor (and if you're doing that you need a break immediately), but you should expect the typical teacher challenges that our predecessors have enjoyed (or endured, lol), a list that includes: isolation, mockery, antagonism, defamation, lynch mobs (factions), dropouts, groundless evaluations (and inept evaluators), confrontations with the public, questioning from the students and more.

I wonder how many times one of Plato's students left the group and decided to train for a sport instead.

The bottom line is that the problems of teaching have not changed much. In fact, our position throughout the ages has bettered a little, since no one can hang you for heresy if you invite your students to question certain philosophies and ideas.

What has changed most is our access to resources. Plato could not recount for us--up to the minute--the number of people who left his seminars, the variance in attendance per person, the topics most listeners enjoyed and returned to further explore. He left us no best practice videos. He could not share with us the particulars of brain-based education. He could provide for us no up-to-date management methods for the head-of-household teenagers of his century. In short, information is giving us a leg up if we use it properly.

What we must do as teachers, then, is make time to teach ourselves. Most teacher education programs DO NOT prepare teachers for the high and low tides of the classroom, and in four years they cannot. There are some things you must learn on-the-job  with the population you serve. So, if you want staying power, you have to become a student again.

BEFORE YOU LEAVE, look at yourself carefully like you would look at a student who came to you
for help. Ask yourself:
  • What are you doing with your free time?
  • Are you getting enough sleep?
  • Do you eat wholesome meals?
  • Have you cultivated a healthy relationship with your parents?
  • Are you following healthy friendship/dating relationship standards?
  • Are you controlled by your television schedule?
  • Are you goal-focused and driven?
  • Have you thought about how your present actions will affect your future?

Think of all the things we ask kids that we don't even ask ourselves! How much time did YOU spend studying last week's lesson? And WHY ARE YOU teaching it? And WHY DID YOU teach it that way? And do you REALLY care if the kids learned it?

I'm a teacher, and I'm not here to beat you down. I want to lift you up and shake you out a little. If you chose this field knowing its challenges, you are a VIP. Before you leave, think about whether you've given this thing your best and cleverest efforts.

If you haven't, you'll be miserable anywhere else. Picture Ghandi locked up behind a cubicle wearing a VOIP headset. I can't imagine he would have been happier there than he was teaching non-violence through what we all know was real-time, very public suffering.

Happy Teaching (or Not),

-Ms. Moss

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Homework, an Old Faithful

I guess you've already met at least two teachers who have sworn off homework, and they're not alone. Some teachers just can't be bothered with chasing after students to get homework returned. You may have heard, "I'm not gonna spend time planning for homework review when they're not even gonna bring it back the next day." 

Other teachers aren't sure how to incorporate at-home tasks into class reviews, so they limit themselves to in-school instruction and practice only: "Even if they do the homework, am I really gonna have time to do corrections and class discussion before completing the objectives that follow? How will I stay on schedule?" 

I can understand both of those reasons for wanting to give little to no homework, and neither of those addresses another common reason for avoiding homework assignments: "Homework is just another thing to grade, and I already don't have time to grade the papers that I have." 

What element do all of these reasons for hating homework have in common? You've got it; it's time. No teacher wants to feel like he or she is wasting that most valuable commodity, the golden goose in every educator's life, TIME. I propose, however, that homework can save you time and energy if it is properly implemented and rewarded in your classroom.

First, let's have a look at what homework is supposed to be and what it is supposed to do.

Homework, for the sake of this blog, is students' opportunity to demonstrate to their teacher what they have learned or known about a chosen concept. It does not ask students to embark on new tasks without previous guidance or explanation; rather, a home task asks students to apply previous knowledge to a direct (obvious) or synthetic (creative, applied) product. The teacher has already given the background information. Every child has the capacity and provided support to complete the task.  

Big whoop, right? What does all that mean for homework assignments, how does homework make our lives better and how do we get the children to bring the stuff back? Good questions!

First, the size of homework assignments matters. The widely accepted "10-Minute Rule" (read this one) suggests that no homework assignment should be longer than ten minutes per day per grade level. A fifth grader wouldn't have more than 50 minutes of homework per day; more than 50 minutes wouldn't appropriately fit the average maturity level and attention span of a fifth grader. There would be 20 minutes of homework per day for a second grader, and 60 minutes of homework per day for a sixth grader, etc. Notice, there is no "per class" designator, so teachers would have to consider the amounts of homework given in other classes when assigning their own.  

If students believe you are considering their time when you plan homework assignments, they will be more likely to complete the work you send. (The same is true for teachers who are completing tasks for principals or committees.)

