Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Summer Process

     Teachers Get the Summer Off

     In my 24 years of teaching (has it really been that long? Whoa (in Neo's voice from The Matrix!)) I must have heard that statement a billion times. I always would smile or say "Yeah." But now that I have had many summers behind me, I realize that while one could argue that summers are time "off" it is, like most things in life, a bit more complicated than time "off." 
     I have always tried to convey to my students the importance of the process of learning, seeing the forest and the trees, emphasizing thinking over facts. So while technically the summer time is time where teachers are not in front of students and we don't have to go into work, being "off" is not necessarily accurate either. So here is how and why the summer is such a vital part of the teaching process for teachers.



     I'm thinking....I'm thinking.....

     As teachers we are always saying that we want our students to use critical thinking skills when they are engaged in the material. But when we say that, do we take the time to think about what that really means? Do we give them the time to process their thinking? I know we are all pressed for time with the content we teach, but if we truly want our students to be thinkers that are critical of the world around them, we have to give them the ability to process what they see. Content is content. The skills to use that content is what matters most. 
     So....for teachers, for me, the summer is that time to process what has happened during the school year, what you want to do in the next year and anything and everything in between!! Summer is that processing time for teachers to not use their brains and to allow them time to process their own learning. I think it is vitally important for teachers to realize that, yes, you are or ought to be learning while you are teaching. I do all the time. Students are marvelous for teaching us about learning and teaching. 
     Another reason why the summer is vitally important for teachers is we are always constantly learning ourselves. Whether it is an inservice, a PLC meeting, or a simple conversation or email exchange that spurs ideas, thoughts, lessons, or ways to improve our art, teachers are never really in "off" mode. Our brains are wired in such a way that we are constantly thinking about how to make our students learn about the world around them. 
     The summer adds that much needed time to reflect and think about how you do what you do in the classroom with your students. That processing time for me is such a key component of how I do what I do in my class. Yes, we as teachers have the summers "off" but that off time is so so vitally important for what we do when we get back into the classroom. It is a part of the process of teaching.

Energy: Recharging

     One of the aspects of teaching that no one can really prepare you for is how much energy that students have and can take from you. Sure, you have the weekends to recoup from that energy exchange, but as the year goes on, I find it harder and harder to replace that energy. Remember, teaching and learning is a process, and the energy you give, take and exchange with your students is a big part of that process. It helps you to build relationships with your students too, a very important part of teaching. 
     The summer is a time, not to just go on vacations, but to replace and store that energy that you will need during the school year. You are not sitting at a desk in a cubicle working on papers and/or a computer. You are working with people, constantly, and those people will sap and take your energy. That does not mean it's a bad thing, but the nature of teaching means it will just happen as a matter of fact. The summer is a good time to reflect, think, replace that energy and time you spend during the year. You will need it as a part of your job, so while I am not in front of my students it is vitally important that if I want to give my students a positive experience (which I do) that energy replacement and storage is a part of what I do.

Decompression: what day is it?

     If I may, one of the greatest feelings in the world for a teacher is waking up during the summer and not knowing what day it is. Total bliss. I think this bliss comes from the fact that for teachers, their lives during the school year are completely regimented by the 48 or however many minutes are in a class period. So scheduled. Eat in 20 minutes or less because you have so much to do. I think that regiment which is so strict makes the days and weeks go by so fast that when you have time to not do that, you get lost in the hours and days. The 48 minutes blurs into hours and days and weeks and before you know it, you have lost track of time. 
     That losing track of time during the summer is truly needed. You spend so much of your school year thinking and reflecting and thinking some more and while you get some breaks, you are really never truly "off" until you know you won't have students for a few months. It's engrained in a teacher's brain. Cannot be helped. It's a good thing learn to learn and find things that will be helpful for you and your students. I also make the analogy of parent-teacher conferences where you get home after a 12-14 hour day and you are surely tired, but you cannot sleep. It's like your brain won't stop and you have to find a way to decompress, to stop your teacher mode from is always present when it knows you need it.
     Even when school is out and you know for a fact you won't be back with students for a longer period of time, it still takes about 2 weeks to unwind and pack the teacher mode for the fall. So while the summer may appear to the outsider that it is "off time" for teachers, it is, but it isn't. I honestly think that the "off time" is a very crucial and necessary part of teaching. You must decompress or it will seriously impact your teaching. You are better for it, a better person and a better teacher. 

Planning: still need to implement

     You ask any teacher and they will tell you that if they could have one thing they would tell you this: time. More time to plan more time to think, more time to have conservations with their colleagues. It is the very nature and paradox of the job: you need more time so in-services are planned and attended and you find new ideas and methods. However, they still have to be implemented. One way to get more time is to attend summer PD sessions when you have the "time off" to go to them. I love summer PD when you are more relaxed, more not in teacher mode but the training gets you into teacher mode in a very relaxed way. But just like most things, there is a catch. 
     Here's the catch: as much as PD is great and summer PD is even better, you still have to implement what you have heard and learned. You still have to do. No matter how good the PD is and how wonderful the ideas may be, you still have to work it out when you get to the classroom. Even if the methods are tried and true and have worked in other classrooms, they have not necessarily worked in your classroom and you have to make it work. This is the beauty and dilemma in teaching: there are so many great ideas in education, but the implementation of them is the other half of the equation.
     So with the "time off" I find that I read a lot, I plan a lot, attend PD when I can, but in the end, it sometimes can be too much and you say to yourself (at least I do) "Okay this is great, but I need to just teach!" I can see the great potential in ideas and PD and chats with others who think the same, but it's the implementation of all of that which makes teaching such an art. You learn, you adjust, you craft it so it works for you. That is the art of teaching and the summer, the "time off" is a crucial part of the process of that art. You cannot make that art if you don't have the time to process, to think, to craft, to make it work for you. 

