Archive for the ‘Thoughts on teaching’ Category

Recently both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have stated that paying higher salaries for teachers with Masters degrees is money poorly spent.  Well, except for maybe math and science teachers. But for the rest of us educators, having advanced education does not bring any greater results in student achievement. Both men have also placed strong emphasis on charter schools and programs such as Teach For America to as solutions to the current problems in education. Both charter schools and TFA depend on young and enthusiastic educators with little to no experience. They are inexpensive to hire when they bring a desire to change the world and make a difference in the lives of kids – but have little education experience or graduate degrees. You can’t beat the price for enthusiasm.

In more than 16 years as an educator I have come to realize that experience, education and training DO matter. It has taken me many years to craft my lessons and understand the rhythm that is necessary to keep a lesson moving and motivate every learner in the room to work to their best potential. It has taken many professional development workshops and trainings to be able to integrate Project Based Learning, Differentiated Instruction, Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences, 21st Century Skills and all of the trends in education that have been in vogue since in the past two decades. I have learned to map my curriculum with the best of them; I design my courses with Backward Planning. Sure, any college grad could probably learn the lingo, but to really bring the methods into their classrooms is another thing.

What I’ve really learned in 16 years in education is how to work with kids and parents. I, like so many young teachers, really thought that kids who didn’t do well were lazy or just didn’t try. What I’ve come to understand is that kids do care and kids do try. Finding the best way for the student to demonstrate learning is the tricky part. And the part that comes with experience. Finding the patience to work with a student who is acting out or refusing to engage in class comes from knowing that tomorrow you’ll hopefully see a change. Or the next day. Teaching a student is not only about the subject but about life. Experience has taught me that every day students bring baggage from outside of class – a home foreclosed on, a parent’s illness, divorce, an abusive relationship. Experience has taught me that I am only one adult that can influence a child’s life, but at that moment in time I am the only adult who is there in the classroom to make a difference, who can make their day better, who can help them learn something they have never known before.

With 16 years’ experience, a Master’s degree, and hundreds of hours of further professional development and training, I earn much less than my contemporaries who have chosen other careers. I have no expectation that I will ever earn a bonus or get a substantial raise. I am a professional educator. I care deeply about kids and am passionate about teaching and learning. Our children matter – your children matter to me and I hope my children matter as much to the teachers who educate them. With all due respect, President Obama and Secretary Duncan – you are wrong. Advanced education for teachers improves teaching. Experience improves teaching. And measuring education only by student test scores is wrong.


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This week one of my students was officially dropped from my class roster. I hadn’t seen Rufus (his Latin class name) in a while and other students told me he was planning to drop out. He’s been a student in my class for almost two years, and with only 2 1/2 months left in his high school career Rufus has walked away. The number of adults who’ve attempted to get him into school and to support him is probably too high to count. There have been calls home and meetings and interventions and disciplinary actions and accommodations made. But in the end, he has walked away.

So who has failed here? Has our public school failed him? Have his individual teachers failed to somehow connect with Rufus? Have the guidance counselors, special education liaisons, administrators, and advisors all failed? Have his classmates somehow failed to help their friend stay on track? If he had more personal relationships with his teachers and adults, would he have stuck around? Have we, in fact, failed Rufus?

Legislation like No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top consistently says that it is the schools and teachers that have failed kids like Rufus. “The schools are failing our kids. Teachers are failing our kids.” That’s what the policy makers say. And ratings that measure school success count the percentage of students who don’t graduate and consequently lower the ranking of each district based on that number. The proposed merit pay for teachers won’t come to those of us who work so hard and so long only to have a student walk away. Policy makers don’t seem to recognize the influences that pull kids out of school: drugs, family crises, financial distress, etc. They only focus on pointing to those who are working so hard for kids to get a student this close to graduating, only to fail in the end.

I’m sad to have Rufus so quietly deleted from my gradebook this week. I hope to see him at some point, to say goodbye and to wish him good luck in the future. In the end I do not believe that our school that has failed. I didn’t fail Rufus. We didn’t leave him behind. One day, he just decided to walk away.

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I’ve been blogging for about a year and a half now and Tweeting for a little less time than that. When I first started blogging I really enjoyed writing about and reflecting on my teaching. Sometimes I shared links or websites that I’d found or talk about what I was reading on-line. Over time I found that what I enjoyed writing about most is what I do with my students in the classroom. I’ve developed new projects and written about the web 2.0 tools that we use to learn Latin, Roman culture, history, and mythology.

Over time I developed a PLN, a professional learning network, a group of educators and those interested in education from around the world. I learn from them and (I hope) they learn from me. I felt comfortable in the blogosphere and Twittosphere because these are open fora. I don’t personally attack or criticize anyone, but I do share my thoughts and occasionally frustrations in my blog and in my tweets. Teaching is sometimes difficult, frustrating work that can leave you feeling isolated and on your own. Through my PLN I have found support and answers to questions. I have also developed  some authority as an educator, based on my writings and perhaps my presentations at workshops like the Blue Ribbon Conference, MassCUE, or EduCon 2.2.

