Saturday, December 12, 2009

Students - The Best Part of Our Jobs

I love hearing when people complain about their jobs. It is really funny some times. Maybe it is funny because you can laugh when you have a great job that you really love. I have often thought, now that I am a few months into having my own classroom and a “real” job in the “real” world, what the best part of my job is. Is it the fact that I am surrounded by an awesome staff? Well that is great, but not it. Is it the fact that I get to work with a bunch of technology on a regular basis? Well, that too is great, but not the best part. Is it the fact that I get to work in a school that is constantly pushing the idea of education in the 21st Century? That too is an awesome aspect. However, I think hands down the best part of my job is the students.

We would not be there if it were not for the students. At the same time, the students make the job so much of not a job it is amazing. I just blogged about how they are different every day. Yes, they are, but that is the exciting and amazing part of this job. The best part about the students that I can articulate so far in my teaching career is helping them understand something “stupid,” watching them grow from a struggling student to one leading the class, being there through the low points, and watching them be passionate about something because of a connection you personally made with them.

Helping them understand something “stupid” - Hamlet, by many students’ first impression, is just that - “stupid.” However, after spending two hours yesterday morning (my students were on a field trip) with one group of eleventh grade students who previously thought that idea, they understood the material. They were excited about the material. They actually left with smiles and were excited about Monday.

Watching them grow from a struggling student to one leading the class - I have a student in one of my classes that has an IEP and does struggle through a lot of material, especially in my class. However, with Hamlet he has latched on and gone to town. I provided him, with the assistance of our special education coordinator, a variety of resources including the “No Fear Version” of Hamlet and he has gone to town. He understands the material very well. He is passionate about it. So much so that this week I had him sit down with a group of usually high achieving students and explain to them, in his words and using the text, what was happening. It was an amazing flip of a student from the bottom of the class academically and engagement wise. Now he is my go-to student (we all have these - right?) for Hamlet. He understands it and I have even given him the task of writing out some of the notes on the SMART Board. I am excited about his future in my class and I am trying to figure out how to achieve this same result in the next unit.

Being there through the low points - One of my high achieving students came to me after class on Thursday and wanted to talk. She sought me out and I listened to her issue. I tried to comfort her in the best ways that I could. It just amazes me the amazing difference of being there with these students. Some days I think it would be a whole lot easier to be a full time technology guy, but you cannot trade a conversation like that for anything. It is just, as the Master Card commercial states - Priceless. It was amazing to see her yesterday and her how thankful she was of the time that I spent talking to her and the huge difference that made for her that day.

Watching them be passionate about something because of a connection you personally made with them - It is stressed by college teachers everywhere to make connections with your students. Marc Prensky would take that a step further and say find out what their passions are. I, taking from both of these ideas, would say not only find out their passions and make the connections, but participate in their passion with them.

This week was the first annual “Spirit Week” at our school. It ended with a dance last night that I was planning on chaperoning. Why? I don’t really know, but I knew it was going to be a lot of fun. It came to be Thursday afternoon and the organizer of the dance came up to me and asked for a huge favor...she asked me to DJ the dance. Now, bare in mind that I have been around sound equipment for a fair amount of my life, enjoy listing to music and hanging out with high school students, but I have never DJ’d a dance - until last night.

Yesterday in class I mentioned to one of my students, who I knew from previous interactions has a passion for music, that I was going to be the DJ for the dance. She kind of shrugged and said “OK.” The rest of the day went by and I started the dance off and it was kind of lame. An interesting thing happened. Did you know that black and white people generally have their own favorite styles of music? So I was playing all this typical “white kid music,” as one student phrased it, and no one was dancing. Then my student from the ninth grade showed up. She was fired up and wanted to help out with the DJ gig. She respected my role as the DJ, but offered her own opinions. She made that dance what it was - an awesome party. She pulled out some of her music and we had a great time.

Her passion - music.
My passion - connecting with students.

Both of those passions were intermingled last night.

I could have shut her down and told her "No" and not taken any suggestions from students, but I didn’t. In fact, I set-up a Poll Everywhere poll for song suggestions. I screened them on one computer and played them on another computer. We had an awesome night because I allowed it to be about the students and connecting with them - in particular this one student. My relationship with her has increased exponentially. Plus, we had one heck of an awesome dance.

In conclusion, the best part of my job is hands-down the students.

Outside Having an Impact Inside

Some days are good. Some days are exactly the opposite of good. Sometimes we have high expectations and we are rewarded. Some days we have high expectations and our students do not come through. More often than not I have noticed the extreme impact that things outside the classroom have on what actually happens inside the classroom.

Just last week there were a lot of instances of this idea. We had a day where it snowed a lot and when class started there were only five students - in a class of twenty-two. There was a post on Facebook by a fellow student (Yes, Facebook is unlocked in our school and used throughout the day by our students. It has to do with the Administration's decision because the school itself has a Facebook page and is used as a method of communication with our parents/guardians) that distracted the rest of the class for the remainder of the period. There was a field trip that took one entire grade out for their morning classes. The list continues...students breaking up, a close friend leaving town, and a school pep fest.

What I have realized is how often I have a plan with my lesson and how it rarely goes according to that plan. Usually I want to do this, then this, and now this, but more often then not this “perfect lesson plan” that I have created never happens. In fact, I can count the number of times on one hand that things have gone exactly how I planed them. It is not that my students have not understood the material, participated in class, and applied the material to their lives. I remember in college being taught to write a lesson plan with objectives, activities, checking for understanding and all these “required” parts of a lesson. The idea was that if you have this amazingly planned lesson planned that it will work out perfectly. Well that is not what happens, at least not in my class.

I think it was great to understand the basic structure of a lesson in college, because that is how class period is generally structured. However, I have found that teaching is more about adapting and rolling with the ebb and flow of the class than sticking to a rigid plan. If one strategy does not work, then you try a different one. If that doesn’t work then you have a student describe it. You use a picture, a movie, a physical diagram, and you try anything to make the idea or concept make sense to your students. If you are supposed to teach a lesson and it involves small groups, but the period before you noticed that the same group of students was very loud and noisy. Do you put them into small groups in your class period? That is what happened to me yesterday. I chose to have them complete their reading alone and the result: a perfectly silent classroom. I am not saying that I am some amazing teacher, but it is absolutely amazing to see the changes in students from period to period and from day to day. Something might have worked the previous day, but for whatever reason it will not work the next one.

My thought here is that I have found that teaching is all about having clear objectives for the day and a variety of strategies in your back pocket to get there. Then all the other elements, like checking for understanding, get sprinkled in throughout. If one “cool” idea flops on the first try what do you try next? We need to make sure that we are pushing the students in our teacher education programs to think outside of the “perfect lesson plan” to consider multiple other strategies that they could quickly switch to if the first one does not work - for whatever reason. Teachers need to be adaptable and be able to do that without effort or any preparation.

Your students don’t get it. Do you have something in your back pocket to switch to so that comprehension can happen?

“Fifty-Nine Minutes” Wins Another Award

I have always considered what I write in this blog to be a personal reflection of my growth as an educator. When I started writing though, my intent was never to cause any outside reflection from others or even to have other people read this on a daily basis. I have been amazed of the impact of “Fifty-Nine Minutes” has had on my own teaching as a place I can go to reflect on a daily basis. As I am always in the back of my head working on ideas and posts that if I do not have time to write during the week that I can type out the idea on my iPod on the bus on the way home and then on the weekend I can type out the full blog. Apparently, though, other people have found this blog to be something special, as it just won another award.

Mr. Cusher from Reach Network, Inc. informed me a few days ago that “Fifty-Nine Minutes” was placed in the Top 200 Education Blogs list by the Guide to Online Schools. In their preface to the list they write: “All those interested in education—we've got you covered. From humor blogs on college life to one stop shops for school athletics to blogs all about education policy and new technologies, if there's a good education blog out there, you can bet it made our list.”

It is an honor to be recognized by Mr. Cusher and to be part of this list. “Fifty-Nine Minutes” can be found under the “Learning” portion of this list.
Here is what they wrote about “Fifty-Nine Minutes”: “We’ve gone through and created a list of our favorite education blogs and the incredible insight and unique editorial voice you’ve presented on your blog made it one of our favorites.”

Thank you for the recognition. I am truly honored.

Giving Feedback

Last week I really enjoyed getting back into the habit of posting blogs and really more so blogging in general. I thank all of you that continue to read, comment, and give me feedback on my posts. It has been an awesome week to step back and consider the blessing that having this blog has been in my life, but rather to consider the transformative way that a public forum of comments can have on your ideas and your teaching - both the good and the bad. Thank you for being part of the process of learning and growing with me in this journey called teaching.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What’s the Point?