     So yes! I have the summer's off. But this time is just as important as my time in front of the class with the students. Probably more important if I think about it. The time away the time to process the time to not be in teacher mode all the time is what makes teachers better. So while it may appear that we are "off" for the summer, please understand that the time is much needed, valued and vital to the perfection of our craft.
     Leave any thoughts or ideas in the comment section. Make it a great year!!

Monday, December 28, 2015

My 2016 Goals

"Sometimes things will bend you,
But trust me you'll be fine,
I've been moving mountains that I once had to climb.
And life's not out to get you,
Despite the things you've been through,
Because what you give is what you get,
And it doesn't make sense to make do."
---Neck Deep, Gold Steps

               I have been thinking lately about how far I have come and all of the changes in my classroom in the past year and what this means for my teaching in the future. I am not a huge fan of "resolutions" but I do think that setting goals for the future is a good thing as an educator. I look at these goals as something I want to do. I am a big believer in having ideas, no matter how big and how impossible they may seem, and implementing them even if it's messy and doesn't work. In fact, I prefer if it's messy and doesn't work. Nothing is perfect and being able to make it better should be the goal of all educators. So, with this in mind, here is what I want to accomplish in the coming year.

     1. Turn my students into producers, not just consumers.

     Sit and get. Sage on the stage. I talk, they listen. If I don't tell them, they won't understand. But do they really listen? How do I know they understand? I have always had this dilemma as a teacher. Before the shift in education to get away from the traditional lecture style classroom, I have always been frustrated with this approach simply from the results I was seeing on a regular basis. Sure students could answer a multiple choice question, but to get them to explain something related to that question and they were coming up short. So I began to find ways to change this from group work (structured the Wolski Way!) to projects to anything I can find to get students to understand the material better. So when the trend in education began to turn towards having students actually do something, I was naturally on board with this idea. 
      I taught a class called Contemporary World Issues which really pushed me into making the students producers and not just consumers. The topics like technology, terrorism, and sustainability were so fluid and complex that to do a traditional class would be so time consuming and really impossible that I let go and gave more control of the learning to the students. I tried to make every unit have some sort of product at the end for them to demonstrate to me that they understood the topic. It was a lot of work, but it was worth it when I saw the results. They did beautiful work. And, to top it off, they even excelled on a traditional paper and pencil assessment at the end of the class. This was encouraging in a big way.
     Now I want to adopt this for both my AP American Government and my College Government classes too. I have started to do this a little bit in my AP class, but have to adjust it to the twice a week blended model that I am currently in right now. It is very doable, but it takes a lot of adjustments. One of the adjustments is to get students used to this approach. They love the sit and get, because it's easy and they know the game. They are very capable of being producers, and the world they are going into will demand this, so it is worth pushing them outside their comfort zones. 
     The hard part for me is finding the best way to accomplish this. It is worth the trial and error, the effort. My goal is to begin to introduce at least one "producer-like" project or assignment per unit for both of my classes this coming year. I have some of the ground work already done, I just have to make it happen and be consistent with it in a purposeful way.

     2. How do I know they know? The use of formative assessments

     How do we know when students "get" the material we are trying to convey to them? This should be and is the burning question on every teacher's mind when they think about assessing their students. I used to think that the end assessment was the best way to gear where the students were at any particular moment. But then I slowly realized that at that point, it's too late? How do you go back to parts of the unit when you have already moved on to the next unit? Enter formative assessments. I had the unique pleasure of receiving some Marzano training early on before Marzano became a household name in education. One of the biggest moments for me during the training was realizing I had to check for understanding much earlier than at the end of the unit. 
     I have been working on my formative assessments, especially in the new blended model. It's nowhere near where I want them to be, so this is a big goal for me this year. I also have to perfect my assessments. Is a 5 question MC that is self graded a good way to see if students know the material? What about a simple question that students have to write an answer? How do I keep track of 85 students plus another 65 in a timely fashion? This is what I have to work on in the coming year. I think a combination will be good. I am always up for suggestions, dear Constant Reader, so if you have any, let me know in the comment section. If I can get closer to perfecting this, it will go a long way to helping me and the students.

