19 February 2017

If You Don't Love Our Students, Please, Just Leave

Like most of St. Louis school districts (and the US?), my district had professional development this past Friday, giving the kids a 4 day weekend and everyone else 3 days off. 
For the most part, I always enjoy these days because they give me a chance to present things I love (or at least like LOL), see my equally-passionate colleagues from other buildings in the district, AND go out to lunch like “normal” jobs. 
All was going well Friday – we didn’t get through all of my activities in the 1st session, but we were productive, Bethany won the “Bubblesheet Champion” trophy in the ACT math session, and I was somewhat interested in the session I’d signed up to attend about using our online textbooks with close reading. I’ve come to the opinion that my students generally need a screen BREAK most days, so I purposefully do my readings on paper, but I’m always of the mindset that you might convince me otherwise.
Whatever is best for the kids.
It was in this setting that I wound up overhearing a teacher from one of our other schools go on for what felt like 15 minutes about how his horrible kids will never read anything, and that they’re all a bunch of gang wanna-bes, who play out the pecking order of the streets by making kids sharpen their pencils and get them pieces of paper.
I have some tough kids this semester, too. I get the frustration of coming to work most days and just praying that today, just maybe, will be one of those days they cut you some slack and you don’t have to feel like you’re throwing the toolbox of tricks at them to get anything back.
I, too, know that frustration of kids just staring at me while I’m waiting for more than 1 or 2 kids to engage in my class discussion. “LET ME TEACH YOU!” is what I  passionately internalize (and sometimes that sneaks out audibly).


Most days, as I’m reflecting on the day’s lesson, I might be frustrated that so and so did this and that, but at the end of the day, this is my job, and these are my kids. You might call it “fate,” or “destiny,” or “your department chair’s wrath upon you,” – I would call it God’s will – but ultimately, something put you and those kids together, so it’s your job as the teacher to figure that out. 
(Yes, it would also be terribly kind and helpful if the students did their “job” and exhibited their good “student” behaviors, but as I tell my own children and kids at school, YOU control what YOU can do.)
I thought I was just going to leave the session feeling sad for those students that this man with years of classroom experience could only blame his gang wanna-bes, but as he left the room at the end of the day and several of us found a typo on a website, he left his final impression upon us with, “must’ve been a grad from our district.” 
If you don’t love our students, please, just leave. 
Was there anything objectively wrong with that statement? Maybe not – it’s no secret that our state test and ACT scores are in the bottom of the barrel, but it was the way, he said it. In a “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” kind of way. 
Perhaps this gentleman just had a particularly tough week, and if I were to see him again next August he would be filled with wonder and excitement for the coming school year, like the vast majority of teachers. Some years we just get more beat down than others. So if he or someone he knows has figured this out and tracked him down, please understand that I know I may be dangerously generalizing his attitudes.
It speaks to the larger discussion coming upon our struggling schools every year about this time, though. “I heard so and so is leaving to go to _______. They didn’t want to deal with ______ anymore.” Sometimes ______ is administration. Sometimes ______ is bureaucratic paperwork stuff we have to do to prove that we are actually teaching (or attempting as much). Those blanks disappoint me, because those are leadership failures, in my opinion. But sometimes ______ is the students we serve. If you are a teacher who needs to leave for greener pastures because of the kids, please know that I love you, but I’m not going to bemoan your decision. 
If you don’t love our students anymore, please, just leave. 
I would much rather be in the trenches with someone who (still) has their heart in the fight. We can cry together. Together we can try plan B, C, D, E, F, G, etc, because our love for these God-ordained students is too much to have tried “everything.”
Our students can be troubling, they can be apathetic, but they can also be inspiring, and passionate, and brilliant, if you know where to look and never stop seeking that out.

20 September 2016

How To Make A Great Lesson in 2 Hours After Midnight - My First #BreakoutEdu Game

I've known about BreakoutEdu for almost a year and a half. I've facilitated the "Decoding the War" game a couple different times at events with Connected Learning, and I've had a few different conversations about the game with other educators, but I would not have called myself really enthusiastic about the experience. Truthfully, the thought of playing the game myself made me a little nervous - having the answer key always makes the game seem easier. :)

Fast forward to last night - a combination of feeling a little under-inspired for the week on Sunday afternoon, randomly jumping into the #tlap chat on Twitter (Teach Like a Pirate) where one of the questions challenged us to "wow" one of our lessons this week, and a cup of coffee I drank to late led me down a rabbit hole.

Before I get into the nitty gritty, let me give you dessert - photos of kids in action, having a GREAT time at school!

Having a student take charge as the "write everything we know on the board" kid is important to a team's success

Step One: The Lock
I've had a rifle lock from my summer at Marine Corps Officer Candidate School hanging on the pegboard in my basement for 10 years with nothing to do with it. I'd forgotten the combination. Somewhere along the way of going to bed, that lock caught my eye last night and beckoned me to crack it. After spending 10-15 minutes trying to crack the combination the "right" way, I found the tutorial for drilling into the back. Bingo. I had a combo lock for a BreakoutEdu game.

The one lock in the center is my model. It ended up being great for wrapping around a duffel bag!

Step Two: Setting Up the Game
The first decision was on content for the game. I'm in a linear equations unit, so I knew that I wanted to throw some equation writing and solving at the kids. Next I planned out the puzzles/activities of the game.