I remember all too well sitting down in English class in my high school years, and even into my college years, and being told that we are going to read and study {fill-in-the-blank here}. That was not appealing to me. That did not have a point to me. That did not make sense to me. That was not relevant to my life. Why would I want to read something that I did not know why I was reading it in the first place?

That assignment, to just read something, has puzzled me ever since. Why? What truly is the point of reading this text?

This constant battle, if you will, to have students read material and my struggle to get them to accomplish this feat - whether it is Shakespeare, currently, or something else in the future - led me to an important revelation that began back in my teacher education program.

As teachers, we learn that we need to scaffold learning and that assigning any type of work or material to our students needs to clearly serve a purpose. The only problem and difference between knowing that and our students is that our students have no clue why they are doing the work. That lack of communication between the why of the teacher and the why of the student created the problem when I was in school.

At Arapahoe I began, with Anne and Kristin’s help, to begin to formulate lessons, activities, and homework that truly was meaningful. That truly was relevant. That truly did make an impact on the student’s lives.


Because I explained to the students exactly why they were doing what they were doing and shared with them the benefits and reasons for that assignment/activity/homework that they were about to accomplish. I tried at least to do this on a regular basis.

Now at the FAIR School Downtown I have once again ran into some trouble in terms of reading material. Take for instance, Shakespeare and Hamlet in particular. Why oh why would 9-11th grade students want to read this play? I thought about it for a while and then with the help of my good partner in the English department, Ben Jarman, we came up with a few ideas. Hamlet has in it themes about: not trusting your parents, death, a ghost, lots of fighting, love, and a search for identity. Clearly some of those themes can be debated and looked at from a variety of different angles, but Ben and I decided first to look at those. Next was the idea and task to get students, before we even picked up the text, excited about learning and reading this amazing work of literature (Ok, maybe that is an English teacher talking, but that is what I think. Others are entitled to their own opinion). Now Ben wanted to, as he called it, “Get the Hamlet fire burning” and really get students excited about what they are learning from the beginning. I agreed with him that this was important, but struggled with exactly how to reach our students. Ben had some great ideas and he thought about really just talking to the students about the material and trying to “light the fire” that way. I thought that was good, but then I tried to consider what else would make this exciting to a student in today’s world. So I considered some sort of exciting Keynote presentation, but then I realized that even that, however cool it may be that it would not be the most exciting thing I could produce. I looked to a resource that I used a few times while student teaching - Animoto.

What I produced was this video: Hamlet Introduction Video

To me this was something that I used to engage the students. They thought that it was really cool and engaging. It was great to bring in the images from the SparkNotes Comic Book version of Hamlet. The use of that in class has really allowed the students to get past the hard part of Shakespeare - the language - and really focus on the content, which is what we want them to understand anyway. In all reality I think it was the combination of the words, the pictures, the text, the music, and the fast pace of the movie that made it exciting to the students. They enjoyed it and one student even commented, “[The video] made me excited to read Hamlet.” Cross that off the list - the students were excited about what they are reading and we were able to accomplish that in an exciting and applicable way for the students.

However, since then the “fire of Hamlet” has began to burn low. We started off on this high point and now we are chugging along - probably because we are close to the end and excited about the final projects. When I look back on the unit though, there have been many times that I think the fire could have just gone out. One thing that Ben and I have done is make sure that there is a guiding, focusing question up on the SMART Board for every reading, every group activity, and for the entire unit. Those reasons, in conjunction with our introduction video, have really made the “fire of Hamlet” sustain throughout the unit and allowed it to really take a place within students’ minds.

Now I am not here to say that I don’t get the “this is stupid” or “I hate Hamlet” comments every once in a while, but I will say that even though some students struggle with completing the actual assignment they at least do not have that “Why are we doing this and what’s the point” feeling that I had growing up.

I also look forward to bringing this video back into class next week as we wrap up the unit and have the students relate to and make connections with it and their own lives. Ben and I have made connections throughout this unit with the students, these themes, and their lives, but it will be great to bring it back in again. Then I cannot wait to see the individual connections that students will be able to make as we finish this unit. As they really take the text of Hamlet and make it their own through a group video project. As they really take this text and make it into something that has a point - a point to each of them personally.

So I encourage you, even we as teachers know what the point is in completing an assignment and how it should relate to our students’ lives, we need to share that with our students time and time and time again. Because that sharing, that has made a huge difference in reducing the amount of push back I get on assignments, provided an increase in the level of completion on assignments, and has increased the satisfaction level with my students with their homework, daily work, and group work.

Do your students know what the point is?

I encourage you to tell them...or better yet, let them figure it out with your guidance!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Partnering, Sharing, and Hamlet

Marc Prensky is a good friend of mine and is probably best known for coining the terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant. Lately he has been working on his newest book called “Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning.” I got a chance to preview a copy last month. This book, when it comes out this spring, will really turn the tide towards what is truly important in education - partnering with our students instead of direct instruction, where we are the only ones doing the instruction. In Marc’s partnering model, which really isn’t that new or different from anyone - what is different is the terms that he has put around this idea and the multitude of resources he provides in this book to reach the Digital Natives in your classroom. It was a great read and one that I can’t wait to pick-up at the bookstore this spring.

One idea that I really pulled out of there is the idea of sharing and working collaboratively with one another - the students mainly - but in all reality I wanted to work a bit more with the other English teacher in our high school Ben Jarman. He and I team teach one section of 9th grade and then I have my own section of 9th grade. He also teaches two sections of 11th grade and the 12th grade English classes. While I take over and teach the 10th grade. We work very well together and going into the year Ben has been a lot of help as my mentor checking in with me, helping me deal with student issues, and really more than anything being there as a sounding board. A few months ago we both started to think about the next unit that we were planning in our classes. Ben wanted to cover Hamlet in 9th grade and then in 11th grade he wanted to cover Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was looking at going through The Crucible with my 10th graders...and then we started to think about there any way that we can take Marc’s idea of partnering and apply it to what we are doing in our classroom? Well, we looked at a few different things, like our ideas for the semester and the guiding question for the unit and the focus on the arts school. We decided to do something radical, something that I have never done before: We are teaching Hamlet in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade. Obviously we have differentiation with each grade level and we are covering with a bit different emphasis in each grade level, but the interaction between each grade level has been amazing. As we were thinking about this proposal and sending text messages back and forth - how about that for planning time - Ben’s reaction when it really started to hit us about how immensely powerful it would be to have all three grade levels together covering the same material was priceless. Ben texted me: “Mind Blowing.”

That is exactly what this has been from the beginning. The interaction between Ben and I has been absolutely amazing. We have been able to partner with one another each afternoon and really plan out exactly what we want to cover and some really creative ways to do it. One of the reasons that we decided to cover Hamlet with all three grade levels is that we wanted everyone on the same page, because this being the first year of the arts magnet and really being at the groundbreaking level of crafting and making this high school what we want it to be, we thought it would be good to cover this play. In addition, this way the students have not ever covered any Shakespeare in any other classes before encountering Hamlet and so they are all getting the base foundation with this play. There is no way to teach a play without acting it out, but in English class we really wanted to focus on less of the acting part because we wanted to leave that up to our acting teacher so that in his acting classes, which are primarily 9-11th grade, they can cover the acting stuff. Plus, that cross-curricular support has been an amazing blessing and has made the content come more alive for the students in those acting classes. Then our focus in English class became to understand the content within Hamlet and to really focus on appreciating the art that Shakespeare created. Through this unit we have really encouraged and pushed students to work with one another across the grade levels. It has been totally awesome to see the 11th graders working alongside the 9th graders to help each other out with their homework. This part has been absolutely amazing, but I think hands-down the most beneficial part of this unit has been partnering with Ben throughout the whole process.

Now this is not exactly the way that Marc wrote for the term to be used, as he defines and looks more at partnering in the classroom with teachers and students, but I think that it also applies to teacher to teacher work. Ben and I, because we have been intentional about this unit and planning, have met every afternoon to plan the week, to look ahead, bounce cool ideas, and lessons off one another. Then we divide the work and really knock the teaching out of the park. It has been such a “Mind Blowing” experience because we each bring really unique and amazing passions and gifts to the table and putting both of our heads together has produced some pretty amazing lessons. It has helped both of us become better teachers and has drawn us together in amazing and wonderful ways. It has also given me a great idea of what partnering in the classroom, as how Marc defines the term, could and does work given the right parameters.