     3. Be the agent of change

     I know, I know, this phrase, in one way or another, gets tossed around a lot in education. I am taking this to heart however. I want to spread what I have witnessed in my teaching to others. I know much what I have done and have seen students do has the potential to help others. While there is a lot going on in education today that one could use to be pessimistic and/or angry about, I also think that there is a lot of potential too. You just have to make sure you constantly find it, use it, refine it and make it your own. 
     Hey look, standards are standards. There are many that have complained against the Common Core and I can understand some of their arguments, but while I have some reservations about any set of standards handed down to us as teachers from the political realm, they are still just standards. They are workable. You can still do great things with them. I think some of the magic in teaching is working with what you have and making the students rethink their own learning. I believe you can do awesome things like PBL, 20 Time and making students creators with any set of standards anyone gives you. 
     My goal then is to share, help, encourage, and entice people to get out of what is comfortable, what is safe and push themselves as educators. This philosophy is what I believe to be the future for education. We cannot wait for others to decide for us that what we are doing needs improvement. That is our job, should be our job and truly is what could make education great. <steps off soapbox, dropping mic!> I know this sounds weird, but after 23 years in the classroom I don't think I have perfected the art yet. But I believe I have made some headway and have done some pretty good things. I want to spread that to anyone and everyone who will listen and take risks in their classrooms and beyond. 

     I could have added more goals, but I think it's prudent to stick with just 3 because, well, I tend to try too much and these goals are pretty big in nature and scope. I will keep you updated as to how they are going, feel free to add a comment or two! 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Natural Evolution to Blended Learning

     As I sit here and type this I am both excited and scared at the same time. I have agreed to take my AP American Government class and not only extend it to a whole year, but to blend it as well. I will meet with my students (4 sections so far) alternate days of M-W and T-Thurs and every other Friday. I honestly do believe that if you do not push yourself as a teacher, you become stale and complacent, fearing the smallest change in the profession. Having said that, did I bite off more than I can chew? There is a part of me that thinks I have to do this. I have to push myself because I have the vision of this being really awesome. It is getting from this point right now to that vision. But, as I ponder further, I realize too that I have been evolving my teaching towards a blended model anyhow. So when I was approached to have this ready for the fall (August 2015), I decided to push myself to make it so. (Jean-Luc would be proud!) So here is the path of how I became ready to blend. (Or at least what I have told myself I am ready for......)

     I have always tried to incorporate appropriate projects into my teaching. Whether it was US History or AP American Government, I tried to make the students do something other than same old same old boring textbook work. (More on that in #3!) Even when I first started using projects in my class, I always had two goals in mind. First, I did not want students to simply slap images on a poster board or a PowerPoint (Man do I hate that program...should be PowerCutandPaste!). I wanted meaning. I wanted depth. I wanted analysis. Sometimes this was a tall order since I was teaching young adults. (You know, teens!) The second goal I had was to ensure that group work did not turn into "Billy does all the work and we just put our names on it to get points" project. (Man that is a long title, no?) So I had to get smarter than the students and figure out a way to make them responsible for their own work and to use the group as a resource and a feedback mechanism. I think I have made it to the point where students can work collaboratively and still be responsible for their own work.

     I have always tried to push to get my AP American Government class to be a full year. I have also tried to incorporate more project based learning into the class as well. I always felt that just because it is an AP class doesn't mean that students cannot do meaningful and deep content related projects. The key was figuring out how to do that. To my principal's credit (S/O to Mr Wade) he approached me knowing I would probably jump at the chance to make the class a full year, even if there was a bit of a crunch to make it work. My response to him was "Well, I am already halfway there in terms of blending, so why not?" This was and still is true. What this did for me is it allowed me to return to project ideas that due to the short time span, I would simply not have the time for in a shortened semester. (Snow days are great, but second semester they can be a killer!) Now I am stoked to try to use those ideas to make the AP Gov blend a deep rich experience that challenges the students, but is also fun.

  If you are at all familiar with my #20time blog, (It is here!) you know that this semester long project has evolved to something more than I had ever hope for in a project. The amount of depth and application to the actual world these students are going in to has been a great thing to witness and to encourage in students. Interview a FBI agent? Have a phone interview with the Public Relations officer of the Mayor of Cleveland? Plan to try to get a windmill for the district? Um....yes please!! As I began to think about how I can incorporate this into the blended model I began to wonder if there was a different way to use the project. Then a colleague of mine sent me this Edutopia link on how some schools, in partnership with the University of Washington and the George Lucas Educational Foundation (May the Force Be With You!), are using the project based learning model in an AP class. (My class!) I was curious. Then I did some research and discovered that not only were they successful in integrating the PBL model in an AP class, but they had preliminary data to back up that success. They were smart and got student feedback which allowed them to adjust it after the first year. While their approach is slightly different than a true #20time model, the "engagement then tell" model was a fascinating idea and blended (pun intended) and infused it into the learning. My mind began to spin and I realized that all of my time and effort in the traditional #20time paradigm would be of a great service to me during the PBL incorporation of the blended class.

     I think my disdain for pure textbook learning began in college. My undergrad professors used books, yes, but they used them as a resource and not simply the be all end all. We discussed. We debated. We argued. We used other source material. So when I started teaching, I began to model that and found that I was not the typical Social Studies teacher. Then a few years after being moved up to the high school, I saw James Loewen speak at a local university and I read his Lies My Teacher Taught Me. Then I really began to"ditch the textbook." His book really inspired me to help the students search for the truth both with and mainly without the textbook. While I may use the textbook a little more in my AP classes, I find it both unnatural and irresponsible as an AP teacher of a subject like American Government to simply rely on the textbook as a means of delivering the material. How easy is it to find something in the world that is related to and directly involved with our government? I think it's pretty easy. Now infuse technology and a massive grant that alters the nature of my room and BOOM! My teaching becomes more and more blended.

