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!