Over the past few months, however, my PLN has changed. This is a natural evolution, I suppose. And, after all, blogging and Twitter are public and open to anyone who cares to join the conversation. In the past, my followers were largely those who were interested in my take on the blending of Foreign Language, education, and technology. They were positive and involved. And they were mostly from far beyond my district and state. When people shared comments, they posted to my blog or responded to Twitter in the same open and public forum. What’s changed is that more people from my district and my school are following what I say. And recently the critiques aren’t appearing in the same venue where the conversations originated. I’ve heard references to my writing at the photocopier or in the faculty room. I’ve been confronted in the hall and criticized at school. To be honest, it has made me question why I blog and what I’ve written. And it has made me silent for the last few weeks.

But I have to come back to my original goal in writing:  this is a home for my reflections and thoughts on education and teaching in a public school. I will have positive things to share – and negative. But the conversation starts here. And I hope that I will start conversations and perhaps invite debate. I’m assuming there will be criticisms. And I hope those who wish to respond feel confident to join the conversation and participate in public debate.

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'journalism students using macs apple' by Chris.Corwin via flickr

I first got a laptop for school use about 18 months ago. This computer has completely transformed the way I approach my teaching and my learning. I connect with more educators. I reflect more on my teaching and on the ideas that are driving my planning and assessment. I have built a global network of educators I learn from, seek help from, and offer support to.
So why are my kids not allowed to use a tool like this every day? I work in a progressive school district that allows me to try just about anything that will support and further student learning. But with so many of us working to integrate technology in all of our classes, we are rapidly becoming limited by access to the tools that we need. There just aren’t enough computers, not enough lab space for the integration our school is working toward. Let’s get the tools into the hands of our students – every day in every class.

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This has been exam week at our high school. At the end of the semester we (the teachers) are charged with creating an assessment that somehow measures mastery of 2 marking periods’ material. This week I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I’m assessing and why I test the way I do. For the most part, my exams were unchanged from last year, with vocabulary, declensions, conjugations, grammar and translations. Truthfully, the results haven’t been great. Translation and reading Latin is really the ultimate goal for my students. But I’m disappointed with my students’ ability to read an unfamiliar passage of Latin. They don’t seem to have much retention of vocabulary and their understanding of grammar rules seems shaky at best. Although we have a digital language lab that we can use regularly throughout the marking period, we don’t have sufficient technology available to every student to move toward paperless exams at this point. I need to revise the exam, but I don’t want to fall back on the same old model. I’m thinking, I’m planning. My goal is to create more meaningful assessments for my students. But for now, I’m stuck. My vision is clouded by the things that can’t be done and limited by what I have done (perhaps not very successfully) for so many years.

Whenever I need to think I try to go to the lake and just sit quietly. Being there helps me clear my head and start to look at things differently. Unfortunately, it’s been a while since we’ve been able to go up to New Hampshire. When I can’t get there in person, I look to the Lake Winnipisaukee Weather Cam, located on Black Cat Island, NH, from time to time. Across the lake, behind the island near the base of Gunstock Mountain is our family’s lakehouse. At the end of the day, I need to look for some perspective on what is important, not only for me as “the teacher” but what is important for my students to demonstrate. If only finding that perspective were as easy as finding a beautiful photo of Lake Winnipisaukee.

Photo courtesy of Lake Winnipisaukee Weather Cam

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Angela Maiers in her blog recently wrote about Daniel Pink’s new book and a video “Two questions that can change your life.” I don’t always agree with those who think that Pink is substantively changing the way we look at the world.  Having said that, A Whole New Mind and The Adventures of Johnny Bunko certainly have impacted how I think about my teaching and the workforce that my students will be joining in only a few years. With that in mind, I plan to show this video to my students as we return to classes after our Mid Year Exams next week.

Two questions that can change your life from Daniel Pink on Vimeo.

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A tale of two exams

Ready for exams?

Next week our students will be taking their Mid Year Exams, the culmination of two marking periods’ work. My beginning Latin students take a very traditional exam with vocabulary, declension charts, verb conjugations. There’s some multiple choice for grammar questions and a translation passage that they’ve never seen before.

For more than a year I’ve been incorporating tech tools into my classes as much as I can, but I’m finding myself stuck now that exams are here again. I  use Wikis for mythology projects, VoiceThread for Latin mottos, Google Docs for collaborative research on culture and translation and Google Earth Ancient Rome Layer for tours of the city we study. But when it comes to beginning and intermediate level foreign language grammar, I’m stumped as to how to “tech it up.”

And today, as I finished up making photocopies and sharpening number 2 pencils, my colleague was presenting a project based assessment to his Spanish 5 class. I’ll invite him to blog here, since my description won’t do it justice. His students have used Ning to collaborate and research, Prezi and Glogster for presentations. The guiding idea of this semester has been to design a business to market a product in Latin America. The essence of the assignment is an individual project based on researching an unusual product. The students started the exam today in class in the Language Lab and will finish tomorrow at the end of the class period. Students right now are working on the Ning, finding photos, writing blog posts to support their product. This project is a true culmination of the work that the students have been doing all semester. Oh, and did I mention, the work is being done in Spanish?

So I come back to my own Latin classes (and my paper exams) and wonder how I can integrate 21st century tools to create more meaningful assessments for introductory Latin classes. Foreign Language teachers: when faced with limited lab time and no student laptops, how do you “tech up” your language classes?

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