          Technology is everywhere. In our phones, our cars, our homes, and our jobs. So I find it curious that as a teacher, I would shun the use of technology in my classroom. I have always tried to use it as much as I could where appropriate. I discovered Google Drive by accident a year before the district gave accounts to the students and staff. I was mad at Microsoft (which happens a lot) because I could not find a simple template for a calendar to use for my classroom. I found one by searching and BAM! I discovered that through my Android phone, I could use Google Drive to make and share documents. I was in love. (For a while I had a tech crush on Google. Swoon!) Then when the district gave students accounts too, it truly changed the way I taught and interacted with the students. However, the inclusion of these Google accounts added a dilemma. I needed the students to have access to technology on a daily basis. Sure we had some computer labs and a few mobile units, but not nearly enough to have them every day. Then during a curriculum revision, we were lucky enough to have the curriculum department push for the school to go 1 to 1 instead of buying textbooks. So we were lucky to get 2 sets of Chrome Books that made the use of Google Drive that much easier. I really dove into the idea of students having access to my class 24/7, collaboration between students and having discussions outside of the school day with my students via social media and via Google.

     Perfect timing. Sometimes things just work out. This past spring and summer the district applied for and got a grant that simply made my evolution to the blended model. The grant included making the school 1:1 and the district chose MacBook Airs (which I love!) No longer will I have to worry about whether the Chrome cart is available or trying to find it! While I did have a few students who did not have access to a device, this is great news! Plus now we all have the same device and no longer have to worry about Mac to PC issues. The second thing which is also fits with my teaching style and change is the grant allowed the district to make room renovations that would allow us to have more of a blended model. I was already taking myself out of the front of the room and having the students work collaboratively, so the addition of movable furniture and two Apple TVs that students can broadcast to simply gave me so many more options in my teaching. All of which are good options!

     While some might fear, resist and get angry at change I like it. I don't typically keep doing the same thing in my classroom time and time again until I find that it works for most if all of my students. So this level of change, while it can be challenging, I don't mind. Actually I prefer it. So once again, when my principal asks to go to the blended model in the fall, it just seemed like a natural progression and evolution to what I was doing anyways. Again, I heard the voice of Joy Kirr who said to me several times: just do it! If it's messy, it's okay. Fix it and make it better. So this decision for me, while challenging, is only a truly natural progression and evolution to my teaching. While I may be in the last third of my career, I animately refuse to become stale and dig a rut. Why would I? I have seen so many amazing results from my students with the evolution of my teaching, the blended model only gives me more opportunities to expand on this.

     I am truly excited to work through this idea. I have so many things that I want to try and to do. I know it won't be perfect the first time, but then again, if it was perfect, there would be no challenge. This type of learning gives students more of a taste of what college and life will be like: some independence with supports and the ability to learn in a way that is truly more in tune with how students learn and think. There will be a new Blog entry entitled The Blend coming soon!! It will combine the Reflective Teaching and the 20 Time blogs into one. Thanks for reading, Constant Reader! Hoo ah!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Informal Learning