The exciting thing for me, and this is also something from Marc that I remember reading a few years ago, is that Ben and I are trying to figure out how to share this unit with other teachers everywhere. I look forward to spending part of Winter Break doing this. Marc wrote an article in 2007 titled: “If We Share, We’re Halfway There.” In this article Marc talks a lot about the need for teachers to share the things that are working in their classrooms on the web so that other teachers can find out what is going on. He writes in this article: “The fastest route to engaging our students (and our teachers) is re-using, in our own way, those things that are already working. But we can’t do that until we know about them! Technology can be our savior here.” This idea also came up in Marc’s new book in which he wrote: “Until this posting and sharing begins to happen in a regular and systematic way by partnering teachers, we are, sadly, re-creating almost everything on our own, time after time, which is a terribly inefficient way to do things and a huge waste of partnering teachers’ time and effort. So please, as you succeed in partnering, be a sharer!”

Ben and I before were creating everything from the ground up for every day by ourselves, but now we are partnering and creating much better and more effective lessons for our students. We have shared this idea and partnership with other teachers within our building, which in turn has inspired them to partner also - not only two teachers with one another, but across disciplines. Now as a high school we are looking at creative ways to work together in the 3rd quarter - English, Civics, Science, and Math. It has been immensely powerful to work together. The future for partnering, both between teachers, but more so in my classroom on a daily basis between students is looking very promising.

I look forward to sharing all that Ben and I have created through this Hamlet unit in a few weeks. Anyone have a creative way to share lessons - one that has worked before? I was thinking about creating either a Wiki or a Google Site, but I didn’t know if anyone else had a better idea.

To borrow the words from Marc, when we share, we truly are halfway there. Halfway there to creating powerful, engaging, content-driven, and amazing lessons in which partnering can thrive - both for the instructors and the students.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

1-1 Program: The First Months

The West Metro Education Program’s Mission Statement reads: “We are committed to equity and excellence for all students, eliminating disparities in achievement and opportunity, and preparing all learners to thrive in a diverse world.”

As an effort to continue completing this mission statement the FAIR School Downtown began it’s 1-1 Program by handing out new Apple MacBooks to all 46 ninth grade students. The decision to go with Apple Inc. was due to the video and creative elements that are necessary for an arts magnet school such as our own, not to mention the amazing track record with these machines. In addition there is a similar 1-1 program going on at our sister school, the FAIR School Crystal, since last year. All student MacBooks are set-up with iLife 09’, iWork 09’, Final Cut Pro, Logger, Adobe Photoshop, Firefox, Safari, and access to the Apple Server that we have set-up specifically for the students. The computers sync with the server every fifteen minutes and back up all documents in the “Documents” folder. Unlike other schools that I know of, we do not back up all the documents, videos, music, and other material on the computers, only the materials in the “Documents” folder. All students and their parents/guardians came to the school and filled out paperwork, provided a check for the insurance on the computer, and went through a basic Apple MacBook orientation. The students, in addition to following the rules and expectations for use of the laptop in the school building, are required to bring their computer to school charged every single day. We encourage them to leave their power cords at home, because the MacBook batteries should last the morning periods when they will need their computers the most. In the afternoon all students in the high school have arts periods and generally do not use their laptops in those classes. All in all, it was a very successful evening of handing out laptops to students.

Some of the laptops in their cases ready to hand out to the students

Now...a month and a half into the 1:1 Program here are the early results:

The biggest and most impressive change I have noticed is that students are more engaged in the classroom in all areas and throughout the entire hour. It literally was like night and day between the students having the laptops and then not having the laptops. Students enjoy coming to class, they work together in groups a lot more, and are truly engaged in their curriculum and material throughout the entire hour.

Students have been able to create more exciting projects that are more in tune with their creative desires. For example, sometimes I will give an assignment that requires the students to answer a question, but we allow them to complete it with any application/program that they desire. The projects we get back are nothing short of amazing. In the future I hope to share some of these projects here.

Choosing to continue with the Apple MacBooks was a great decision because the students are so creative on them and the durability and lack of problems has been impressive. In fact, to date I have had to send in or repair one computer due to a manufacture problem, non-student related.

Turning in assignments electronically through our drop boxes has been a wonderful tool. All of the teachers in the high school have an electronic drop box that students can turn assignments in to. From there instructors are able to pull the assignments out, grade them, give feedback, and then return the assignments back to each student’s individual computer. In addition, all high school teachers also have a share folder where handouts or materials for that unit or class period are kept. Students can also share class related or small group files through this folder. With the addition of this electronic file transfer and sharing there has been a dramatic reduction in the amount of paper and ink used within the school. We are excited to be saving the environment and I am excited about being able to read all the assignments electronically.

The addition of the laptops has changed how I teach. Right now I am doing much what I did at Arapahoe, where only some (actually two-thirds) of my classes are using the laptops. When I am teaching the classes with the laptops I have noticed a significant shift in how I actually teach. I feel that I can do so much more with these students, especially because they have access to so many materials right there at their fingertips. I can do a lot less direct instruction and a lot more partnering or pairing with my students so that they look up the information and teach the rest of the class. They interact with the SMART Board, they plug their computers into it and show the rest of the class what they are doing and they help one another figure out what is exactly going on in the passage or text. In fact, having the laptops has also though made teaching a bit more difficult because sometimes I have to compete with the laptop. Not in a ineffective way, because if the students are on their laptops and talking then I will have them close the lids and one of the beauties of a Mac is how fast it starts back up again. But I really feel that I compete with the class in different ways. I have to be as engaging, as exciting, as fast paced, and as engaging as their computer is. At times I feel that I have to be that much like that computer, but at other times I really focus on being different. I am not, nor am I going to be that computer, but I do try to take some of the elements of their computers - the ones that they enjoy and that are engaging to them - and bring those into the classroom. In addition, it has been so much fun to have a SMART Board at the front of my classroom and a classroom full of motivated students with laptops. I am excited about the future and when all students in the high school, in four years, will have laptops.

Finally, the most exciting thing about having the laptops is that we are truly preparing students for success in the 21st Century. They are being creative producers. They are engaging with their texts and with their world. They are learning to type better. They are learning what is good content and what is bad content. They are learning what is appropriate to put up on the Internet and what is not. They are learning how to be and are better artists than they were two months ago. However, in all reality we are not educating only these students, but we are educating entire families. In some situations the laptops that we have provided for these students is the only computer that has ever been in their homes. That is exciting. We are also creating equality across the board because all the students have the same materials, the same computers, and the same access to resources now. It is not a money thing, Minneapolis and suburb thing, a race thing or a S.E.S. Thing - it is a FAIR School Downtown 9th grader thing.

With great thanks to the support of the district, administration, school board, parents, students, staff, and all others that have been involved in this program we have truly created equity and are receiving excellent work from all our students by eliminating disparities in achievement and opportunity by providing all our ninth grade students with an Apple MacBook that is preparing them to thrive in the diverse world which they live and interact in today.

I look forward to the adventures and achievements of our students in the coming months and years as the use of the laptops and the 1:1 Program continues to grow.

Remembering Day One

I wrote this blog on September 8, 2009 - The first day of school - and it never got posted.

How do you judge a first day? Is it on effectiveness? Is it on how many students you met? Or is it on how good you started the class? I think, for me at least, this first day was one of stress, new beginnings, and a great opportunity.

First, stress. My job at the FAIR Downtown School combines my love of teaching with the joy of being able to help other teachers integrate technology into the curriculum. Together, at times, it feels like I am doing two completely full time jobs, and today it did feel like that at times. However, at other times it feels like I have the best job in the whole world because I get to play with technology and then help others implement it in their classrooms and into my own. So there are clearly positives and negatives about the arrangement. So far it has been a great time doing all the technology stuff at school, because it seems like everywhere I go there is a need for this or that (which is good job security if you ask me), but that does not always allow me to get my own classroom stuff set-up and ready to go. For instance, getting ready for class, my own stuff, has only really happened on the weekend or when I go home at night. I realize that I am a first year teacher and I am blending the boundaries a little bit, but at the same time I need to do two things better: One, use the time I have at school in a more effective way (i.e. say to people, “too bad you decided that you wanted to print your syllabus fifteen minutes before school starts, we will deal with it another day,” which I have a really hard time doing and would rather break my schedule and leave what I am doing so that they can have the right materials and equipment to start class). Basically I need to learn to say no. Second, I need to take time for my self. I realize that my sister calls me a “workaholic” and for the past few weeks I have been. Still, it was nice to take a little break this last weekend and get some sun and enjoy some time water skiing with friends. I need to take that time, to step back, relax, and really enjoy life. You work to live or do you live to work? I think it seems that at times it is both, but for me lately it has been the second one too often. I enjoy what I do, but I also need to take that time to step back and recharge the batteries. In part I was really looking forward to this first day because I think it will really allow me to get into a routine with working out, spending time with family and friends, and really enjoying life.