Second, the kind of homework matters. It's good to assign homework that allows students to argue their points of view with support. Though this kind of assignment requires some reading and writing, it also engages students in critical thinking, logical organization and sharing when students return. People like talking about themselves (and students are people too, lol). When a safe environment has been established, students feel happy to hotly debate controversial topics. All subjects have controversial topics in them. When students get hot under the collar about class topics, real learning is taking place. 

Third, the expected product matters. This relates directly to the amount of time it would take to produce the task. It would be unfair to expect typed papers out of students who have no access to computers or typewriters, and it would be just as ludicrous to require models from students who cannot buy materials. When teachers can demonstrate to students that they have chosen a reasonable product, students are more likely to return with an assigned task completed.    

When homework is a functional, social part of the classroom, it's not so much of a hassle. It becomes the "easy 100" part of the grading table, and students like the easy 100s. Also, we must not look at homework as a burden to us, the teachers. It is a means of expression for the children. It tells us right away what the child took away from class discussion, and it shows us misunderstandings that we otherwise might not discover.

Don't just take my word for it. Assign one homework assignment that considers the size/time, kind and expected product for student work, and tell me what happens the next day. I wonder if that kid you've had to chase all year will come to school with a paragraph of reasons why he's right. ;) 

Beach Balls and Parachutes,

-Ms. Moss

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Google Voice, a Communication Tool

Students love their cell phones. We can't blame them, after all. We love our cell phones too. I use my cell as an alarm clark, a calendar, an appointment book, a radio, an instant messenger... the list goes on and on. Quite frankly, I'm sure you have your own list of uses for your cell, and it's probably a bit more exhaustive.

Here's a question for you, assuming you agree that students and teachers have cellular love in common: "What happens when the cellular becomes a tool for classroom communication?

If you feel yourself getting defensive, don't retort just yet. Consider what Google Voice is first, and then make your final determination.

Google Voice is a hybrid calling environment where you can send and receive text messages, receive voice messages and make phone calls from your cellular phone (for free) USING A VOIP TELEPHONE NUMBER. That means your students will never have your personal cell number; they will see your Google Voice number when you send reminders, homework support notes or classroom announcements.

In addition, Google Voice keeps a transcript of every message sent or received through its platform. That means a student could never accuse you of sending something inappropriate via your Google number; all messages are maintained like e-mails in an organized list according to phone number.

If you take the time to create a directory (which I highly recommend the moment you get students' cell numbers), your messages will be organized according to student name, time and date.

How might this make your teacher life easier and your students' academic lives more exciting?

First, a student will never have an excuse for coming to class without homework again. When you assign a task for homework, you can text it to all students (and their parents if parents are interested) immediately. Everyone knows that homework was assigned. Even if the student deletes the homework text--which he might--Google Voice will keep a copy of that message and a record of where and when it was sent.

That's not the only way that Google Voice can revolutionize homework. A second use, which I thoroughly enjoy, is allowing students to shoot you a text message when they struggle with certain parts of independent assignments. If a student gets halfway through an assignment at 6:30 p.m. but he feels subconscious about the work's quality, he can simply shoot you a text message (to your Google Voice number) which says, "I am completing assignment X, but I feel really uncomfortable about part B. Can we talk about this tomorrow?" You now have real-time student reflections about tasks, and that might give you insight into concepts that need re-teaching or clarification.

A third use for Google Voice is to give students praise or show concern regarding daily activities. It is good to call parents will students do well, but students also appreciate it when you take a moment to say to them: "Good performance in class today; I called Mom to let her know." This for some of us may seem like a lesser use for the technology, but students like to know when their parents have been contacted. I have even used Google Voice to ask students about absences: "I noticed you were absent today. Is everything okay? Do you need your work" or "Be sure to bring a note to attendance in the morning regarding absences." This kind of teacher interaction--if used correctly--can build excellent rapport with your students and their parents.

There are many things you SHOULD NOT DO with Google Voice and the power of captive audience through cellular phone access, but they are pretty much the same things no teacher should do with the power of captive audience in the classroom: no inappropriate relationships, no insults, no proselytization, etc.

You don't have to believe in the value of this communication tool because I say it's wonderful; give it a try. A Google Voice account is free to open and free to use when you make your calls and send and receive messages via your paid cellular number. If you already have a Google Mail account, your login to Google Voice is the same as your Google Mail login information.

I promise that you will never look at after-class communication the same way after you have seen what Google Voice can do for you.

Text Messages and Technologies,

-Ms. Moss