     The students sit in nice neat rows while the teacher is in front of the room talking. Students are sitting in those same nice neat rows working on a worksheet while the teacher sits at their desk. Students read from a textbook while doing a guided reading that came with it.
     These images are ones that many have in mind when they think of teaching. While these images appear dated to some, one would be surprised at the frequency with which the teaching profession clings to these images of what teaching should look like. However, there is slow but meaningful trend to change these images and to slowly alter the perception of what teaching is and what it should look like in the future. I think I have stumbled upon something that may add to that trend that I like to call the phenomenon of "informal learning."
     I want to begin first with a little of a shout to to Mark Barnes for his great insights on how to change your role as a teacher in Role Reversal. His thoughts and practical advice have really influenced and helped me to this conclusion. In Role Reversal, Barnes talks about removing yourself from the front of the room as much as possible, giving students choices with peer to peer and teacher to peer interaction. The key part that Barnes talks about too is feedback. Not only feedback from you but also from students as well.
     One of the simple things that Barnes recommends that is easy to do is to simply change the configuration of your room. Ditch rows and make the seating more student oriented in groups, pods or something that encourages students to interact and you to move about the room. This simple change has brought about changes in how I approach the class as a whole. Barnes encourages this. The whole purpose of the reversal is to take yourself from the front of the stage (Remove The Sage on the Stage) and make what you do centered around students. (Enter Guide on the Side) However, this change does not mean you can just sit there and have the students "do all the work."
     One of the biggest changes I have had to make while making this reversal is I have to move around the room a lot more. Since the students are either working in groups or by themselves, you have to make sure they are on the right track and you also have to encourage them to ask questions. It slowly begins to change the way you approach the entire delivery of material. (That is a longer post coming soon!) If you tried the traditional worksheet that requires no real thought or is just a guided reading, this approach would not be the one I would advocate. I have to admit that when I changed to this approach, I was nervous that it would be difficult for the students to truly grasp the material if I wasn't explicitly delivering it to them. However I have noticed something that I think is ignored in education lately.
     With this emphasis on test scores and data collection I think we as educators have allowed that to get us lost in those numbers. We have forgotten that no test, no data can change what we all know: there are so many opportunities now to reach our students. There are also things we have forgotten. I think we have lost the art of what I would label as "Informal Learning." What do I mean by that? Well, one of the aspects of my teaching that has changed with the Role Reversal is I have to move about the room and to remember that I have to have daily conversations with as many students as I can. During these conversations, though I have found that it is like lecturing to the class (in a way) but on a one to one basis. I have also noticed that I am asking more questions than I am answering. At least so far, I can see that it is having an impact on the students. First, I definitely get to know the students A LOT faster. You can learn a lot about a student during these content, but also casual conversations. Second, by walking around and asking questions of each of the "pods" (My room is arranged in groups of  four with room for walking about) student seem to ask more questions of me when it is in a small group setting. Students even help each other out during these conversations too! (This helping each other is yet ANOTHER blog post brewing) This informal learning process has great potential to really change the way I look at teaching, and honestly, it already has. I have only made this change since August and I am constantly refining it. I also think that the timing of it is important too.
     I know change is hard for some people. I personally don't mind it and actually prefer it to keeping everything the same all the time forever. I think change is a natural part of life, nature and by extension, teaching. Now don't get me wrong when I find something that works, I don't change it just for the sake of change. But I tweak it, I hone it, I master it as best I can. I have often stated that I will quit this thing called teaching when I perfect it. (Which might be never! Ha!) So when our district was fortunate enough to receive a massive grant that allowed for more integration of technology into my teaching environment, I was excited. I mean, you are going to hand me a Mac Book Air? Um...yes please!! I always try to look for the potential and not just problems when changes like this happen. In other words, I often ask myself: How can I make this work for me and my students?? Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. Just say those words over and over. These changes just make what I was naturally doing easier, not more difficult. So with my own role reversal AND the integration of tech, I have discovered this "Informal Learning" that I think has made, and will continue to make a great impact on how I approach teaching and how my students learn.
     I know that not everything in education works for everyone. I think the teacher's personality and how they interact with students whether it is in the classroom, the hallway or the cafeteria matters a lot with this approach. You have to have the ability to break through the traditional "I am the teacher" and "You are a student" type of thinking. We are all learners and it's okay to let your students know that you are. You have to be able to force yourself at times to get up and talk to your students even on days when you really don't want to. It is a lot of work. A lot. There are days when I don't sit down until lunch. But, it is so worth it! The results I have seen so far is amazing. I cannot wait for the next five years when I can hone this even more. Hoo rah!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Wolski's AP American Government Survival Guide

     Hello Constant reader! As we wind down the semester, I thought it would be prudent to share a few thoughts as I look back on the progression of class and some tips I have for students in my AP American Government class. (Although these tips apply to any class really) However, since AP Gov is only a semester long and there is a lot of material to cover, these tips might be more helpful for my AP students. Here goes.....
1. Organize! Prioritize! Cut the apron strings!! 

     Your first job is to organize yourself. I put everything on a calendar on Google that I share with you and all of the docs I share with you on Google have dates associated with when things are due. So if you need to use a planner to write stuff down then do so. I will mention when things are due when I assign them (As we go over it) But as you learn to cut some of those apron strings that you are use to having, learn to keep those dates straight. You might get one more reminder as the date approaches, but don't act surprised when I mention that it is due tomorrow. Trust me, your professor will hand you a syllabus on the first day and if you get one reminder about dates, you are lucky. Learn to be the master of your own organization.
     The second thing to work on is learning to prioritize your work. What is due next? How long will it take to get that done? You have to know thyself and figure out what takes you the most time to complete. Everything we do in our units is connected. Everything. So while you might be working on what is due next, open your vision to realize that what you are doing now is going to help you to do what is next and vice versa. Also, take a little time to work on things a little at a time rather than trying to do something all at once. Don't be the student that realizes they have a 10 page paper due in a week even though they had the requirements 4 months ago. Make a plan on how to tackle larger projects.
     What are "apron strings?" Well those are the tethers that bind you to some adult in your life: your parents, your teachers, etc. This connection, this bond, this reliance is needed when you are young, but as you progress through school, those ties need to slowly be cut so students can begin to learn how to be more and more self-reliant. Remember, your teachers and parents will not be there when you are in college and most certainly won't be there when you take your first job. If we as educator are doing our job right, we should be gradually releasing you from dependence to independence. You will experience this in my class. While you are not totally on your own, I am not going to hover over your shoulder at every waking moment.

2. Oh man! Where did the time go?? Manage it!

   One of the first things you will notice when you enter my room is the arrangement of my desks. I have been moving towards removing myself from in front of the room as much as possible. I am not
going to lecture you with notes for 48 minutes. I am, however, going to use the available technology and challenge you to think and create. Yes! Even in an AP class! While there will be moments of class discussion with me in the lead, you are going to be given more time to yourself in this class than in most others. No, no, no please don't take that to mean you are going to be sitting there doing nothing. (At least, I hope you are not) I will usually assign you something to work on and then circulate to see if you have any questions or concerns. However, the expectation is that when you sit there with your device on your desk that you are working on what I have given you. Not on your phone, not playing Donkey Kong on some emulator, but working on my stuff. Not math, not English, but gov stuff! We all complain that we don't have enough time in our day to get stuff done. I often do this. However, you have to have a little introspection about how you are using your time. Are you working on gov stuff or taking a selfie, Snap chatting with a BAE, or posting a Tweet? I like doing some of those things too but when I have stuff I do, I have stuff to do!
     I know that you are stressed. You are probably taking at least one other honors level or AP class. I get that. I also understand that you will have other work to do for those classes as well. But, I usually don't assign nightly homework. Yes, you may have a couple of assignments out at a time (no more than 2) but if you wait until the last minute you are not going to do well. Remember, most of what I assign are bigger picture assignments that require some thought. Yes, yes there will be some day to day vocabulary and other such assignments, but you need to be aware that last minute work in this class is not a recommendation. I know you may have been able to get away with doing this in the past, but I would suggest that you ween  yourself off of that practice. In the end, whether it is while you are at college or even after, this habit of working at the last minute will catch up to you. So, let's all practice doing things a little at a time!