Step Three: Generating QR Codes (Beware, they all look the same!)
To get a QR code, I did a Google search for "qr code generator" and found several options. All of your choices basically all do the same thing - they give a text box for inserting text or a link, you click on "generate code," and then you download your image file. Here's where you need to be careful - notate somewhere on paper or in another file what each QR code file name points to aid in sorting them out when it comes time to print or embed them somewhere. The quickest way to ruin your game could be a QR code that points to the wrong source. I made a separate code for my X and Y values (but didn't say what the numbers were for), and one that pointed to a file with equations to solve that would reveal the combination to the lock.

Step Four: Learning More Stuff (How Can I Password Protect a File?)
One of the things I like best about the Decoding the War game on the BreakoutEdu website is when you have to enter a password to open a spreadsheet for the next puzzle. I imagine this was done with some CSS or Javascript, but as the title suggests, I didn't have time to figure all of that out. I found this Google Apps script and tutorial and ran my information on an encrypted spreadsheet. In looking for the link to the script I used today, I found DocSend, which seems like a better solution, actually.
I also found this tutorial, that utilizes Google Forms and data validation!

Step Five: Gather All Your Materials
Given that it was now after 1 in the morning, I didn't want to leave any of my memory to chance, so I made a Google Slides deck of things I needed to do to set up the game in the morning, a few notes for myself, and a backup copy of the QR codes so I could print them quickly if they weren't scanning from my SMARTboard. In between my sections of this class, I also added a slide for explaining the game. 

Step Six: Advertise!
The best way for others to "get" what a BreakoutEdu game is all about is to see one in action, so I sent an email to all my colleagues this morning letting them know that my 2nd and 5th hour classes were going to breakout of the room. That's really all I said, because I wanted them to come with their curiousity. As an added bonus, my principal came and threw in an informal observation. :) (Kudos to my student who perfectly articulated what was going on).

What Will YOU Learn?
One of my classes worked really well together on attempting to breakout, the other did not, and it was completely emblematic of the dynamics of each group during "regular" class days. My morning class trusts me and each other, takes risks, they help each other, they challenge each other... it was fun to watch. My afternoon class is cooperates/collaborates much less, they barely know each others names, and they didn't really listen to each other OR me (when I gave hints). It was disappointing, but I hope to make a teachable moment tomorrow!

Should I Play a BreakoutEdu Game with MY class? 
Yes! Creating the game myself, while more "work," (it was a labor of love, really) had me more invested in committing the class time to it. The clearest testimonial for the power of the game, however, is all of the passes I had to write to class when kids couldn't bear to leave because they wanted to crack the lock!

20 May 2016

To My Student (Re)considering Teaching

Part of my final today was a student reflection on the project we were completing and on math class as a whole. My most conscientious student spent a long time writing today, and was intentional about making sure I was going to be reading her reflection. This was her response to the question, "What non-math skills have you learned this semester?"
"Out of everything I’ve learned from this class non-math wise, I've learned to change my backup plan to be a teacher. I don’t understand how you can deal with disrespect like this without snapping! How, did you do it? I would honestly love to know."
I was honestly conflicted with how to take this question. Should I be flattered that she acknowledged I might have "deserved" to go off on a kid but she noticed I had not? Disappointed that I was unable to show her the parts of my job that I love in that 6th hour math class? A little insulted that teaching is her backup plan to begin with? :)

Image via Justin Mazza, Flicker

This was my response.

I don’t think that my experience with your classmates should change your plan to teach - I love my job, and the days I go home questioning my life choices are very few and far between. :)

Frequently when I talk about work and purpose with my friends, it seems that I tend to get more satisfaction and fulfillment out of my work than people that work in other industries. I believe that God cares about the work we do and has a specific purpose for us in that work, and that my job right now is to be a white guy in a predominately black school and to care for kids. I don’t like some of my students on some days, but I always love you all, and I want you all to be kind people and be teenagers and adults that contribute to their community to create beautiful things, solve problems, and care for their neighbors.
It completely matters to me who all of my students are as people, which is why I have such a hard time ignoring annoying behavioral things some days. I would never want a teacher to let one my own kids make poor decisions because “that’s on them,” so I commit to the same for all of you.

As far as solving problems - real problems in our world, whether in government, engineering, writing, etc., are not confined to questions on a test, so my professional goal for my classes right now is to better reflect that in the tasks I have you perform. I have in no way attained that yet, but I believe it’s a matter of civil rights that I do what I can to make sure I give you more than a grade on a test that ultimately turns into a piece of paper that says you’ve graduated. I believe a high school (or even college) graduate that does not feel empowered to think about and create solutions to challenges in their lives or communities had been cheated by their school experience.  

To circle back to your question - how do I deal with the disrespect with snapping? Ultimately it comes down to the truth I get from the Bible in the creation account that humans are made in “the image of God,” which means to me that no matter how a kid is treating me, I have a responsibility myself to see them with that value. Everyone is worth a loving/caring action (as much as I can muster LOL). So I have people pray for me a lot about my relationships with my students, and I pray for you all and your relationships with each other, and God grants me the grace daily to start over. On a parent level, I have never seen my kids change their behavior and mature as a result of screaming and nagging, so I know that anytime I do that as a teacher it's really just to make myself feel better (and that’s an unhealthy path to emotional well-being). 

I make positive choices, such as intentionally looking out for students doing cool stuff, and do my best to avoid negative conversations about students.  

I hope you’ll reconsider your conclusion about the horrors of teaching, and whatever you do, I trust that you’ll continue showing care and thoughtfulness for others. I’ve found that you’ll feel much better about your life when you look back if you can measure how soft your heart is toward your relationships, rather than the things you’ve accomplished or the stuff you’ve accumulated.  

Have a great summer!

I know that you know that what we do as teachers matter - I was thankful today to get to communicate that to one my students.