Second, new beginnings. Being in front of the class all by myself for the first time was amazing. It was freeing, scary, incredible, fun, and hard all at the same time. I did not have that safety net to throw my class to when they were a little out of line. I did not have that extra person to look over my notes and tell me that they were ok. Instead, I have amazing colleagues that support me, my search to be a great teacher, and help me to succeed in any way possible. Nonetheless, I still had an amazing time of starting off a class for the first time. The students filed in one-by-one and I greeted them at the door. Did a little introduction activity with them, which went over ok. I struggle with getting the names of each of the students down from the beginning. I need to have the students in some sort of order with a seating chart, at least to begin the period with. My original intention was to have the students sit wherever they want for comfortability and flexibility sake. However, that turned out to be a farsighted aspiration. Instead, some of the students I did not get a handle on their names, like I would have if there was a seating chart. So next year, and the next time I see these students, there will be a seating chart. However, it will be one that the students start with and then I will get them up and move around. After the opening activity then we went into a little piece about classroom rules. I told the students to remember one rule for these few days, as we will be going through the rest of the rules early next week. So the one rule I told them about - Respect. Yes, pretty easy, but one that they clearly were lacking and taking an advantage of as the class began. We then discussed the schedule, because it has changed radically from previous years, which it was good to do. I am always more comfortable in a situation when I know what is happening and when. So I tried to create that environment for the students in my classroom.

Overall, it was a good first day. A day that I will remember for a long time...a day of new beginnings and new opportunities. It was great.

Ninety-Seven Days

Ninety-seven days ago from today I was sitting in the first staff meeting at the FAIR School Downtown. A lot has changed since then, but one thing remains - I am still very excited about what I get to do every day: teach students and integrate technology effectively.

Throughout that staff meeting I had a whole lot of emotions. Everything from excitement to nervousness to a real worry if I was going to fit in with these teachers. Well, ninety-seven days later I am reminded by a few words that our principal said to us on that afternoon of September 3, 2009. He said, “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

Those words have been inspiring me since that day to continually reach higher, to continually push my students and myself to be better for them. They deserve the best and it is my job, our jobs, to give that to them. If we are not going to start giving them the best, most prepared, well equipped education for the 21st Century right now, then when will it happen? If we are not going to do it, then who will? If we are not going to start reaching out to our students and really start educating students to be successful in the future, and not only on the state and federally mandated tests, then what are we doing?

Over the past ninety-seven days I have learned a lot. I have gotten through my first few teaching units in both classes - the 9th grade and 10th grade English. In 9th grade we looked at To Kill a Mockingbird and then spent a month working on Five Paragraph Essay writing. It helped immensely that at Arapahoe High School this is one of the units that I designed and taught. This time though, we were not two weeks behind schedule. One of the things that you do learn is to stay a bit more with the schedule. In English 10 we covered Of Mice and Men and then spent time on two of the Six Traits of Writing.

I have learned many things about students and about how a classroom works. The best part of this job is not teaching the content or playing with all the cool technology - both very enjoyable parts - the best part is actually interacting with my amazing and wonderful students on a daily basis. To figure out their passions, to push them each individually to succeed and then helping each of them achieve their goals on a regular and long term basis has been a big focus of these first two quarters. Whether that is understanding why Hamlet is acting crazy and who the ghost is, which we have been looking at recently, or trying to figure out how to pass the state writing test, later next month so that they can graduate, the students have been the best part of the whole job. Just yesterday I spent a large part of my preparation period helping one student, who was kicked out of another class, complete her missing assignments for my class. In doing that I was able to support her, get her to do something productive, and help her understand the material in a greater way. She left not feeling upset because she was kicked out of her class, which she probably should have been, but instead she was confident and excited that she was caught up and understood the material. In looking at all the things that I did yesterday, that one act of giving up my prep period to help another student out, get on her level, and really make that material come alive was the most rewarding, but also the most important thing that I did.

It is through interactions like yesterday that I realize the words of my principal continue to ring true: “If not now, when? If not us, who?”
We need to be better.
We can be better.
We will be better.
That is our challenge.

That is my challenge.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Living the Life

Ok, so I really apologize to all the readers out there that have been wondering where I went. To be completely honest, I went out and got a job as a first year teacher at the Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource (FAIR) School Downtown in Minneapolis, MN. Getting a job, and I will blog more about this in the future, was an adventure that in all reality involved sending out a lot resumes and not receiving many calls back. However, with a little luck and a resume that apparently was impressive to my employer I landed a job. After an interview, and a plea to start earlier than the teachers, I started working in August at the FAIR School Downtown (formerly Interdistrict Downtown School) within the West Metro Education Program.

I was hired as a half time Language Arts teacher and a half time Media/Technology specialist. Life is busy as I teach one section of 9th grade Language Arts and another class of 10th grade Language Arts. Overall, this school has a very unique focus on the integration of students for overall success, technology, and the arts. Overall, the student population is very diverse, in every sense of the word. We accept students from eleven school districts in the west metro area of the Twin Cities. Technology is integrated into every class period in a variety of ways, and I look forward to blogging more about this in the future. There are Apple MacBooks for all staff members, SMART Airlines in the Kindergarten through fourth grade, SMART Boards in the 5th-12th grade classrooms, and a number of computer labs available for student use. In addition, the new opportunity for this year is the One to One Laptop Program that we will be rolling out for all of our 9th grade students in a little under two weeks. Also, this school is focused on integrating the arts into every class period - from the core classes to the specific classes. In addition, all students in the middle and high school take two arts classes per day. That can be any combination of gym/health, drawing/painting/clay, media arts (photography, movie making, and graphic design), theater, foreign language, band, or a dance class - all in the building. We are blessed to have a number of community partners and organizations that we work with on a regular basis. Finally, the school has just about 500 students and is K-12 in four floors in downtown Minneapolis.

With my unique position I get to blend the best of both of my passions - teaching and technology - into one day. I have the opportunity to work with a great staff and an amazing group of students. It has been interesting juggling both positions, and I somehow seem to be very busy each day, but overall I would not trade anything for the opportunity that I have right now.

I am really living the life. A first year teacher is busy, and I am that, a first year teacher does not have much of a life, and that is about right, but a first year teacher gets to finally do what they have been trained and are passionate about - teaching students - and I get do that every day. Yes, there are student loans, car payments, grading, planning, cheering for my favorite hockey team, spending time with my girlfriend, and various other responsibilities and joys of being an "adult," but this is the life. I look forward to teaching, meeting with students and staff, and really making a difference every day.

I am truly living the life.

Friday, August 14, 2009

I Made A Promise...

...To keep writing this blog (thanks Karl Fisch).

So here I am, after a long break, and I am excited to continue writing.

Over the past few days I have been compelled to continue this blog, Fifty-Nine Minutes, as a reflection of my own learning and as a contribution to the conversation about technology, teaching, and education. Lately both a teacher, a professor, and a professional organization told me that my modeling of technology and the personal/professional dialogue that accompanies it within this blog have been an inspiration to others and that I should continue writing.

So I encourage those of you reading to continue to tune in, or tune back in might be more like it, as this journey of Fifty-Nine Minutes is not over. Student teaching was a great experience (more about this later), but now I am beginning a career (also more on this later)...

...Now I have my own classroom, my own school, and my own students
...Now I realize so many things to experience
...Now I realize how many things I have yet to learn
...Now I realize that Fifty-Nine Minutes is not the end, the end of the difference

Fifty-Nine Minutes, the blog name, came from a post that I had back on December 9, 2008:

"I have fifty-nine minutes teach. connect with my students. engage my students. make a difference.
Fifty-nine minutes starting January 5th, 2009.
No more, no less...fifty-nine minutes."

Now I realize that I, we, and teachers do not only have Fifty-Nine Minutes. We have more time and influence than that. Our time in front of the classroom, our fifty-nine, sixty-two, ninety-five, or whatever amount of minutes happens to be only a part of the difference that we make. It is a difference that lasts a lot longer than fifty-nine minutes and a lot longer than a school year - it is a difference that lasts a lifetime.

However, putting the name issue aside, "Fifty-Nine Minutes" the blog will continue. Just like the difference that teachers continue to make long after the bell rings.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Spring Break – Why is it so short?

Overall, reflecting on my spring break I was able to observe other teachers, work on my classes and complete some grading, and relax a little bit. My parents flew in from Minnesota on Thursday, so I spent the last part of break showing them around Colorado and then they came to see me teach my classes on Monday. It was really special and I was thankful that they were able to come on out. However, I am just wondering where all of Spring Break went? It seemed so short. I fell like I should have gotten more planning, more grading, or more preparation activities done over break, but it just did not happen. I feel like I could have been more prepared for the last two weeks of student teaching, but somehow that did not happen. I guess my only conclusion would be that Spring Break is just too short. Teachers deserve a break from the daily grind of teaching, grading, and planning, but it all comes back to balancing that with self care and personal relaxation. Also, the transition back into school mode has been tough, but I am getting through it one step, one day at a time.