3. Extra credit, curving, and the 100% ceiling

     Please don't ask me for extra credit. I don't like extra credit. It has been abused in our profession and should be renamed because of this abuse as "in lieu of credit." If it were truly "extra" you as a student would have ALL of your work done and then do something "extra" that is related to the class but is above and beyond. But that is not what you want. You want to make up points for stuff you didn't do. I don't do that. However, I do believe in re-doing of assessments where you correct your mistakes and then try it over. That we can do and will do.
     I don't believe in curving of tests or assessments. I think it pits students against students and distorts the purpose of having an assessment to begin with. You get what you get. "Thanks a lot Wolski, you ruined the curve!" (Said no one ever when I was in high school) So the students now don't like me because as the outlier on the test, I can and do impact the results for everyone else. But I studied. So I should be a social outcast because I studied? That is not the type of competition I like to foster in my class. I know, I know the College Board does it for the AP test, but I am not the College Board who has to deal with tens of thousands of students across the entire nation who are taking a test. I am me. A part of me also thinks that if I have to curve every assessment I give, maybe the assessment is too hard. And maybe, just maybe the students are counting on a curve so they don't study as hard. While the same could be said about the re-test, I require some additional work and requirements that allow students to learn the material and continue to improve. I don't believe a curve achieves that.
     No student, no matter how smart they are, should ever, in the history of education be above 100% in a class. Sorry that's how I feel. I don't believe that honestly reflects what they have learned but rather the accumulation of points that somehow propels them to 2-3% above knowing everything in a class. Students: you don't know that much about American Government. I don't know that much about American Government. I know a lot but not more than all of it. I think when you put it that way, it sinks in: having over 100% in a class just doesn't make sense. Period. Also, I think it limits your ability as a student to have a growth mindset. Why investigate, analyze or question a topic if I know more than all of it? I can slack off in class (No you can't) because I have that added cushion. That is not a good way to approach a subject or your job or life. Being open and saying to yourself "I know not" is a much better approach.

4. Cut and paste syndrome: please don't regurgitate on my test!

     Students: I get it. I know that it is easy, especially with everything out there, to copy stuff from the internet to "get the points" for the assignment. But there is a flaw in your logic: I expect you to know this material for the test. When you cut and pasted that definition or answer from the internet did you even bother to read it? Do you understand it? Could you find the answer if I rephrased the question or wrote it in a slightly different form? I sure hope so! See this is what you are going to do when you take my assessments. I rarely if ever have a question that is a simple rote one. If I have a question that might involve, say a vocabulary word, it will probably be a little more application or conceptual in nature. Yes, I do have a vocabulary section on my tests, but it's not matching. Simply put: I don't give you a review sheet and then go over the answers in class and those same questions appear on the test. That's not learning, that's regurgitation! I want you to actually learn in my class, not just be able to answer questions on a test and forget it!

5. Are you really starting to study the night before?

     For every unit where we have a test (not all will have a traditional test) you will know the test date the day you get the unit planner. It's on there. This is American Government, right? Yea it is complicated. I don't ask simple multiple guess questions that you can simply look at real quick and answer right away. Yes, I have some of those questions, but I also have conceptual, thinking type questions that require some thought. Why? Because the AP test in May will have those questions. The College Board requires that I have those questions. So, I will have those questions. Let's face it you guys are smart. I know that. But I am going to push you. And push you a little more. It's good for you to be challenged and to get out of your comfort zone. But remember, this isn't some head game I am playing with you. I want you to succeed in life and trust me, after 46 years (Yes! I am old) one of the things I have learned is that when you get too comfortable in anything, you stop thinking, questioning, learning. To put it another way:

"Beliefs are dangerous. Beliefs allow the the mind to stop functioning. A non-functioning mind is clinically dead. Belief in nothing..."
            ---Tool, AEmina liner notes

Remember, I will give you everything you need to study for the tests: vocabulary, learning goals, readings, and any and all activities we do in class. Just pace yourself. Make sure you are paying attention in class and honestly, you should do just fine. But you have to remember that I am pushing you. So push back!!

