30 April 2017

When It's (Not Quite) the End of the Year

 music justin timberlake funny gif justin timberlake gif its gonna be may GIF
Yeah! The end of the school year is soon upon us! Which also means you feel frazzled, your kids are spent, it's just in time for state testing, and you and or a close friend is leaving school a couple times a week wondering how you'll get through tomorrow.
 done jerry seinfeld im done over it GIF
I take a lot of comfort on days like that by centering on a few things I know about God and I know about myself. Whether I have a great day or a wretched wreck, God has me right where he wants me. You may have seen Jeremiah 29:11 quoted on Instagram or someone's living room decor - 
and you may have thought, "Yeah! I'm gonna start winning!" Welfare, future, hope...these are all good things that we want, right? So true, but I also don't believe this is always a promise that tomorrow might be rosy. I read this, think about my own children, and sit on, "...I know the plans I have for you..." When I take toys from my boys at bedtime because they won't go to sleep, my 5-year-old sometimes tells me, "YOU JUST WANT TO BE THE TAKER!" Its funny, because its true, but only in the sense that I know its good to all the sleep you need, and I'll do what I need to in order to help my boys get there...to understand that I value it and that it is for their "welfare" (to quote Jer. 29:11 again). 
Besides remembering that whatever hardship I'm going through is God ordained, I also like to dwell in the Psalms that teach us how to ache to God without losing hope. Psalm 42 came up in my reading plan today, and I found myself wanting to highlight the whole thing... Check it out (emphasis my own):
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
    so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?[b]
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
    and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation[c] and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God, my rock:
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why do I go mourning
    because of the oppression of the enemy?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my bones,`
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me all the day long,
    “Where is your God?”
11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my salvation and my God.

"I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God." I think the longer you're in education, the more realize that your "favorite" students, or the ones whose memory you hold dearest, or the ones you take most pride in were relationships that felt really difficult a lot of days. They're the relationships that take a constant renewal of forgiveness on your part. Countless counseling sessions with any of your friends who will listen.  I've found that I'm most consistently able to draw on hope for those relationsihps, or for a season of a difficult class because I know that (a) teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and that (b) whatever the outcome with that student or class, I know God's at work in me, and that eventually "I shall again praise him." 
You know what, that's a good question. Here are some things that I try to keep myself interested in class as that gas gauge nears E and it's not quite time to review for finals. 
  • Throw in a new project. Maybe you've gotten into a routine of lecture/practice/lecture/practice and your kids are showing diminishing returns. Throw in a wrench and change things up
  • Change your seating arrangement. Seating totally shifts perspective, right! This might solve some other classroom environment problems that were cropping up, too. 
  • Change YOUR routine. Do you usually get to school early? Stay with the late crowd after-school and prepare for the next day then, instead. (or come in extra early if you're usually walking in with the kids). Go for a walk around the building during your plan time. 
  • Try a new website or teaching strategy for that lesson that you've done a billion times. 
  • Spend a day talking with your students. Maybe you just need a class-wide relationship building reset. 
  • Have 2 more units/chapters left for your curriculum but really only time for one of them? Have your students do a little previewing and then let them choose how they finish out the year. 
  • Go ahead, start reviewing for your final now! (And still introduce the new content you've yet to do). We all know that a spiral style review is going to be more effective than a week-long cram at the end, anyway! 
You can do it - finish strong, educators!!

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!