Job Fair: Round Two

One of the other things that I did during Spring Break was attend another job fair, this one up in Greely, Colorado at the University of Northern Colorado. The first thing about this fair is that it is huge – over one hundred and twenty tables and school districts represented. However, I have decided that if possible I would like to stay in Colorado (for a number of various reasons) and somewhat close to Denver if possible. So the night before the job fair I went online to each and every one of the schools that was going to be at the job fair and I looked at their potential openings. I also had my short list of school districts that I was interested in, but did not get a change to talk to at the last job fair or they were not present.

So the morning of the fair, Thursday, I got up and drove through the blizzard up to Greely and got into a large line of other candidates. When I was in line the fair organizers provided a listing of all the school districts and their locations. Then I opened up the homework that I had done preparing for this fair and cross referenced the lists. This way I knew exactly which school districts I wanted to speak to and which ones I really wanted interviews with. So we finally got into the large gymnasium with all the school districts and I quickly got in line and completed two interviews with the two school districts that I was interested the most in. Then I also went and dropped off resumes at locations where the school districts had openings, but were not holding interviews. Then by about 9:15 am, because I did not have any other interviews scheduled nor did I feel that I needed to schedule interviews with school districts in New Mexico, Alaska, or small towns on the Western Slope I decided to leave the fair (also because the weather outside was getting worse and worse by the minute).

Overall, I think that the job fair was a success. I had one school district principal that told me that “Randon, you will get a job. I have no doubt about that. The only thing is if you want that job to be with us.” That was helpful and really did make me feel good. I think that completing my homework the night before really prepared me for the job fair in a way that put me ahead of the competition. It was a good day, all except until the three and a half hour drive back to Denver in the snow (it usually takes about an hour to get back from Greely). Now I just wait for the phone calls and hope that they start coming soon.

Watching and Reflecting

Over break I had the opportunity to observe Joseph Marlen, an English teacher, up at Conifer High School. My first impression of the school was that it was absolutely beautiful, situated up on a mountain top and surrounded by pine trees. The overall architecture of the building is a very North Woods type of log accented architecture with heavy emphasis on the forest green and wood contrast. The building looked like it was a year old, but come to find out it was over ten years old.

Anyway, I went to visit Mr. Marlen’s World Literature course. The first thing that I noticed when arriving in the room was the overall set-up of the room. At the front a projector and computer on a cart were displaying images on a wall and the rest of the students were situated at desks around the room that were in pairs all facing the front of the classroom. From there a large couch sat in the corner and some students were sitting on that as well. At the back of the room sat Mr. Marlen’s desk and a large counter that was holding a variety of other English related materials and papers. The first thing that Mr. Marlen did, at least that I saw, was ask the students to get up and respond to a question. He posed the question by asking the studens to put their opinions on one of the side boards in his classroom. It was great to see that he had the students get up out of their seats and display their own opinions to the class. This was really neat because it was an awesome pre-thinking activity. This was pre-thinking activity, but it would have been really interesting to come back to at the end of the period and see how opinions changed after the lesson.

This period the students were getting a short look and introduction into Les Miserables as part of their unit and focus on Romanticism. However, it was interesting that in talking with students that many of them were curious as to the connection of this class period to Les Miserables. I was not there at the beginning of the period, so I have no clue how Mr. Marlen started class or how he set-up this assignment. That being said, I do not know if the students were just not listening or if they really did not have a clue as to the connection (I know that more often than not students have "selective hearing").

After the pre-thinking activity the students looked at a YouTube video to get the students’ attention to the overall text, which was really engaging and interesting. Then Mr. Marlen had the students look at a specific portion of the text, one chapter, and as they read they discussed the text as a class. My question, as they were reading, was wondering about an overall focus to the discussion. Mr. Marlen set-up the class, or so it appeared, to focus on punishment and specifically prison, but as we read the text it did not appear that the discussion was leading into that discussion. So my question after watching Mr. Marlen and his class study the text, was what was the overall purpose in reading this specific chapter? Why not read chapter one or chapter thirteen? Why this one in particular? I know that Mr. Marlen had a reason for this, because I saw he had some very good overall lesson design and flow ideas, but my suggestion would be to make that focus more front and center for the students - especially as they read. To read the text Mr. Marlen had an online version; however, there were issues in showing all of the text on the screen completely. One of those amazing technology issues that as a teacher you can never predict, but it was something that Mr. Marlen fumbled with and then did something I was really excited to see - he gave the power of the technology to a student. He handed over the control, the "all knowing knowledge" to a student. What an awesome display of humbleness and understanding that the students probably knew how to work the technology better than he did, so he handed it over to them. If only more teachers would learn this very simple lesson I think that students would be more engaged and excited to learn in the classroom.

Then later in the lesson Mr. Marlen had students copy down specific lines from the text and respond to them on the sheet of paper they were writing on. As they did this, reflecting on the experience, the students appeared to be connecting the pieces of text to the overall point of the lesson. At times I struggled with this concept and overall idea, of copying down text without a real context. However, what this made me realize internally is how well are my classes focused on the text? How much do I push my students to make connections to the overall point of the lesson or the unit during the class period?

As I reflect on watching that one block period I learned a few different things. Mr. Marlen had a clear purpose for the lesson, or so it appeared, but at times some of the activities the students were completing lacked that missing connection between what the teacher knows as the purpose and the students understanding the purpose. The same disconnect happens in my classroom, so it was nice to see it also happen in another classroom. What I really admired Mr. Marlen for was the relationship he had with his students. It was incredible the respect, knowledge, and experience he clearly had with these students. They were high energy, which he matched throughout the lesson, and they wanted to clearly go on Spring Break. Midway through the period, because of the high energy and a few elements of the lesson not going according to his plan, he switched methods of instruction. He went from a teacher-centered style to more of a constructivist style where the students shared what they learned by looking at specific portions of the text. Through watching Mr. Marlen teach I was able to self-reflect on the kind of teacher I want to be in the classroom - how I want my interactions with students and the overall lesson design to look like in the future.

AP or IB – That is the question

Also over break I was able to go visit Jason Leclaire, one of my cooperating teacher’s, Kristin’s, husband over in Aurora. On the day that I visited Jason he taught two sections of Advanced Placement Literature and one section of IB Program English. When I arrived at the school out in Aurora, the east side of Denver for those of you that are unfamiliar, I walked into an environment that appeared very new and up-to-date. The walls were painted nice, appeasing colors and the students appeared ready to go for class. I spent the first part of the day, the first hour, getting ready for the rest of the hours of that day. Jason and I went over the writing prompts and the material for that day and discussed how I wanted to be involved in the class discussion.

Then the first period of the day began. It is always interesting to watch people teach, but even more interesting to watch Jason teach considering I know very well the style and method that his wife, Kristin, teaches from. Furthermore, Jason started class with a sheet of notes about announcements that he needed to make and then started off the day with the activities and ideas that the class was covering for that day. Meanwhile, Kristin starts off class by going over the goals for the period as laid out on the PowerPoint and then discusses homework, which is also laid out using PowerPoint. They are both different ways to accomplish the same thing and nothing is wrong with either style, however it is very interesting to watch them both at work.

Jason’s period of IB students really had an extreme lack of classroom management issues. In fact, it was completely amazing to watch these students at work. During the period they took a section from Heart of Darkness and applied it to a vast knowledge of literary terms and techniques to prove an individual point to the class about something that was going on in that section. It was very powerful to see each student in the class performing at a very high level. In addition, it was very powerful to see in the discussion that followed after the examples how students referenced each other. It was not just that whoever said this and I think that is a good point, but it was Brady said this and I agree with him because… and the discussion went on from there. It was incredible to watch how everything unfolded with the discussion in the IB class.

After this period we had lunch and then another round of the IB students. Once again, these students were fantastic. They were thinking critically about issues in the text and then they were applying concepts and higher order thinking not only to the sections that they presented on, but also to other sections. Again, Jason did not have any classroom management issues either with this class. This second class led me to understand that Jason’s classes are very structured and ordered; it just does not appear to be like that on the surface. Jason knows exactly where he is going with every lesson and the students seemed to know also, which made it really fun to sit in the back of the classroom and watch where he was leading them. One thing that I noticed overall about the IB program students is something that Jason told me during the first planning period of the day. He told me that IB students are in a program, they take all their courses in the IB program and then hopefully at the end they receive an IB certificate and a high school diploma. They are highly achieving students who really want to be there, where as the AP students are just students that have decided for one reason or another to take an AP class. This, however, is not a bad thing; it just puts the entire experience into perspective with the types of students in each class.