6. I know how tabs work too & the tech rabbit hole

     Life is full of choices and unfortunately a lot of distractions. A lot! So as we head towards being truly a 1 to 1 school (Um...yea that means everyone has a device silly!) you have to be careful that you are using your time wisely when I give you something to do digitally. Look, a part of my philosophy is giving you a taste of radical autonomy during class. What does that mean? Well, since I am not lecturing for the entire class, I will be giving you a problem or issue to investigate, question, ponder and while I am still in the room, I won't be over your shoulder the whole time. So you have work to do and when you are on your phone or watching Modern Family when you should be working, I will know. How? I am magic. Let's just leave it at that. Okay, maybe not magic, but I am not under the delusion that you won't be distracted by the fact that you have the world at your finger tips and you are really really good at finding ways to distract yourself. Why do I give you this freedom? Well, really soon, you are going to have more radical autonomy in your life than you have ever had. (It's called college) And trust me, you are not fully ready for this autonomy. I wasn't. I had to learn how to deal with it and luckily I adjusted to it and did well. So knowing that most students are not fully ready for this, why wouldn't I help you by "teaching" you how to manage that kind of freedom?? One of my pet peeves is when teachers complain that students don't have the skills or abilities they are looking for (These aren't the droids you are looking for!) but then don't teach or model them in and out of the classroom. Gee, I wish there was a group of people who were responsible for teaching these students how to <fill in a skill, process or other ability here>. So I am trying to get you ready to enter the world and you have to learn how to deal with tech distractions.
      One of the reasons why I am using Google Classroom, Google Drive and other digital sites in this class is many of my former students have told me they wish they would have learned to interact with the digital world in high school because they have to college and most of their professors throw stuff at them assuming they know how to do these things. And they don't. Again, I am trying to prepare you for life. No matter what career path you head down, you will have to deal with technology on some level to do your job. That's the world now. It's awesome, but the skills and knowledge you have to have to navigate this world can't entirely be taught from a static textbook.

Look, the bottom line in all of this is I dedicate a lot of time into planning, evaluating and teaching this class. I probably think way too much about my job. Occupational hazard. Do I wish that it was a year long? Yes! Can I change that? No. So we deal with the hand we are dealt. Remember, my job is to help you. Ask questions, tweet at me, email me, but don't be a silent wallflower! You need to interact with me and the material to get the most out of it. You will survive this class, but it will challenge you. And it should. Remember, I am going to push you.....push back!  Peace

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tech is NOT the solution....Wait what?

     Yea I know. If you are reading this you are saying, "But Michael, you are using tech right now!?Don't you use tech ALL the time??" Yes I do and I still believe that the use of tech is a part of the solution, just not the only thing we should be embracing in education right now. So, how as a teacher, with all of the digital tools and devices out there, are you suppose to integrate tech in such a way that it works well and does not take away from the learning? Well.....that's the rub, that's your job to navigate through all of this! Here are some ideas/tips to help you think about how to use tech to enhance learning.

"Yet it seems clear to me
It pounds inside my soul
Why don't we all see
We can cry out for a change."
     ----Fishbone, Change
     I threw tech at the students and they still aren't learning!?

Look. They are teens. So they get distracted. Yes, even you AP Students, you get distracted. So throwing an iPad, Chrome Book, or Mac Air at the students and just have them use Google is not going to produce the results (the droids?) you are looking for in your class. You have to design it so students use the device in such a way that they are engaged with the material, each other and you! If you stand in front of the students lecturing for 48 minutes while they have a device (other than their cell phone) you are doomed. Doomed. How about intro some material for 5-10, give the students a problem, walk around the room and help them in solving the problem. Are they always going to be 100% on task all the time? No. Are they 100% on task all the time when they are not using technology? No. What is silly then is to blame the tech for the problem. "All kids are going to do is look up Youtube videos or check their email!" Trust me, after 20 years in the field I have found that students are amazing at finding ways to distract themselves. However, a part of your job as a teacher is to minimize and eliminate those distractions as much as possible. That job has not changed? How does the integration of technology change any of that? It doesn't. It just makes it different, that's all. You have to change your mindset and try to be one step ahead of the students.

     Interest and a connection are easier.

Something else about teaching that hasn't changed is making your lessons as interesting to the students as possible and to try to connect it to the world around them. When you integrate tech the right way, this becomes a lot easier to do as a teacher. Is it more work? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes! Remember, you have to learn to let go a little bit. You don't have all the answers. You can't possibly. But that's okay. You shouldn't. One of the advantages of using tech to create lessons of interest and connection to the real world is you are not bound (see what I did there) to a textbook or worksheet. You have the world at your fingertips. Like the students, though, that can be daunting for teachers. That reality is probably one of the biggest roadblocks to teachers embracing tech. It's very intimidating. But, help is out there. Tons of it. If you are not using Twitter for ideas, feedback, and support, then you are on an island that you shouldn't be on right now. I love my PLN on Twitter!!! That is a good way to start is to see what others are doing and to ask for help when you need it. There are people out there who are integrating tech in amazing ways. Seek people in your building out that are doing good things with tech. Ask them. I would make an argument that there is not a class being taught out there that you cannot make interesting and connect to the world around your students. You just have to look, ask others and push yourself to embrace this change.

     Baby steps. Baby steps. Baby steps.

There is so much out there that it makes your head spin. It's true. One of the issues with diving into the use of tech into your classroom is the zillions of available tools out there for a teacher to use. Do I use Google Classroom or Schoology? Do I grade using Kaizena or through Doctopus and Goobric? Do I formatively assess using Socrative or Infused Learning? Well if you are reading this and don't know what any of those are, you are welcome. I just gave you some tools to use in your classroom right now. But I suppose that if you are already reading this you are a bit tech savvy. Those are just the tip of the iceberg. Please, please, don't change everything overnight. Do a little at a time. Make one project that uses tech beyond just researching information on line. Do one project and do it well. Trust me the more you change in this way, the more you will want. I have been slowly changing over the last 4-5 years to incorporate more tech so I feel comfortable changing more of what I do in my classroom. You may not. That's okay. Take it a little at a time and if you do need ideas or help, I will post my email at the bottom of this post. Feel free to email me anytime!

     Know Your Role!

I have made some significant changes in my teaching in the last 3 years. I have tried to remove myself from always being the one delivering the material and just talking, talking, talking. It's been a big adjustment for me and the students as well. You have to adjust what you do and how you do it. In the last 3 years I have changed my role to become more of a guide and a deliverer. I have asked so many questions about content than I have in probably the last 17 years combined. Why? Well I have tried to design lessons where students are just simply filling in a blank. I have tried to push them to do more than that, to solve problems and to analyze the material they are engaged with as well. "Mr Wolski its not working!!" Do you know how many times I have been asked that question this year since for the most part we have become a 1 to 1 school since I have access to Chrome Books pretty much everyday. Next year? Yea we will be a 1 to 1 school. I like to work ahead to find out all the little issues and quirks that you have to be ready for when you integrate tech. I am the tech support in my room. You have to be, so get ready for that when you do make that leap into technology. But remember this, you have to actually use what you are having the students use in order to solve those issues that come up. How can I fix something if I don't know how it works to begin with? That is one of the role changes that you are going to have to deal with when integrating tech into your classroom. But what is nice is that once you show a few students, you can use them as a resource when other students have a similar problem. I have done this and it helps when you are trying to be 3 places at once. Finally, you are going to have to re-think how your room is set up. Traditional rows and technology are not the best of friends. Having a flexible set up might help you. I have moved the desks to pods of four to foster collaboration. While they are the traditional desks, change is coming since I volunteered to have my room redone for our move to a blended model. I am excited to see how that looks at to work with that.

     Remember, the integration of technology comes with changes for you as a teacher. Some of those changes are quite significant. We have to get over that fact. Those changes are already here when many of our students have access to the world via their smartphone anyhow. To resist that seems silly to me. Students also need to be retrained in how they interact (Future post? I think so!) in this new environment. They need to know that the infusion of technology will require them to tap into skills that maybe they use, maybe they have not been in a while. However, this is crucial for them to use these skills more and more as that world we are preparing them to enter.
     Have questions? Need help integrating some tech? Email me:
I can help with what I know so far!

Friday, November 7, 2014

I Don't Know

"The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing."

"I know nothing! Nothing!"
     ----Sargent Schultz, Hogan's Heroes

     Three very powerful words that say a lot and mean a lot and I believe as teachers we should be saying more often.....

     What do I mean by this?? Well, I think for way too long that teachers, students, parents and even administrators have thought that teachers should or do know all of the information about the subject matter. While many teachers are very knowledgable and appear that way, isn't it a bit silly to think that one person knows and contains that much knowledge? What kind of message does it send to students that unless we as teachers have that knowledge that it doesn't exist? I think this is a product of giving answers to students and students repeat them for the test. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. But is that learning? Are students really being forced to think and analyze like we want them to? I don't think so.
     Bam! Then there was the internet. And Google. And smart phones. And tablets. And this beautiful Macbook Air I am using right now. (#techcrush) Now all of a sudden teachers monopolies on the truth was in jeopardy. We could no long claim to be the keeper of all knowledge about history, science, English, math and everything else. Mr. Wolski can I use my phone to look this up? Why would I say no?? When they leave my room they are going to do it anyhow. There are two ways we as teachers can look at this change (which by the by is already here). We can resist and refuse to change or we can embrace this world that all of our students are already living in and are trying to adjust to on a daily basis. But they need our help. They need us to say those three magical words of "I don't know" and help them to find the answer.
     But Mr. Wolski, you say, the students don't know how to use all of the information at their fingertips and get wrong answers and we have to teach them the right answers anyhow. So why bother teaching them search terms, reliability, bias, and how to formulate an argument? But isn't that our job? Are we not responsible to our students, parents, aye! our nation to produce thoughtful citizens that can solve problems? Even if the students need to be shown the right answer, isn't the process as important as the end result? Are we just teaching them content and not skill? I would argue that is 1950s thinking, not 2014 thinking. What kind of worker is needed right now? One that can recall simple knowledge or one that knows that same knowledge and can solve problems as well? Who would you hire?
     I don't know. What if we said this more often because we designed lessons that made the students investigate, explore, wonder,  and inquire? Instead of having students lather, rinse and repeat why don't we ask them to create something, to fix something, to actually solve a problem. By doing this, though, we have radically changed our role from the pronouncer of information to the guide who says I Don't Know often. I get it. I get it. Students want to be told here is the information repeat it later. Yes, it is a scary thought as a teacher to really not know where your lessons might take students.

Let go.

Tell your students, I Don't Know.

Help them discover the answer. They will learn. You will learn. But if you hold on to that notion, that tradition of always being right, how will you grow? How can you expect your students to grow? Model that growth. Be a student yourself and show them that being wrong or simply not knowing is a part of the process. It's powerful. If knowledge is power then not knowing is the fuel to that power.

Or maybe, I'm wrong.

I don't know......