One thing I want to mention before writing about the AP students, the students in Jason’s IB program were extremely engaged in the classroom discussion. Normally a teacher has to try really hard to maintain the engagement of the students in the classroom. However, Jason had no problem with this because his students were honestly engaged in a classroom discussion for the entire block period. They did not waiver, they did not change, they did not check out for any length of time – these students were genuinely engaged in the discussion happening in the classroom. It was truly amazing to see and something that I cited as a result of the IB program and all the students knowing each other, but also being very motivated at the same time.

The next class that came in was the AP students, and let me tell you that there is no real way to distinguish between an AP and an IB student, but somehow I just knew by the way these students acted, how chatty they were, and how their range of abilities was all over the place. These students were like the exact opposite of the IB students, but at the same time these students can pick and choose what they want to take for AP classes whereas the IB students are in a program. That distinction between program and individual class came through with the differences in student makeup, ability level, and overall class size too (the AP class was another ten students larger than the IB classes). The AP students started off class with a timed writing, which meant that I was free for forty minutes. During this time I was able to go next door to a study skills / college preparation class and discuss with the students the transition into college and about college life. It really dawned on me that I only really have two months left of college. That is it and then I am done. I am really nervous about graduating in general, but at the same time I think I am ready to move on. However, it was a lot of fun to meet with these fifteen students who have struggled in high school and to see them all going to college or university is a huge deal. It is from there, though, that I think I really inspired them to go on and do their best during one of the or possibly the greatest time of life – during college. After about forty minutes of chatting with these students I went back to the AP classroom and was able to lead a discussion over the text that they had just wrote on for their essay. This discussion was kind of nerve wracking at first, new students that I did not know, teaching them, wow what an experience. So I did that for about fifteen minutes and then Jason took over and finished the class up with some announcements.

After school Jason and I talked about a whole variety of things that had happened that day and throughout the field of education – including which battles to fight. I noticed that throughout the day there were many students getting up and leaving to go places. Some of these students had passes and others did not. Jason told me that going to the whole issue of using the bathroom during class is one of the battles that he does not fight anymore. He used to, but then he re-evaluated and decided that it really was not worth the energy and time to fight it. We talked about a number of battles that he did or did not fight and why. I left with the acknowledgement that I will figure out which battles really matter to me and from there I will continue to be a better teacher.

Observing Jason was immensely helpful, if only to see what AP and IB students are like in a better light. However, learning from his teaching style, activities in class, and overall attitude toward teaching were extremely beneficial as I go back to Arapahoe and Wartburg.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Wartburg West Post-Reflection

Looking at this opportunity, now thirteen weeks into it and almost finished, I think more than anything I looked at this opportunity to come out to Wartburg West as an adventure where I would have to be on my own. I have grown up in a very sheltered home and spent a few summers at home before heading out to Montana last summer with a group of three other individuals. But when I look at the Wartburg West program, I see opportunity, opportunity, and more opportunity. An opportunity to grow, an opportunity to flourish in a new setting, and an opportunity to continue to develop as an individual that will successfully add to the culture and world around him. I think, looking back at it, that this type of experience was something that I yearned for and was looking forward to having ever since I started at Wartburg. I wanted some type of experience that would give me the opportunities to grow and I had a hunch that Wartburg West would allow me to do this – so here I am. Looking at the experience that I have had here, I must say that this is one of the best, most beneficial, and overall exciting opportunities that I have ever taken advantage of in my short life.

This experience has been new for me, because I have honestly never worked harder, been more overwhelmed, and still had a lot of fun all at the same time. Student teaching, well that and coaching and everything else that goes with student teaching, has been so busy. I feel, and have felt, throughout the entire experience, that I did not even have time to work out, hang out with friends, or even cook some nights. That experience was new for me, because before I have always had a very structured and ordered life, which this was, it was just more me directed instead of schedule for me. I can eat when I want, go to sleep when I want, and get home from school when I want – I am not under the Mensa hours on campus or have another meeting to get to when I get back to my dorm room. My schedule was completely and totally dictated by me, which was a new experience for me. Also living in the city has been a really new experience. I have lived close to and in near proximity for quite some time, but nothing like living off two of the main streets in Denver. There has been or is a siren ever thirty minutes on the weekends and probably every hour during the week. Not to say this is a bad thing, but it did take some adjusting to throughout the first few weeks. In addition, when I look for a community to live in later in life I will make sure to stay away from major streets and intersections. The noise is a little unbearable at times and I am glad that I can run away to coffee shops, friend’s houses, or other locations in Denver that are much quieter.

As I close out this semester, I fear that I have not learned enough through my student teaching experience. I feel that I have learned a lot of information about classroom management, teaching, lesson planning, unit planning, and overall being a teacher, but somewhere it does not seem like enough. I feel like I have only scratched the surface into what teaching really is. Maybe that is the feeling that you are supposed to have as you close out student teaching, because a lot of information and comfort comes from actually doing it yourself and on your own during the first three years of teaching. However, I still struggle with the fact that I am honestly scared for my first year of teaching. I want to do a good job and I feel like I have learned a lot; however, how do I prepare for my first year in a constructive way in which I can take that fear and harness it into an energy and a desire to do the best I can during that time of growth and survival?

As I came into this experience I had many preconceived notions and ideas about urban life, everything from the noise to the homeless population. I think now that I have truly lived, interacted in, played in, and spent time in the city that I can really feel somewhat educated on the topics that present issues to the masses. I do not completely understand all the issues; however, I do feel that I have grown in my understanding and knowledge of some of the topics. That being said, it has been nice to see the interns and their presentations over the community projects that they have been involved with and to actually be forced out into the community to experience and understand the environment around me. I have really enjoyed being able to get out, whether that is with alumni or for class, and really experience everything that Denver has to offer – from the professional sporting events to the artistic events and to the really fun and interesting neighborhoods. It has been an urban experience where I have grown and began to understand some of the tough issues, like homelessness, affordable housing, and water that face a large metropolis.

My goal before coming out here was to have a contract signed and read to go for the fall before I left on April 10th. Well, let’s just say that has not happened yet, although the possibility is still there it is unlikely). What I have realized very quickly is that school districts do not start hiring or really actively seeking positions until a little later in the spring than I would have liked. Nevertheless, I have had a few nibbles and a few positive comments from school districts in the Denver area about possible jobs. I have not signed on the dotted line; however, I have gotten the feeling that I will find a job. As one school administrator said, “You will find a job Randon, the only question is if you want it to be with us.” So I will wait for someone to offer me an official interview and then go from there. That is all I can ask for right now, but I have resolved that I do want to pull the Wartburg West move and come back to Colorado and Denver in particular. This is an awesome place, and I knew that before, but honestly I love it out here and plan on coming back to teach – even if that means subbing for a year and then finding a job. Colorado is calling my name and so here I come later this fall.

When I came out to Colorado I was looking forward to living in a building near other people doing the same exact thing. In fact, I was looking forward to knowing someone else in the really big city of Denver. So living in this community has been awesome. I have been able to get to know some other people really well and form closer relationships with others. My roommate and I have gotten along just fine throughout the experience and I look forward to continuing on the relationships that I have made here at Wartburg West over into May Term and the future.

Living in Denver for the past twelve and almost thirteen weeks has been an adventure at times (“wait, was I supposed to turn there” or “how much is it for the bus again”), a real experience in the classroom (and one that I could not have imagined or asked for anything better), and a true learning experience (cooking, cleaning, driving around a major city, dealing with work, play, school, and the balance of everything in between). This Wartburg West experience has been beyond everything else an experience that has changed my life. I have mentioned how hard I have, and will continue for the rest of the semester, to work throughout student teaching, but living in this great city with nineteen other people has been a blast. I have formed closer relationships with some and formed new relationships with other students. It feels that this apartment has three unique families, the interns, social workers, and the education students, that all together form one really big family in which everyone is appreciated, challenged, and nurtured and I have really appreciated that feel for the last three months.

Wartburg West has challenged and nurtured me to lead a life of leadership and service as a spirited expression of my faith and learning, both in Iowa, here in Denver, and into the future wherever that may be. This experience has had a large impact on my beliefs, ideas, and future career plans, but I do not believe the full impact of this experience will be felt until months or even years after.

Overall, I feel that it would be appropriate to finish a post reflection with a few thank yous to the many people who have made this such a life changing experience – the support back at Wartburg to make an experience like this happen, the alumni network here in Denver that constantly takes new students under their wing every three months, the Bocks for everything they did to make this dream a reality, my cooperating teachers for teaching me more now than I have ever learned before (I will not know the depth of my experience for many years to come), my friends (both back in the Midwest and here in Denver) and family (you know who you are) for supporting me during these fourteen weeks away (and for visiting me during it), and finally to my Lord for constantly teaching, challenging, and walking beside me throughout this entire experience. Without all of you this experience would not have been possible or as rewarding as it has been. Thank you very, very much.

The International Cast of Characters

So my Thursday and Friday were a little crazy last week. In fact, I would say it was a cultural experience of its own. On Thursday I drove up to Greely, CO for a job fair (check out another post coming soon about that experience) and when I drove back it was right in the middle of that nasty Colorado snow storm that we had here. It took me over three hours to travel back, in the time that it would have taken me about an hour normally. However, one thing I learned really quickly was that even though Colorado residents live near the mountains they honestly have no idea how to drive in the snow. Really, I saw more cars in the ditch than on the road at times. It was a little weird that a mini van from Minnesota was passing Colorado residents, but then again I guess I should be – I should be able to drive in a little bit of snow. Needless to say, I finally got back to the Wartburg West apartments and then I waited a little while and drove out to the airport to pick up my parents. Got them in and then was driving them to their hotel and I turned around a corner and bam – the check engine light came on and it all went dead. The Rugglemiester had come to a stop and for no apparent reason. So I got out and checked everything over and kicked off some of the sludge and ice that had covered the vehicle by that point and then got back in. The van started right up and I thought it must have been a short in the line somewhere and now it is gone, but then right as we got to the top of the next hill it did it again – check engine light, loss of power, and engine shut off. So there I am stuck in a van with my parents and about ten minutes away from the hotel and twenty minutes away from my roommate. So I did the same thing I did before, checked everything, looked around, and then tried to start the engine. No luck, yet again. So I tried it again, still nothing. There we were, three Minnesota residents stuck with a broken down Rugglemiester. So here’s where this story gets good, so I was talking to my roommate and got him to come and pick us up, but we still had this van sitting near the intersection on a major road in Denver. What were we going to do? Thankfully a really nice guy from area offered to tow the van to a gas station just around the corner. So we jumped at the chance (it turns out that he had pulled out two ambulances and a variety of other vehicles that day too) and he towed us there and we waited for my roommate to pick us up. The next day I walk down to the recommended auto garage in town and talk to Yang, a Chinese man who is running the shop for the morning. I tell him everything that happened to the van and he agreed that there was a problem, but that he could not fix it until they got it into the shop. So he took down my information and told me that he would call back with the tow truck information. Awesome, I’ll get the van towed and then hopefully it will all get fixed that day. So I walked the few blocks back to the apartments and as I was nearing them I received a phone call from what appeared to sound like a Middleastern accented individual. Through his broken English I understood him asking me if I needed a tow and I said yes. Then I repeated for him the location of the vehicle, make, and license plate information so that his tow truck driver could go get it. Sounded good, but then ten minutes later someone with a very Hispanic accent called me and asked the same information. He said that he was the “tow truck driver.” Ok, I thought to myself, I am finally making some headway here. Then about an hour later the “tow truck driver” called me and told me that he was with the vehicle, but when I described to him the vehicle again I heard him say, “Darn it, I think that is the other one,” which I could only infer to mean that he had begun to tow the other vehicle that must have broken down in that lot. The language barrier was a little interesting at times. So finally the “tow truck driver” got the van to the auto shop and he was unloading into a garage filled with Mexican Americans. It was quite an interesting experience, all of them talking in Spanish about my vehicle. In fact, I really wanted to know what they were saying, but that was not going to happen. So the vehicle got in and now I had five Mexican Americans working on it and I did not understand a word they were saying. It was hard to step back and really give them your baby, your lifeblood, your mode of transportation when you do not even understand what they are saying, but I did because I knew that it was the only way that it was going to get fixed. So from there I leave and go hang out with my parents and get back in the afternoon to check on the vehicle. So my dad and I talk to the Caucasian owner of the shop for an hour and a half about a whole variety of stuff, including getting my van repaired. So all in all, between the variety of people in contact with my car it has been a very culturally diverse experience.

During the event, the whole episode with the “tow truck driver” especially, I was a little upset about service that I was not used to – deadbeat, white, low-income mechanics doing hard work to fix people’s vehicles. Instead, it seemed like I got an international cast of brothers who all seemed to know, respect, and understand each other like no other. I was angry at times that the individuals on the other end of the line, the “tow truck driver in particular,” did not understand my instructions the first or even the second time, but eventually it all worked out. Having a large majority of Mexican Americans work on my vehicle was very interesting, because it was a new experience and I had never seen someone of that background tackle a mechanic job like that before. I guess there is a first for everything. During the event I was really upset and wanted everything to work out right; however, now I understand that everyone was doing their job and trying to make some money off me at the same time.

This experience tells me that at times I can be very prejudiced about individuals based on previous behavior. For instance, I got a little short and snippy with the “tow truck driver” when he did not understand my instructions, most likely because he did not understand my language or native tongue. So that made me really upset at the time, but looking back on the situation I was really frustrated because I wanted everything to work out and it was not – at least not the way I wanted it too. In the future I need to be mindful of what I say and really be open minded with all individuals until I actually meet them in person. The “tow truck driver” was really different off the phone and in person, so I think I need to pass judgment on other individuals until I meet them in person. The same principal fits the Mexican Americans also. They worked really hard on my vehicle and think they may have figured out the problem, but there is no reason for me to assume or be frightened because of them only based on the language they speak or how many of them.

Currently I am waiting for my vehicle to be fixed by the international cast of individuals, which I hope comes soon because I would really like to have the Rugglemiester back in action. Furthermore, I will wait to pass judgment on others until I meet them. Finally, I will not assume stereotypes of people until I have proof from that individual that they fit that mold. I want to remain as open and honest to myself and to others when considering their interactions and relationship with me. All in all, I hope they fix my broken down van quickly, but most of all I have learned that an international cast of characters can come around a broken van and teach me, the driver, a lesson or two in relationships and stereotypes.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Giving Feedback…A Reflection

To start, I’ll be honest that the first time I was asked to give feedback on a student paper, a little over four years ago during my first field experience, I was a little worried. Would I do it correctly, would I mark the right boxes, would I actually give the student something that they could work with to improve their writing, vocabulary, or other Language Arts skills? From that point until now I have grown exponentially. Now I do not fear away from the red pen or at least in my case the black or blue pen.

For the last eleven weeks Anne and I have been working on completing her graduate school project about the “No D Policy” and the last cycle was her helping me to give better feedback to the students so that the students can improve their scores in the writing area specifically. We did this by collecting two copies of student work throughout the time that the Assignment-Change the World paper was going on. At first I we graded the same paper. She graded it first and then I graded it second. Then we moved to collecting two copies for everything, which worked out really well. We would both take the copies and then sit down and give the students feedback. Then after the grading and feedback individually we would get together and conference about what each other marked. It provided for the students two sets of feedback and for me a standard to see what Anne was giving feedback on and what I was and to compare notes. Now that the project and unit are over I thought that it would be appropriate to reflect upon my own feedback to the students.

At the beginning of my student teaching experience I was very hesitant to give feedback to the students, because I worried about them standing up to me and saying that I was wrong. However, I soon gained the confidence, through the double feedback process, that I was in fact marking some of the right things. Looking from the beginning of the unit until now I have grown in my feedback giving ability. At the beginning I was giving feedback on everything from stray marks to uncommon sentence structure to spelling mistakes, which I think is appropriate at all times, but that was all that I was giving feedback on. At the beginning of the double feedback process I missed the boat, because I was focusing on the small and needed to focus on the paper or paragraph as a whole. I discovered this by looking at conferencing with Anne about the papers that we were reading through. I would mark the little stuff here and there, which Anne would do too, but then I would totally forget about the big picture – how does this paragraph relate to the thesis, does it prove a point, does it actually build on the previous statement, or does it relate to the topic sentence for example. Anne did this and I learned from her example. So one thing that I improved upon was looking at the big picture in grading. Now before I move on to another paragraph, especially when I was grading the Assignment-Change the World papers, I looked back at the thesis and the topic sentences to make sure that they matched. I also reflected on each paragraph before moving on to check and see if really does prove a point. I learned that the big picture is as, if not more, important than all the small stuff.

I also learned to sweat the small stuff, but with an intent in mind. Giving quality feedback was something that we talked about in teacher education for about a day or two. We were given student papers to grade once, one time to give feedback before actually heading out for student teaching. Maybe that is something that Wartburg needs to take into consideration when planning their courses for the next year and following years. However, the only real models of feedback that I had were from previous teachers. They all have given feedback in a multitude of different ways, but they have always marked up the small stuff (the commas, punctuation, passive voice, etc.) so this is what I started to do when I arrived at Arapahoe. This is what I had done at other teaching placements before and no one had ever said anything about doing feedback in a different way. However, I learned from Anne, and the double feedback that we did, that you do not mark just to mark, but instead you mark with intent. Anne was marking the same small mistakes that I was, but she was doing it because there was a reason behind it. I would say the same thing was true for me, I was marking because there was a purpose, but Anne had that big picture in mind. Let me put it this way, I marked the spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes and that was it. Anne marked those things, but then she also marked other elements that we were looking for in the paragraphs (the point to the paragraph, the make the point – where the students connected the piece of evidence not only to the topic sentence of the paragraph, but also to the overall thesis). That was small stuff, but she was also looking for that in addition to everything else that she was marking. I learned this and started to look for it in student writing thanks to the double feedback process. As a result, I think that students began to receive better feedback that was more pointed. For me it was not feedback that was all over the place, but it was marking with intent.

Another aspect of my feedback that changed throughout the last eleven weeks was the actual format of the feedback. Eleven weeks ago I was marking a few things in the paragraphs and then writing down at the end of the feedback a paragraph stating what I thought the author needed to change in order to make their overall paper better. It was a start, but it was not exactly effective because I was missing multiple things in the middle of the paper that I needed to be marking like how the topic sentence relates to the thesis. I might have been mentioning that below in my reflection paragraph on their paper; however, it was not effective telling the student that they needed to improve their topic sentences if I had not marked out which ones they needed to improve. So I quickly moved away from an almost 80 – 20 type of feedback where 20 percent of it was marked in the paper and 80 percent was my written feedback at the end of the paper. Now, after reflecting, refining, and adding in the intent to mark papers I believe it has turned completely around. It is now about 80 percent, if not closer to 85 or 90 percent marked in the paper with major comments along the sides and then 10 to 15 percent a small reflection paragraph at the end of the paper. This paragraph usually reflects some of the major problems that I see in that student’s paper, usually something that comes up time and time again too. I have found this new revised format for feedback to be a result of the double feedback that I went through with Anne and the questions from students. They would often read my paragraph at the end and then ask questions about what exactly I wrote, which then would require me to go back and point out what I wrote. Instead, now the comments are directly in the paper and by the time they get to the reflection paragraph at the end they probably know what I am going to write based on the comments above. So throughout this process the format of my feedback has improved immensely.

One other piece of feedback that I struggled with at the beginning of the process was marking everything on a student’s paper that was incorrect. What I mean is that if a student had an incorrect citation and they incorrectly did that citation format over and over in the paper I would mark the first few and then stop. I figured that the student is smart enough to figure out that it was marked a few times, so they can fix the rest of them. Well through experience, as they did not ever fix all the mistakes and through Anne’s comments to me I decided that in fact it is my job and my role to mark everything for the students. If the student chooses not to fix it then it is their fault; however, they do not know it is wrong if I do not mark it. So for the past few weeks I have been marking everything, even if it is the same mistake over and over again. The students need to know that it is incorrect. Yes, it does take a lot of time, but in the end it is better for the students and the quality of feedback I believe has improved in that regard.

Another aspect of feedback, because so far I have focused strictly on the written, is the oral feedback given in class and through individual writing conferences. At the beginning of my time at AHS I met with students and proceeded to point out every little error in their writing and not give the students any say in the grade they received. I am hesitant to write this, but I sometimes remember moving on and giving feedback to a student that it appeared they did not understand or completely comprehend at that point and time. Now, this has changed. I now approach oral feedback as more of a collaborative approach, but with me, the teacher, still in control of the situation. In class and a student asked for feedback on an individual paper I usually approach it two different ways: One, by asking the student if they see any major problems that they want me to look at specifically and two, by throwing the question right back at the student and having them give me their thoughts before I start. The students figured out quickly that what they thought they had issues with were probably exactly the things that I had hesitations or problems with too. Once I had established this part of the feedback with the student, then I focused on how collaboratively we can fix this. I would, once again, probably ask for their suggestions in changing the specific section and then I would also offer my suggestions. From there, I would set-up or leave the student with a goal in mind. Either, “Fix this and I’ll be back to check it in a little bit” or “See if you change this, this, and this and then tonight e-mail it to me and I will give you some feedback on it.” I really focused on making this process a little more collaborative. In writing conferences my style of feedback has also changed. I used to start off the conferences telling the student that here is what is going to happen, “I am going to grade your paper and if you have any questions feel free to jump in.” Not exactly the most effective method of grading, nor is it constructivist at all. So instead, now I start off asking the student: “What do you think you did well in this paper” and “What do you think you still need to work on?” This provides a framework for my feedback and for their focus as I provide feedback. Then I inform the student that, “We will work through the rubric together and I will not continue on to another section until you understand and comprehend the reason behind that grade and what you did well and could improve. In addition, this is a collaborative process. I will offer feedback, but this is your paper. You tell me what you see and if this grade is unfair.” So from there I start off the conference. We collaboratively, with me as the teacher and the lead, work through the paper section by section. Before I hand down a grade from the sky, or at sometimes I felt that the students thought that was how it was, I ask the student what they thought of that paragraph or that section. I want their feedback and input before giving the grade. Then after I give the grade I make sure to explain it fully with the student. I ask him or her if everything makes sense and if that is fair. I want them to truly understand what the purpose of the grade was when they receive it and what they can do to improve it or what they did well on overall. Also, if I am looking for a specific piece of a paragraph, for instance how the quote relates to the overall thesis, making the point as we referred to it in class, and I do not see it I will ask the student to find it for me. Sometimes they do and then that leads to a conversation about clarity, but if they do not then they completely understand why I am giving them the grade that they deserve for that part. That method I have found is a lot more effective than just handing down the grade. So I think that orally my feedback has also grown significantly throughout this process.

Looking back at the last eleven weeks of grading and feedback I still see some room for improvement. I need to make sure that what I am grading has that overall intent and purpose behind it, that I mark with intent, and that I am not giving false praise. The false praise is something that I have learned a lot about from Anne. At first I was giving praise right and left, especially to work that did not receive the praise that I was providing. I think that part of that had to do with not knowing the students that well at the beginning of the semester and what exactly they are capable of and another part of it was handing out praise that was entirely false. A good job needs to really mean a good job and a well done is another two steps above that. However, I need to learn how and when to pull that type of language out more effectively. When is a good job really a good job and when is it well done? What if a student is consistently turning in good work, does that warrant a good job every time? What about a student that only turns in a few assignments and they are not good quality. Does that deserve a good job because they completed the work and at least turned in the work? These are questions that I need to resolve and I am sure I will with time. As with riding a bike and teaching, I really feel that my quality of feedback, and specifically my praise, has been limited to only things that are really good. However, I believe that statement is true for the writing portion of my feedback, but it still comes out when speaking with students. After going through a paper that needs a lot of improvement I provide them with a “good job” to encourage them. This needs to change to something with the same type of intent, but a different phrasing. Maybe, “This is an ok start, keep improving, I know you can do it” or something along those lines. I think the main thing to improve this is to be constantly aware of the situation and to reflect on my feedback once again when I start to teach in the fall and at important points throughout the teaching experience. I feel like the false praise piece has come a long way, but there is still room for improvement.

I really feel that Anne has done a good job helping me to grow as an effective teacher in the area of feedback specifically. The conversations around the double feedback that we gave the students were especially helpful. I was able to take notes about things that I was missing and she was able to take notes about things that I picked up on and things that we both did well.
Overall, I was worried that the amount of feedback that the students received was going to be overwhelming, but I feel that from an educational standpoint a student can never have too much feedback, especially the kind of constructive feedback that I feel Anne and I were providing for the students. However, I think the interesting thing for me was that at the beginning of the double feedback process I took an entire page of notes as we went through the papers discussing all the feedback that we both gave - An entire page of notes of things that I needed to fix, improve, or change for the next time that we give feedback. By the end of this process I really felt that my notes had come down to a few minor things that could be improved. I was not missing the major “rocks” you could say in editing and feedback, but instead they were small things that could always be improved. Furthermore, I really felt that Anne and I were marking more of the same things by the end than different things. At least that was the impression I received when we went through their drafts for the last round of double feedback. That placed some confidence in me that I have improved and that at least by Anne’s standard of feedback, I am closer to giving effective feedback than when we started. In fact, I now feel that I am giving that effective feedback that the students deserve and want and I feel that this process has spurred on this growth in me as a teacher. I really feel that this double feedback project has been one of the most effective and educational things that I have done while in student teaching. I have learned, grown, evaluated, and now continue to grow in an area that I think is so integral to student growth – feedback. I feel like I can constantly improve, but I have come a long way in giving effective feedback.